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14 April 2010

#13 Acacia by David Anthony Durham

This post is actually about two different books, the first two books in the Acacia trilogy. I spent a couple weeks seeing book two, The Other Lands, on display as a new book in my library, along with all the other new fantasy books. I browse through them regularly, but I actually checked this one out thinking it was a different book! I try not to start a series until I know it's finished but Acacia slipped in past my notice and now I'm stuck waiting for the finale to be released.

Book One
The story opens on the balmy island of Acacia, where life is calm and happy for the royal Akaran family. The four children, Aliver, Corinne, Mena, and Dariel know nothing of the business their father conducts to keep his empire functioning. Indeed, he has refused to share with them the dark secret of the land: the pervasive drug, Mist, which keeps the population tractable. It is provided by a powerful, strange and unknown group in exchange for a tribute of child slaves collected from their families under cover of darknetss. All this King Leodan hides from his children and heirs. Trouble brews, however, as turmoil rises in the north; rumours of strage armies and whispers of betrayal among the Meinish peoples, long repressed by the Akarans. The four royal children know nothing of this and live blissfully until the sudden death of their father at the hands of a Meinish assassin. They are rushed into hiding, to be separated and raised in the world, hidden from those who wish harm on them. Prince Aliver becomes a man among the tribes of Talay, earning great respect as a hunter and warrior. Princess Mena washes ashore on the islands of the Vumu, where she is regarded as the human aspect of the Eagle Goddess. Price Dariel finds his way among the pirates and raiders of the western ocean. Princess Corinne, betrayed by her guardian, is sold to Hanish Mein and kept captive in his court, watching her childhood world fall into, as she sees it, barbarism. Seduced by Hanish Mein, she learns the ways of his court, falling for him until she learns of his dark plans for her and her siblings, who continue to evade Meinish hunters. Years pass, and hope gathers around Prince Aliver when he is grown. He undertakes a quest to find the Santoth, sorcerers who established the throne for is family 22 generations prior, but who disappeared years ago. With their aid, Aliver raises an army to challenge the Mein. His free siblings gather to him, each bringing their own abilities. Disaster is loosed when Aliver is slain in single combat and is avenged by the tainted magic of the Santoth, In the chaos, Corinne stages a coup and installs herself on the throne of the Acacian Empire, wrests control of the Known World for herself and forces peace upon the land.

Book Two shows Corinne dragged down in the daily business of running an empire. She has been forced to continue the oppressive distribution of Mist and collection of Tribute. Her son, the child of her seducer and oppressor, Hanish Mein, is doted on by his mother and her younger siblings. Mena hunts for creatures unleashed by the Santoth, and Dariel attempts to sooth and heal the land and people through acts of charity and goodwill. Corinne studies the ancient magic of the Santoth, jealously guarding the knowledge of her power, but maintains an uneasy balance of peace over the Known World. This balance is upset when the Lothan Aklun abruptly invite Corinne to a meeting with their other customers, the Auldek, who accepted the tribute provided for the Mist. Prince Dariel travels as her emissary, only to learn that the Lothan Aklun have been betrayed and slaughtered by a separate trading faction. The Auldek overcome this faction, but Dariel is carried away by strange beings, oddly human but altered; some have tusks, others fangs or claws, and all are decorated with tattoos. These are the Tribute, sold to the Auldek by the Lothan Aklun. By unknown magics, the Lothan Aklun can transfer the soul of one person into another, extending the receivers life. The Auldek have lived thus for hundreds of years but the price of the exchange was every future generation of Auldek, for though immortal, the race was rendered completely barren. With the demise of the Lothan Aklun, the Auldek see a possibility for redemtion in the lands ruled by Corinne, lands where children are bred normally, are born and grow and die as the Auldek have not for years. An invasion is planned, and the only chance for warning or action is Prince Dariel and the altered Tribute children.

Wow, that's an exhausting summary! Perhaps if I'd written this review when I'd finished the book rather than waiting a month, I could've summed it up better. On the other hand, perhaps if Durham wrote a somewhat more cohesive story, the summary wouldn't be so involved. Don't get me wrong, I love a well-told epic as much or more as any other, and Durham's has the scope and breadth and life and vibrancy of the best of them. However, it's also clunky and plodding, where others simply glide and flow, gently pulling the reader deeper and deeper into the story. The first book is foundation, page after page of descriptions and rising action that create the world for the reader but also makes him impatient and eager to GET TO THE POINT! The point seems to be the assassination and the following war, but no, that's really just the starting point of the story that Durham actually wants to tell. He would've done better to discard the trilogy and write three (or perhaps four) novels in this world. There are three stories in these two books. First, you have the conflict between Leodan Akaran and the Meinish people, their uprising and seizure of the Known World. Second, you have the development and reunion of the Akaran children and their rise to power, culminating in Aliver's death and Corinne's wresting of the throne from Hanish Mein. Third, you have the story of the Auldek and the children of the Tribute. A fourth novel could bring everything together, the conclusion of the epic which is, I assume, forthcoming. If Durham had broken his tale this way I believe that each segment would be better developed, and the dragging plot of book one would be alleviated. But I didn't write the book, so we're stuck with Durham's organization of his story.
The writing is decent, I'd rank it 7 or 8 out of 10. My main complaint is that Durham doesn't immerse the language in the world. There are anachronisms, and phrases written so that they don't fit what they're saying. Durham wrote too much for his audience, providing them easy access to his world but confusing the scope of his world in doing so. Once he gets into the meat of the story, his characters are likable and sympathetic if a little stupid and obvious at times. Acacia makes a fun new epic that puts a new shine on the formulaic fantasy, but doesn't really stand out on its own.

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