Saturday, October 27, 2007

Review: Acacia Book One: The War Against the Mein

I was first turned onto Acacia through John Scalzi's blog. In it, he mentioned he had an interview with David Anthony Durham in which the following caught my eye:
...I’m quite confident that if readers think about it for a while – or remember to think about it as they read in the future – it won’t be long before they’ll come across numerous examples of white-only fantasy worlds, or white-mainly future worlds, or note current prejudices appearing in different guises…

Consider if that would ever happen in the work of a black writer. The prejudice part might, but the one race only world likely wouldn’t. As a person of color he/she would have spent a lifetime being aware of race on a day by day, hour by hour basis. If this black writer did create an all-black future or fantasy world white readers (if there were any) would likely find it improbable, limited, some sort of minority wish-fulfillment, or think it suggestive of some deep-seated racial animus – perhaps called racism...

And gosh darn it he is absolutely absolutely right. Lord of The Rings was 100% lily-white in its heroes, down to the Elves and Dwarves, as is a lot of even pretty modern fantasy. So I put Acacia down on my to-read list, to see if a black author would do better.

Acacia starts with an perhaps archetypal plot: the old King is assassinated, the foreigners have invaded the land, and the children have been scattered to the winds, only to return later to take revenge for their now dead parent. The twists, however, are very very entertaining. First, Durham makes the villains of the tales white people with fair skins, blond hair, and blue eyes. It's one thing to think about it in abstract, but the first time you realize it you're thrown a bit for a loop, because it is so infrequently done in fantasy literature.

Then, as the plot unfolds, the barbarians at the gate turn out to have an old score to settle for themselves. The children do turn out as you might expect, each of them developing into very strong adults and characters, with Alivier, the oldest of them all becoming as much a prophet as he is a warrior, seeking to not only return his family to power, but to rebuild the empire to redeem the ills of Acacia's past: an empire support by drugs, slavery, and not a little bit of oppression. The ending of the book is also altogether unexpected, and one should not expect the typical hero's quest.

All this would be for naught if Durham was not a writer of exceptional skill. His prose is a dream to read. Here's an action sequence:

Thasren drew his dagger from hiding. He sliced it diagonally away from his body, a movement so fast it drew many eyes. The blade reflected shards of lamplight, a sharp thing in a hand that should bear no sharp thing. He dashed the last few steps forward. The king's eyes turned towards him, puzzled, mouth puckered as if about to pronounce the ambassador's name.

This rhythm and the clarity of phrasing runs throughout the entire novel. It is a very seductive voice, and it carries you in, page after page.

The world building is also excellent, with a creation myth that echoes of Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea quartet. And of course, there's a lot of diversity in the characters. Brown people, olive people, black people are all there in the book, something not often seen in fantasy literature. Whatever else you can say, Durham has definitely achieved his goals.

Highly recommended, and worth buying at full price if your local library does not carry this book.
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