I have a love-hate relationship with novels of high-fantasy. Yes, there's something about swords and sorcery, kings and wizards, empires and forbidden territories that provides perfect escapist reading. But too often fantasy books are juvenile and superficial. Characters are motivated by basic emotions of hate, revenge, love and honor. Imagined worlds usually lack any believable socio-economic dynamic. And use of magic is an easy narrative crutch for those writers who emphasize action over character development. I don't know how many times I've started reading a fantasy novel only to abandon it after a few chapters.
I'm happy to report that Acacia: The War with the Mein by David Anthony Durham is a book I did not abandon. In fact, I became totally engrossed in its richly imagined world and complex, believable characters. What made the book work for me was Durham's attention to the fundamental mechanisms of his society: the religious beliefs of the people, the political forces that balance and counter-balance governments, the economic infrastructure that makes the society work. All of these elements are in play in Acacia and inform the actions of the various characters.
I hesitate to summarize the plot because I cannot do justice to the world and history Durham has created and my summary will sound trite. Still, I'll give it a try: Acacia is the preeminent realm of the land. King Leodan Akaran is the descendant of long line of kings who, for twenty-two generations, have kept stability in the land through a series of complex political deals with various forces in the known world. Long ago, Acacia's first king struck an unholy deal with the Lothan Aklun, a mysterious people from a land on the other side of the world. In exchange for a regular shipment of slaves, the Lothan Aklun supply the Mist, a drug that keeps the population of Acacia peaceful and content. In that long ago time, Acacia's rulers drove their enemies, the Mein, from the land and banished them to icy wastes of the northern lands. As the book begins, the Mein launch a complex sneak attack on Acacia, murdering King Leodan and unleashing a plague upon the land that allows easy conquest. But three of Leodan's four children escape before the Mein can capture them. The fourth, the eldest daughter, Corinn, is taken captive. The book jumps ahead nine years where we find that the three exiled Akaran children have grown and become warriors of their own making. Corinn, meanwhile, has managed to become intimately involved with, Hanish, the leader of the Mein. The final (and most predictable) part of the book recounts how each of the Akaran siblings marshals their forces to defeat the Mein and retake Acacia. The book ends with a satisfying conclusion but leaves enough mystery for the next book of the series. (Acacia is the first book of a trilogy.)
Lest you think the fundamental trappings of fantasy such as magic and magical beings are missing from Acacia, rest assured that these aspects of the genre are firmly in place, even though Durham de-emphasizes magic for the most part. In Acacia, magic stems from the time of creation; it is a relic of the Giver, the prime being who made the world. Long ago, followers of the Giver attempted to copy his language, going as far as to write much of what they knew into a secret book. Use of this language can unleash magic into the world. But at the time of King Leodan, no one remembers how to correctly speak or read the words of the Giver. So magic stays pretty much in the background. Until the third act, when magic plays a prominent—and startling—part in the story.
Acacia, then, has all the prerequisite elements of high fantasy: warriors, magic, and imaginary lands. But what makes the book stand out is what Durham does with these elements. He always makes the story about the characters and their relationships to each other and the world they live in. The Akarans and the Mein carry with them the history of their people. Politics, history and economics are ever present in their minds—forces which both propel them forward and stand in their way. As the characters struggle with the reality of their world, their hopes, fears, loves and desires clash with the boundaries of their society. This is where Durham finds such rich drama. Characters face difficult choices between what they want to do and their proscribed political or economic roles.
But perhaps the most remarkable thing about Acacia is how Durham intertwines magic and faith. By making magic an artifact of his creation myth, Durham inextricably ties this improbable concept to religion, thereby instilling it with relevance rarely seen in high fantasy. When Durham's characters are confronted with the possibility of magic they must test their own faiths. The concept of magic requires one to believe in something far beyond his or her natural senses. If magic is a leap-of-faith, should a person take a chance on it? Can it deliver salvation? Conversely, can a perversion of magic—an abuse of God's ideas—lead to damnation? Durham does not answer all of these questions but at least he poses them. (And further exploration of these ideas may yet come in books two and three of Acacia.)
Of course, bold ideas would not be enough to make Acacia work. Luckily, Durham tells an exciting story and he tells it well. The plot is hardly new (many have compared it to George R. R. Martin's, Song of Ice and Fire series) but that, of course, is how it achieves so much of its comfort. As I said at the top, high fantasy implicitly promises certain tropes. A successful novel depends on how an author handles those tropes. Acacia proves that Durham has the chops. It is a highly satisfying book—an immersive fantasy with heft.