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Sunday, January 04, 2009

cover of Acacia: The War with the Mein

Acacia is a peaceful, prosperous kingdom made up of the provinces of the known world and has been ruled for 22 generations by the Akaran family. What is kept as much of a secret as possible is that their prosperity is built on slavery-- extensive mines are worked by slaves, who are kept pacified by a mist drug which is in turn bought with a Quota of child slaves each year. These facts are exposed when a Meinish assassin kills King Leodan and Hanish Mein leads a quick, brutal attack against Acacia. Leodan's four children are sent away to for safety, and where they end up has a profound effect on who they become and how they try to take the kingdom back from Hanish.

Only one of Leodan's children ends up exactly where Leodan planned. The oldest, Aliver, is sent to a chieftain among the dark-skinned tribes of Talay, and as he grows up he is trained as a Talayan warrior and hunter. However, the guard who was supposed to take care of the oldest daughter, Corinn, turned out to be a greedy opportunist who betrays her to Hanish Mein for a position of power in the new empire. As an "honored guest" (but really a prisoner) of the new leaders of the empire, beautiful Corinn becomes manipulative, selfish, and hard. The younger daughter, Mena, ends up in the islands of Vumu and because of her strange appearance on their beach, she is chosen by the priests as the human representative of the angry island goddess, a Sea Eagle named Maeben. The youngest, Dariel, becomes a sea raider and learns to be a clever fighter and a leader; but he was so young when he was separated from his siblings that at first he doesn't want to remember who he really is.

One particularly interesting aspect of this book is the place of their legends and mythology, not least because they turn out to be true (at least to some extent). The Meins practice what seems like a form of ancestor-worship they call the Tunishnevre; they were cursed by the first king of Acacia who exiled them to the north, and the curse has not allowed the souls of the dead Mein warriors to depart. so there are 22 generations of angry Meinish warriors whispering to their leaders and wanting to be released.

But the Acacian myths turn out to have some truth to them, too. Aliver seeks out the Santoth,the ancient sorcerers who were exiled by Tinhadin. They are called "God-Talkers" because they learned the language that Elenet stole from the Giver who sang the world into existence. But because humans cannot speak the Giver's language perfectly, their magic is corrupted and imperfect.

If the language of the Giver all those years before had been one of creation, and if that act of creation had been a love hymn that sang the world into being on music that was the fabric of existence itself and that was, as the legends held, most wondrously good to behold ... if that was so, then what the Santoth released was its opposite. Their song was a fire that consumed the world, a hunger that ate creation, not fed it.

In some ways, this book reminded me of Dune: the brutal politics, people motivated by revenge and greed; the drug trade that is integral to the society; the idea that harsh climates make fierce warriors while the prosperous get soft; even the leaguemen, the go-betweens for the drugs to the unknown and feared Lothan Aklun, reminded me of the space navigators in the world of Dune. Some of the warfare, especially early in the book, is quite brutal and disgusting. The Meins are aided by a fierce northern race who ride some kind of war-rhinos, and the Meins even make use of a crude form of germ warfare. The politics are believable, too-- Hanish Mein discovers, when he takes over the running of the kingdom, that he can't fix any of the problems or the injustices that he despises, and he rationalizes this with the consolation that at least now his people are not the victims. At many points, Durham seems to purposely upset typical fantasy conventions. The hopelessly outmatched heroes get destroyed, sometimes almost casually run over by the rampaging armies. If everything goes just right, the good guys just might possibly be able to come through and good will win out-- but then a deadly betrayal comes from someplace you don't expect it. It makes for good reading. It took me a little while to get into the book (maybe the first 100 pages), perhaps because there were so many characters and so much going on; but after that, I couldn't wait to read more because I was so interested in what was happening with all the different characters.

Reviewed by Nancy Pearl on her KUOW podcast (review link no longer available, but listed under Pearl's Picks for December 2007). The book was also brought to my attention by an interview with Durham on ScifiWire. Durham was previously known for historical fiction, and he's posted an open letter on his website explaining why he decided to write fantasy.

Title:Acacia: The War with the Mein
Author:David Anthony Durham
Date published:2007
Number of pages:753


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