My rating: 3 of 5 stars
When it comes to fantasy, I often wonder if writers these days are paid by the pound. Glancing over the spines of the novels in the sci-fi and fantasy section at the bookstore or library, it certainly seems that way. I often wonder if the word “epic” should be translated “book so big you can hurt someone if you dropped it on them from the top of a flight of stairs.”
There are a lot of writers who fall into the category of epic being little more than an excuse to have a huge page count and to give readers a severe case of cramps holding the book. Terry Goodkind is the most obvious culprit to me, though I’ve heard Robert Jordan can be the same (I’ve not read any Jordan and have no plans to in the near future). But then you’ve got an author like George R.R. Martin who embraces the term and delivers book that are, for lack of a better term, truly epic, packed with character and world building and a narrative thrust that keeps moving forward and rarely devolves into extended navel gazing.
Somewhere in between those two extremes of Goodkind and Martin is “Acacia,” a story that advertises itself as an epic fantasy and certainly has the page count to back-up it up. David Anthony Durham has previously written some historical novels. The attention to detail and creating an authentic sense of time and place is both an asset and a detriment to “Acacia.” Durham’s attention to detail and world-building is admirable, when its being done right, but there are times when it brings the entire story to a halt and gets a bit tedious. A lot of these are in the first 200 or so pages as Durham has to laboriously put pieces into place so he can give us the payoff in the next two thirds of the book. It makes the novel difficult to wade into.
Durham’s world is an intriguing enough one with various political factions vying for power. Several factions have controlled the world of “Acacia” at various times, each one working to build alliance and overthrow the other for as long as time can recall. It’s an old struggle and it’s not one that is going to end any time soon. One interesting aspect is the idea that each ruler comes into power with lofty dreams of changing the system of rule only to find the system is far too entrenched to make such radical changes without destroying their grasp on power and the world as it is.
In the universe of “Acacia,” the ruling family rules with the help of a hired naval fleet and an interesting pact. Each year, the party in power provides a quota of slaves in return for the continued co-existence with another faction of might and a drug that keeps the rest of the populace sedated and in line. This deal with the devil as it were keeps the status quo and allows the in-fighting amongst factions as each one goes into and out of power. There are different names and personalities to things, but each ruler realizes that this is the system and it’s going to take more than political capital and intestinal fortitude to change things they have or are willing to sacrifice.
Durham is clearly trying to follow the example of Martin with a sprawling cast of characters, many of whom you’ll like and then dislike and then like again as the story goes along. He’s also willing to make sure that no one is safe in the story, giving the story a bit more gravity than other fantasy offerings where you know that certain characters won’t die or change too much in the course of the novel or series.
But at close to 800 pages, this is only the opening round of the story. The cover proclaims this is to be a trilogy and while I liked the world here, I’m still not sure I’m anxious to jump into the next book. “Acacia” doesn’t resolve everything and is the opening act for a larger tapestry. Whether or not I’ll continue the journey remains to be seen.