In this sprawling and vividly imagined fantasy, historical novelist Durham (Pride of Carthage) chronicles the downfall and reinvention of the Akaran Dynasty, whose empire, called Acacia, was built on conquest, slaving and drug trade. The Acacian empire, encompassing "The Known World," is hated by its subjugated peoples, especially the Mein, who 22 generations earlier were exiled to the icy northland. Having sent an assassin to kill the Acacian king, Leodan, the rebel chieftain, Hanish Mein, declares war on the empire. As Acacia falls, Leodan's treasonous but conflicted chancellor, Thaddeus Clegg, spirits the king's four children to safety. When the Mein's rule proves even more tyrannical than the old, the former chancellor seeks to reunite the now adult Akaran heirs—the oldest son Aliver (once heir to the throne), the beautiful elder daughter Corinn, their younger sister, Mena, and youngest brother, Dariel—to lead a war to regain the empire. Durham has created a richly detailed alternate reality leavened with a dollop of magic and populated by complicated personalities grappling with issues of freedom and oppression.
I wasn’t expecting much when I picked up this book. I read a bunch of lukewarm reviews online which had jaded me before I even picked up the book. Then I read that Durham is an author who genre-jumped when he wrote this book from writing historical books to fantasy. I kind of groaned internally when I read that. I figured the genre-jump had set Durham up for an epic fail.
Well, I’m pleased to say I was wrong on all counts.
Acacia begins with the journey of an assassin from his homeland into the Acacian Empire, a land which had been peacefully ruled for generations. The tension Durham weaves into the story from the first page sets the stage for the book making the reader realize that not everything is as it seems.
It’s obvious that Durham is going for something epic in scope (many authors do), and some of his plots reminded me slightly of Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, I felt he fell somewhat short. I don’t, however, feel that is a bad thing. This book isn’t amazingly epic in any means of the word (it is broad in scope, though), but it is an enjoyable, well-written, thought-provoking read.
The book is broken into three smaller “books,” or sections. The first third of the book is spent developing the story, setting the stage for the drama that is going to come to pass and educating the reader about the Acacian empire and the overall history of the world Durham has created. The second part of the book Durham follows the individual stories of the four children of the late king and the last book the children are brought back together against a common goal.
Durham falls into several typical pits in this book, but not overwhelmingly so. Portions of the book are bogged down by history. Characters tell a lot of stories and there are parts of the book that I didn’t feel were incredibly necessary for the overall plot and some of the characters are stereotypical. However, Durham’s writing and storyline are easy to get lost in making these pitfalls easy to overlook. While they do exist, I don’t think many readers who truly enjoy the story being told will actually notice them.
I felt that Durham was trying to make the reader sympathetic to both sides of the conflict and while I think he made a good effort, he fell slightly short of this mark from the start and by the end stopped trying all together. There were points where both sides of the conflict were easy to sympathize, however, the reader is given to believe that while the Acacian Empire did and is doing bad things to secure their power, they are clearly the people you should sympathize with.
In general I felt the last third of the book was sadly predictable, besides several plot points which did surprise me. Usually this is a complaint but it’s not in this case. I truly enjoyed the story and the depth of the conflict that Durham presented that the semi-predictability didn’t bother me as much as it would have otherwise.
Durham’s characterization was fairly good. The assassin was the least believable character for me in the whole book while the Mein brother, Maender comes in at a close second and some (I will not specify which) of the Akacian children are simply boring to read about until the middle and/or end of the book. Durham, however, does a great job at portraying them as rich children growing in a plush world. The children reflect their environment perfectly, depthless and shallow (except for one). Then, their world shatters and they are separated. From that point on the four children are much more interesting to read about. Their environments shape them and it’s interesting to see what adults are created from their unimaginable situations.
I feel it is necessary for me to point out that a common complaint I have seen in many reviews. It's the complaint that Durham has instilled his book with far more viewpoints than he can make unique voices for. I’m rather divided on whether or not I agree with this point. Durham’s characters are far from perfectly formed but being a reader of books filled with multiple viewpoints, this didn’t stick out to me overly much, however, being a common complaint, it may stand out to other readers.
Durham was setting the stage for a book that was slightly more epic and deeper than it came off as being to me and while he didn't reach the mark he was trying to attain, I truly enjoyed this book and reading the next in the series is a high priority. Durham’s writing is fluid. It’s obvious that this is not the first book he’s written. If Acacia does get bogged down a bit by stories from the past, fairly cliche plot points, and if his characters do suffer from serious two-dimensionality and predictability at times, the rich story being told makes it easy to overlook. One thing about this book that may appeal to many readers is that despite the fact that it’s the first book in a series, it’s fairly self-contained with a satisfying conclusion. However, enough is left open and gray that a solid foundation is set for the rest of the series.
Durham made a solid entry into the fantasy genre with this book and while it’s a great read and an admirable first fantasy work, its obvious that he has the capabilities to improve upon the shortcomings this book contained. I look forward to watching how Durham grows and improves in the fantasy field and am certain that he has the ability to release works that may cause ripples in the genre.