Wednesday, 22 August 2007
‘Acacia (The War with the Mein)’ – David Anthony Durham (Doubleday Books)
I know there’s still a few months left to go before the end of the year but I think I may have found my debut of 2007. David Anthony Durham has already made his name as a writer of historical fiction (‘Gabriel’s Story’, ‘Walk through Darkness’ and ‘Pride of Carthage’) and now he has decided to try his hand at fantasy, something that I think fans of the genre will be pleased about for years to come.
The island of Acacia lies at the heart of a mighty empire but it is an empire with corruption in its roots. The royal children have been raised in blissful ignorance of this but an invasion from the north will force them to confront unpleasant truths and how they deal with these will determine far more than the fate of an empire.
I’ve read many books this year (with many more to come) but none have enthralled me in quite the same way that ‘Acacia’ managed to. With some books, you can skim a passage (and still get the meaning) but Durham seems to choose each word so meticulously that you cannot help but pay equal attention to each and every one. Reading ‘Acacia’ is like watching a flower bloom in slow motion, first you start off with the bud and then you get to watch it slowly become something beautiful. This is just how it is with the book; Durham starts off by focussing on a single event and gradually builds on this until you find yourself right in the middle of a complex and enthralling world. I found the characterisation to be spot on. A group of royal brothers and sisters can be one of the worst offending fantasy clichés (especially if they’re on the run from mortal danger). Durham avoids this pitfall by spending a great deal of time exploring the motivations behind each of the children and gives us fleshed out characters that we can identify with. Having said that though I found the format of the book (a chapter on each of the children with some lesser characters also grabbing the spotlight) encouraged me to concentrate on certain characters and not be so interested in others. I loved reading about Dariel and Corrin (which surprised me, I didn’t think she’d be that great) but Mina wasn’t quite so impressive, apart from the scenes with Maeben that is…
There seems to be a real trend for moral ambiguity in fantasy right now and ‘Acacia’ is no exception. Every character is painted in shades of grey (even the ‘so called’ worst of them), Durham turns all expectations upside down and then proceeds to… well, that would be spoiling things. Suffice it to say that the reader is kept guessing the whole way through and will finish the book with a different viewpoint to that which they started from. The only thing I wasn’t entirely sure about was how much of a social commentary (if any) was being made. A country whose growth was based on the slave trade and feeding narcotic substances to the natives, does that remind you of any countries (in the real world) that have done the same thing? I can think of a couple. The shape of the landmass is a bit of a give-away as well (I think). If there is a point being made here then it straddles a line where it could get in the way of the story itself, I think Durham gets away with it but only just.
‘Acacia’ isn’t perfect but then no debut is. What we’re given though, is the promise of many good things to come, I fully intend to stick around for more.
Nine out of Ten