Friday, July 25, 2014

Book Review - Acacia: The War With the Mein, by David Anthony Durham

I probably don't need to tell you that the Game of Thrones TV series is a big deal. I also probably don't need to tell you that HBO's very HBOey series is an adaptation of the Song of Ice and Fire book series originally envisioned by notorious protagonist-murderer and nerd-overlord George R. R. Martin. While I cannot claim to be one of the visionaries who read the series right from the beginning (mostly because I was too busy being 9 and reading a bazillion-installment series about heroic talking rodents... whatever), after bingeing on the entire first season of the TV show, I was hooked.
The next season wasn't due out for another, like, 6 months, but... but... there are books!
So I read those until there were no more.
Then I felt empty.

Somewhere, someone on the internet recommended the Acacia series by David Anthony Durham as a sort of methadone for GRRM addiction, so I picked it up from the clinic library.

Acacia is a trilogy, the first book of which is The War With the Mein. The Akaran family has ruled the Known World (which looks, on the map illustration, suspiciously like ASOIAF's Westeros) for generations. The book focuses on the four Akaran children, who begin content and comfortable. Outside the castle, of course, there is simmering unrest, and the peasants live short and miserable lives. The reader learns pretty early on are some super shady dealings between the ruling dynasty and The League, which controls "trade" (um... kind of like the mafia provides "security") between the Known World and the Other Lands. One ethnic minority is particularly pissed off, revolution ensues, and the remaining 2/3 of the book picks up nine years later with the four Akaran children, now scattered separately throughout the Known World. Things happen - some surprising, and some predicted (the last 1/4 or so of the book is where the real action is) - and this installment closes in a time of calm on the surface... but the reader remains conflicted and a bit wary of what's to come.


I will say that the story did get off to a slow start. When everything is rosy, the book doesn't hold the reader's interest as it does after the shit hits the fan. The first 1/4 of the book took me about as long to read as the last 3/4.

I couldn't help but draw comparison to ASOIAF - but that's what I wanted, wasn't it? Acacia has enough interesting twists on its own to set it apart from ASOIAF - but not by much. I loved that it followed so many of the ASOIAF conventions which make that series so compelling, but I was also a bit uncomfortable with all the similarities.

Just as in ASOIAF, the chapters jump between multiple narrative perspectives, so the reader hears what's going on in each of the major characters' corners of the world, one chapter at a time. For me, this structure kept me interested and on my toes, but I've talked to others who find it distracting and disjointed.

It's a fantasy world, but the fantastic/magical elements kind of exist alongside the action rather than dominate it. There are no dwarves or elves or outright wizards (yet?)

Even the four Akaran children and their sibling dynamics, to me, were reticent of the Stark litter. Eldest brother with a sort of hero complex. Eldest sister with a beauty complex (thankfully not as much of a doormat as Sansa... get it together, girl). Youngest brother who is coming into his own and living in the elder's shadow. Youngest sister who is... just... a complete badass.

Their relationships -- the way they think about each other, care for each other, and complement each other -- make these characters easy to root for, while just enough human flaws remain to make the reader ambivalent toward them as outright heroes.

This is my favorite. Also like ASOIAF, the story itself (and I can only speak for the first book) isn't centered around a heroic quest but instead on the familial dynamics and, more notably, political corruption and struggle - more House of Cards than Lord of the Rings. Sci-fi/fantasy at its best offers an imaginative escape with commentary on our own lives and our own world. Acacia puts issues of slavery, drug addiction, war, ethnic prejudice, and economic inequality at the forefront of the action. Compared to the "bad guys", were the "good guys" really that much better?

I will enjoy reading the rest of this series... but when GRRM finishes Winds of Winter, I'll be ready.

By the way...
"George R. R. Martin is what?..."
"...He's not our bitch."

"Sorry, Neil Gaiman."

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