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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.


David Anthony Durham said...


Thank you for the stellar review! It's always nice to hear somebody enjoyed one of my books, and especially nice when they're willing to tell other people about it. I do appreciate it.

Enjoyed checking out your blog a bit, too. I like the wide range of topics. Glad to hear that you continue to enjoy the Bay area. Cherish that. Not all of us love where we're living, but it's something to aspire to...

Oh, you've got good taste in music, too!

Piaw Na said...

Wow David, I did not expect to get a response from the author! I loved the book and look forward to the next one.

David Anthony Durham said...

Glad to hear it. I'm working on it. I'm definitely working on it...

charles said...

In Earthsea the characters were non-white, with the exception of the Kargads. Delany's fiction has always had a mix. And I recall Howard writing of black heroes whose paths intersect with Conan's, but it's been too long to be sure.

"Lord of The Rings was 100% lily-white ... see if a black author would do better."

LOTR is obviously Euro-centric, so I'm not sure what the gripe ("do better") is; do you fault Beowulf as well? But even here the people from Harad (Near and Far) were noted to have non-white skin.

David Anthony Durham said...


Hello. I can't speak for Piaw, but from my side of things I don't view that "do better" as a gripe. I loved The Lord of the Rings and Beowulf and wouldn't ask for them to be any different at all. They speak to me across time and culture and they've influenced my life and work in positive ways.

That said, I think of that "do better" as encouragement for contemporary writers to strive to speak more inclusively about the realities and perspectives of the contemporary world - and to have those things infuse imagined worlds as well. I'm glad Tolkein did what he did; I'm also glad LeGuin, Delany, Octavia Butler, Neil Gaiman and others are doing what they do; and I'm happy to be doing what I am also.

So, for me, the "do better" isn't an attack on what's come before. It's a challenge tossed out to what's yet to come.

Piaw Na said...

David, you said it much better than I ever could. To use another example: I loved Snake in the Eagle's Shadow and Drunken Master, and they are movie classics in their own right.

But the beautiful choreography in those movies did not mean that the only reason The Matrix is a great movie is because we get see Black and White people do Kung Fu. (Though in the case of the latter movie I did wish the Wachowski brothers did do better with their subsequent efforts, but how many great works of art can we expect from the typical Hollywood director anyway?)

I loved Acacia not just because it was racially diverse, but because in and of itself is a great fantasy novel. That it manages to do so while highlighting many aspects of traditional fantasy worlds that I had until then ignored makes it something special. To do so despite the fact that I read the book knowing that the author intended to do better in that particular respect while not at all impacting the story that he was telling made the feat even more impressive.