Thursday, July 12, 2012

Acacia


The quick and dirty: 
Rating: 2.5 stars
Length: Ponderous brick (784 pages)
Publication: June 12, 2007 from Doubleday
Premise: Leodan Akaran has tried to be a good king, but his rule of the Known World is based on generations of slavery, cruelty, and drug addiction. He dreams of teaching his children to succeed him, but he's assassinated before he can do so and the invasion force follows close behind. His children are scattered to the four winds to keep them safe; three of them find new homes and identities away from their past lives, while one is trapped in the enemy's stronghold. All of them are drawn together by the desire to defeat the Mein and rebuild their family's rule in justice.
Warnings: Some sex that may well be based on Stockholm Syndrome, gore
Recommendation: If you're really desperate for an ethnically diverse cast of characters or something morally grey without excessive gore, then go for it, but otherwise the characters are too flat and distant to make this one worth it.

I have some quasi-spoilers in here, but I tend to think that if someone's death is mentioned on the jacket flap, I can go ahead and discuss that; the very first page is an assassin plotting the deed, so it's not much of a secret. I also know that the positive and negative sections are quite unbalanced in length, which might point to a lower rating; however, the broad strokes have enough promise to partially mitigate the work's failings.

What makes this one bold and unusual: 

Many epic fantasies start out in pseudo-Europe under the rule of an either perfect or horribly corrupt king before zooming in on either the heir to the throne or the kitchen sweeper, so I was pleasantly surprised to see how different the world felt. The story centers on the children of Leodan Akaran, the twenty-second ruler of Acacia. Their childhood has been blissful, and few children could imagine having a more loving father, but they can sense that something is subtly wrong, realizing that their father is ruling an empire where children are sold as slaves or forced to work in brutally dangerous mines. Their dynasty made a bargain via the League shipping intermediaries with the Lothan Aklun from the far side of the world long ago; the Lothan Aklun demanded the Quota, a yearly number of child slaves, in exchange for a supply of mist, an addictive drug that kept the working population distracted with beautiful visions. Leodan himself became addicted to the drug after his wife died, and his decisions to try to fix things are far too little and too late. Making the good and noble king a conflicted figure in this set of ways is a bold move; he has good intentions, but it's easy to agree with other characters' assessment that he's a weak king without the bloodthirstiness for war or the resolve to shatter peace with reform. He's a good person, but not a terribly strong one, and seeing that in the imposing father figure really start this book off on an unusually good foot.

Aliver, the oldest son, is later determined to overturn every form of injustice that used to prop up his dynasty's power, but seeing another ruler try to do some of the same things is eye-opening. Hanish Mein, the leader of the conquerers, had to make alliances with the Lothan Aklun and the League--neutral intermediaries who control the world's shipping--and then couldn't stop the demand for twice as many child slaves once he was on the throne. He originally invaded because the Acacians banished his people to the frozen north and cursed his ancestors, and by the time those spirits have been explained it's hard to argue with his reasoning. Tinhadin, the first Acacian king, cursed the Mein ancestors to die and be caught in a sort of half-life; their bodies don't rot and their spirits are close enough to commune with the priests and the ruler.  These spirits, the Tunishnevre, want to live again and have revenge for all the years that they've spent unable to move forward or back. The Mein revere those spirits and are willing to do whatever is necessary to free them, but don't see the need for cruelty toward their former oppressors; such a sympathetic race of villains can't quite be shrugged aside in the way that orcs or a generic Evil Empire can.

Some of the fighting, though not all (more on that below) happens with brutal swiftness that feels real; the planning of Leodan's assassination is sort of a dull page-hog, but the killing itself is fast, which makes perfect sense given the skill of the assassin. Five-page table-hopping extravaganzas can reduce an otherwise serious book to nonsense almost immediately, but this time the fight was swift enough to make the reader's startled reaction mirror that of the characters. It's admittedly less exciting because we're told when the assassin is planning it and Leodan has the most teeth-destroyingly saccharine family moment in the book in the chapter before it happens, but the scene itself works. At any rate, the same pattern holds true for Hanish Mein's formal duel to keep his leadership. He and his opponent both have knives and spent some time ritualistically sizing each other up, but once the fight starts it's over in barely two strokes, which works beautifully. Long fights can easily turn into fanservice in many books, the lightning-fast ones here help add to the Mein's aura of readiness.

The red pen: 

Much though I enjoy seeing fantasy with protagonists who aren't the standard white-bread fare, I laughed out loud when I saw a review saying that this book contained "Ursala Le Guin's ethnic diversity." In every Le Guin book I've read, ethnicity comes up very briefly and casually in a way that makes the character's appearance obvious without lingering on it. In Acacia, every character seems to be identified first and foremost by skin color, with things like height or general build coming in a distant third to vague comments about broad features. There's no reason to hide ethnicity, certainly, but Corrin in particular spends so much time caught between the beauty standards of two cultures that it gets tiresome. She muses about how one pale Meinish woman would look better with a tan and mentions again and again that she doesn't really think that the Meinish men love their own women's pale looks more than the darker-skinned Acacians. To a point, that could be fine, but it's not explored; the Meinish women are simply pale, with straw-colored hair and possible beauty envy while they scowl under their broad-brimmed hats. Given that the Acacians allow and encourage women in their military while the Mein do not, the culture clash could have been been so much more, actually fascinating instead of flat.

Durham mentions that some Meinish men have fathered children on the Acacian women, but he doesn't explore it at all. Were these women raped by the conquering army, in what could have been an interesting examination of stereotypes about insatiable barbarians? Were they instead fascinated by the unusual looks of the Mein? Did anyone seriously try to get married to someone of another race despite the Mein's taboos against diluting their blood? The same pattern holds true with Aliver; he ends up with the Talays, who are essentially African, and feels awkward and pale among them at first, going so far as to pout his lip out around women to look more like everyone else. The best racial encounter centers on Mena, who is mistaken for a goddess because of her passing resemblance to the pale Maeben of tribal myth, but the focus on race honestly just isn't interesting. The Talay who teach Aliver and the Vumu who worship Mena are both dark-skinned primitive tribes; the whole "noble savage" trope hovers in the wings, and the people themselves seem to be just drawn from the generic mold of people who are connected to nature and have honor. Epic fantasy involving many races doesn't require a treatise on the politics of race relations, but Durham spent just enough time harping on it to be annoying without taking the time to flesh things out.

Perhaps the largest problem with the book was that it wasn't compelling, despite the efforts to break down the black-and-white morality of standard epic fantasy. Durham's writing style is good for unfolding the generations of history that have led to the current power imbalances, but I couldn't identify with a single character for longer than a page or two at a time. A lot of this, I think, is because Durham seems allergic to using more dialogue than is absolutely necessary; that could work, but instead of avoiding fluff he's avoiding the building blocks of how people relate to each other. For example, the reader is told via an internal monologue about how the reunited siblings get along with each other, but not a single one of those reunions is actually shown. Dariel and Aliver get along after all the time apart and admire each other; that's nice, but we don't know why, except that we've been told that Dariel has a great sense of humor and Aliver is a good leader. Aliver's leadership is decently obvious, though his allegedly inspiring speeches come in recaps instead of being shown directly, but Dariel...put it this way: if there are more than two jokes in this book, I don't remember happening across them. It only gets worse when the characters blur together and then make similar dumb decisions; "Mena was thinking this" is no substitute for seeing a conversation, or even seeing her thought process from moment to moment.

The same problem holds true for the romantic relationships in the book. We're told that Mena falls in love and hides it away because things are dangerous, but there are no moments of romantic tension to support the relationship; I was surprised to hear that there was romance in the air at all. Corinn supposedly falls in love with her most dangerous enemy, but it feels more awkward than romantic or daring; she hates him but wants his body, he spends lots of time with her, and then they fall into bed together. Her fall out of love is equally pointless and rapid, which was honestly more disappointing than almost anything else. A doomed love and a betrayed woman wanting vengeance are great building blocks, but Durham writes it as though Corinn is a paper doll being posed with one stiff-tabbed dress after another. Even Dariel has a love interest in his new life, but all we hear is that she's attractive while diving off a boat naked and they get along well. On one level it's good to see that two of the siblings have relationships without having those bonds as their chief motivations, but the relationships feel more like token efforts to give the characters depth, or reasons for one character to do something for another.

The truly giant issues aside, here's the flip side of Durham's portrayal of fighting; in short, he either doesn't know how combat training works or doesn't care. This is the same thing that annoyed me in The Left Hand of God, but worse because at least Cale had been trained for fighting his entire life: your civilization doesn't get to rule the world by having an ineffective fighting style. Deciding that it works that way in order to make your character look cooler and more creative is incredibly lazy. Aliver's training makes sense, since he spent years training in Acacia before moving to the more brutally efficient style of the Talay, but Mena's arc is a hot mess. She spends two months learning the sword from Melio, who was established early in the book as a candidate to be an Elite, one of the best soldiers in the world. Since that time, he has been fighting for his life on the run. Mena learns the first two canonical Forms, which are supposed to take months to learn properly, in five days. In the first month, she lands a lightning-fast hit on Melio and explains that the purpose of a sword should be to cut and she's sick of Forms, voicing the gem "A sword is a weapon." She goes on to defeat the finest stick fighter on the island during her first try at using sticks, and then take out another one of the finest fighters in the world with his own sword before killing all of his guards without taking a single scratch.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is ridiculous. Melio makes a vague statement that Mena might have been born to have a sword in her hand, but at no point are we shown that this is magic, which is the only possible explanation. Fighting is by no means easy and can take years to master, swords are quite heavy, using two sticks is very different from using one sword, and you cannot learn to be a master swordswoman in two months if you have no prior experience in fighting. Furthermore, "a sword is a weapon" is a principle that the warriors of Acacia would have had to grasp in order to conquer the world. This is a cheap attempt to make Mena intimidating and cool, and it doesn't work. She's a fighter because the plot demands it, and that sort of absurd skill-jump doesn't work in serious epics; in the adventure-comedy Stardust movie, sure, but not in something that's supposed to be this grim and realistic. Mena was originally a scholar, intelligent beyond her years and able to discuss policy decisions with her father the king, and she got a glimpse of her kingdom's injustices before ending up with the Vumu. All of that fascinating aptitude vanishes into the ether, never to manifest again; all we get is her pouring the rage of the goddess into combat later.

And finally, I need to address a point that's more about the reviews than the book itself. A few formal reviews and quite a few on Amazon or Goodreads are saying "this is a novel Shakespeare would have loved" or calling the work itself Shakespearean. To that, I can only respond with "when was the last time you read Shakespeare?" Yes, many of his plays are filled with duels, prophecies, the fate of nations, tragedy, and highly flawed characters. Nevertheless, they are plays, and thus composed almost entirely of dialogue with light stage directions for movement. Since this is Shakespeare, the text is often laced with innuendo, witty wordplay, slapstick comedy, and a view from outside the darker main events, usually from servants or guards. Acacia has almost no dialogue, almost no humor, very few views from people who aren't major plot-carrying players, and honestly none of the tragic twists that people tend to mean when they say Shakespearean. People die, certainly, but those characters were never human enough to draw in the empathy that's the mark of good death scenes, there's no sense of building entrapment in their own fates, and a big war with some degree of moral ambiguity doesn't necessarily mean Shakespeare. Take my English major irritation for what it's worth, but I saw those reviews first and was sadly disappointed by how false they were.

All in all, Acacia embodies a lot of what can be good and bad about the epic fantasy genre; the worldbuilding is fascinating, providing a range of cultures that are so much more than pseudo-Europe, but the characters are even less human than Tolkein's crew of mythic archetypes. Durham's characters seem more like chess pieces, trundling along until something happens to subvert expectations in a fairly clumsy way. Playing with epic fantasy conventions is one thing, but setting things up on such an optimistic note that I'm going "all right, how long until the tragic death of one of the main characters?" isn't new or different, just predictable and dull in a different way.

Enjoyed this? Try:
~Ursala Le Guin covers some of the same coming-of-age ground in a morally ambiguous society; try out her Earthsea trilogy.

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