Acacia: The War with the Mein by Anthony Durham
|Book Name:||Acacia: The War with the Mein|
|Formatt:||Hardback / Paperback / Ebook|
Reading fantasy can tend to feel like traversing the width and breadth of your home country. You’re seeing the beauty of the land and its people, taking in all the sights of differing regions and the varying cultures that make them up but, at the end of the day, it all starts to feel a tad similar. As different as it would be for, say, me to go from the tree-laden realm of British Columbia where I live to the French-speaking, poutine filled land of Quebec, I’m still in Canada. There will always be some connective tissue and comfort no matter where I go in my own homeland. Fantasy, and it’s quasi-medieval, European-inspired settings, can start to feel that way after a while.
It’s when you’re too comfortable with something that you should change it up. With that in mind, I decided to look for a novel that focused on a less anglo-saxon view of fantasy and instead opt for a story steeped in the African and Mediterranean. Diversity is needed more and more in the realm of fantasy literature and I was happy to find that author David Anthony Durham had weaved his own unique tale in the form of the Acacia trilogy. How does The War with the Mein stack up amidst a slew of Lord of the Rings rejects and A Song of Ice and Fire wannabes? Well…
Sins of the father
In Acacia: The War with the Mein we initially follow Leodan Akaran, ruler of the Known World and widowed father to princes Aliver and Dariel and princesses Corinn and Mena. We are given a brief glimpse into their lives and the kingdom their father rules, but it is not long until tragedy strikes and the heirs of the Akaran line have their world torn away from them. For the next two-thirds of the story we follow Leodan’s children once they have grown and their destiny has been thrust upon them, the pieces of their old life in need of repair or, at the very least, reflection if they are to stand and fight for everything they’ve lost. Betrayal, subterfuge, and war mix with this coming-of-age tale wrought in blood, sorrow, and deceit.
What I’ll say right off the bat is that I did enjoy this book. I wasn’t entirely wowed by it, but I liked what I was seeing. As characters got further fleshed out and the story delved deeper into the motivations of both “heroes” and “villain” I found myself thoroughly invested in the story before I finally set it down. However-and I say this as a warning to any and all current and future writers-I am exhausted with this plot. How many times do we have to read a fantasy novel wherein young nobles need to win back the throne and prove how good and righteous and blah blah blah they are? I already read this book this year, it was called The Emperor’s Blades. To be fair, The War with the Mein came out in 2007 but it’s not like we haven’t seen this story before and, to be honest, it’s wearing me out.
In any case, while the plot itself may be nothing new, the author does do it justice in his own voice. His lead characters are flawed but charming, their lives and experiences different enough to forge them into unique individuals yet still allowing them not to feel alien or detached from those around them. The Mein, pale skinned men and women exiled to the north, are a fantastic antagonist and you feel for their plight just as much as you feel uncomfortable learning about the darker side of Acacia’s monarchy. David was able to take a well-known plot and breathe new life into it. Is it wholly different and fresh? No, but neither is it the shambling corpse of an oft-beaten horse.
The leads of the first Acacia novel prove to be enjoyable and engaging characters; not only the four Akaran children but Heinsh Mein, chieftain of the Mein and our primary antagonist, as well as a number of tertiary characters. We see Leodan’s children as just that from the outset of the story and then pick up with them nine years later, each of them altered by the course they were put on thanks to their father after his death. They hold bits of their old life-some rejecting it, others accepting who they were so long ago-but they don’t simply give up who they are now when they are called back into the workings of the world. If I had a complaint about the royal siblings at all it would be that we don’t get to see them grow up enough to a certain extent. We get the glimpse at the beginning and fast forward years later to watch life-altering scenarios take place, but it can almost feel as though we’re playing catch up.
What I like most about Hanish Mein and his people is that they are not a race of evil, blackhearted monsters that need to be stopped. I feel with the Mein being a white-skinned race and the Acacian people being dark-skinned it would have been really easy to make them out right “bad” since we’ve seen the reverse so many times. In contrast you come to sympathize with the Mein as you learn about how they were wronged in the past and that they are not making war simply for petty vengeance. Alongside that, Acacia is made more complex thanks to the unseen darkness that has allowed it to thrive and flourish over the years, yet is unknown to the general public. It removes the sheen from the mighty empire which allows the reader to become engaged on a deeper level with the world instead of having another bright, shiny kingdom of opulent decadence where everyone is happy under their benevolent ruler. There’s a rich history to the setting and it comes through quite palpably throughout the story, the major conflict between these two disparate factions revealing much of it from their differing points of view.
Normally at about this point I would gush or complain about the novel’s setting but, honestly, I can’t do that for this one. Is it a fine world? Absolutely. The author paints great portraits of the landscape and the differing cultures without falling into purple prose, his descriptions flavourful enough to entice but not overwhelm. He forces himself to write about multiple types of geography, not staying comfortably in one spot throughout the entire novel; though the African-inspired savannah that is Acacia does serve as the main backdrop. The audience is spirited away to Mediterranean isles, harsh northern mountains, and high seas during the nearly eight-hundred page count book and each is described in a deft, knowledgeable hand. My issue is that we‘ve seen it all before.
Having read a lot of fantasy and a fair share of tabletop rpg settings, you come to see the same beats over and over again every time you throw yourself into another world. I especially find this true of pseudo-medieval settings based heavily on Europe and European history. They have kings and queens and lords, warring factions that include barbarous tribes and (in the case of fantasy) giants or some monster-type people, a race of hearty and battle hungry men from the north, and a myriad of other such tropes. I have nothing against those things and if I said you’d see none of them in my own writing I’d be a massive liar, but that doesn’t mean they still can’t feel cliché. Picking up a book set in a largely African-based setting, I was hoping for something fresh and unique, not something I’ve seen a dozen times before covered in a new coat of paint.
I feel a book like Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon contained a world that was completely unique and steeped in its cultural influence without coming off as cliché or stereotypical. There’s so much in Saladin’s setting that is fun and fresh yet still manages to hit the beats we’ve come to love in fantasy such as the wise, old magician or the honorable warrior. In Acacia: The War with the Mein it felt as though I was reading another medieval fantasy setting that happened to be taking place in warmer climate. If that’s what David was going for it definitely worked, but I was hoping for something more drastic when I picked this up.
Good is Still Good
Acacia: The War with the Mein is a fine enough book. We’re given characters to care about, a tried-and-true plot bolstered by the villains supporting it, and a number of glimpses into greater dangers that will keep our interests piqued for atleast a second novel. Does it deserve to be as long as it is given its contents? No.
The War with the Mein feels a little bloated, all the extra room for quality giving no more substance than could have been had with a shorter work of fiction. Perhaps if a little fat were trimmed, such as the beginning chapters with the little Akarans, and those bits worked artfully into the remaining pages it would have been a stronger work. As it stands, the first novel in the Acacia trilogy feels like a well-written but overly long prologue to a more captivating tale on the horizon.