Writer: David Anthony Durham
David Anthony Durham's debut into fantasy (he's already established himself as a historical fiction writer) grabbed my attention from the start. In fact, I knew more about the plot and details of this book than I cared to know, but that was, in part, what drew me to give in and buy the hardback. What finally made me sit down and read it was the fact that this title was also on the SHU fantasy ballot.
But I'll say this straight-away: this book would've made a poor choice for SHU readers, particularly those who don't read fantasy. And this I said before I even read the book, for reasons that might be laughable to some, but hear me out: it's hardcover. Yes, this is laughable to those of us either 1) remember the undergrad days where we spent HUNDREDS of dollars on textbooks, and/or 2) those of us in grad school who STILL have to pay HUNDREDS of dollars on textbooks.
The thing is, though, that this book would've been required of every WPF student, regardless of their genre. Strike number one. Strike number two: we are in a low-residency program that does not pay us in any form or fashion to attend. Oh, we can get financial aid (loans) and there is a Scholar's Discount, but there is no teaching stipend, nothing extra to help out with expenses. Strike number three: because of the newness of the book, there was no chance in hell the mass-market paperback would've been released in time for residency (the actual release date is August 26, 2008, a good year AFTER the hardback release), and also due to its newness, the odds of finding in a library/used-book store would've been slimmer than those for other books.
That's my story, and I'm sticking to it. A shame to judge a book inappropriate for a program-wide read based on its format, but oh well. The fantasy writers didn't pick it, and that's that.
Now, format aside, would it have been a good read for the program? In the end, no. I'll explain why in the review. But is it a good read for fantasy readers/writers? Yes. I'll explain why in the review.
Needless to say, there will be SPOILERS in the review. :)
The premise? Leodan Akaran is the ruler of the Known World. He governs from his seat on the island of Acacia, and this world is full of peace and posterity, but at a horrible price. While his children know nothing of the source of their father's posterity, the wealth is fueled by a vicious slave and drug trade that's been going on for generations, and generations, and generations. The Mein, banished to the Ice Fields of the North, have had enough: of the banishment, and of the current state of the world. So they hatch a plan to kill the king and take over Acacia and the Known World, leaving the King's children separated and scattered to learn the truth of their father's (and ancestors') kingdom. They must decide who they are first, and then what they can, or should do, to take back the land they loved so much. But at what price?
If you missed it earlier, THERE BE SPOILERS.
Normally, I nitpick and have to remember to cover the good stuff. This time, I'm going to cover the good stuff and then nitpick, because for some reason, that makes sense.
The world-building is excellent. Not only does Durham present his readers with a truly ethnically diverse cast, he also takes a long, hard look at what it really means to be king of the world, and who the people are who suffer under that king's rule. The drug-trading of the mist was particularly excellent touch. Durham really did a great job in painting his fantasy-world with shades of grey: the good guys (who are sympathetic) thrive in an empire built on slave-trade and drug-trafficking, which gives the bad guys (who are ALSO sympathetic) a damn good reason to take over. It's fascinating to watch, fascinating to draw the parallels between the Akaran's rule and the Mein's, as both Leodan and Hanish were both men who were not happy with the injustices they ruled over, and they could only do so much to prevent them. I particularly loved how Hanish confided in Corinn in very much the same way we are told Leodan confided in his wife, and I couldn't help but hope that perhaps, just MAYBE, Hanish would find a way to release to Tunishnevre and keep Corinn by his side. He truly loved her, but not enough to truly keep her safe from his ancestors' desires.
And talk about a creepy touch: the Tunishnevre. How original a concept it is in fantasy, I don't know. The idea of blood being spilled to lift curses is definitely not a new one, but liked the two options: give it freely as a gift, and all is forgiven. The Tunishnevre are released FROM the world. Give blood as a sacrifice, unwillingly, and the Tunishnevre claim their Earthly bodies and rampage the world once more. Hanish asks the question that he, nor the reader, ever get an answer to: why do the Tunishnevre want to live again so badly? Is revenge THAT important?
Given the interwoven plots of the book, I think so. I think that in the end, it's revenge that separate the good guys from the bad. Which makes Dariel and Corinn open to corruption (in the case of Corinn, she's already corrupted, though I couldn't help but be fascinated by her choices and growth at the end), and Mena and Aliver , as well as other characters, open to redemption (maybe Mena doesn't need to be redeemed, nor Aliver, but consider who they were and their actions, well...)
At any rate, I found the characters I rooted for the most were the women: Mena and Corinn. By rooted for, I mean I wanted more chapters in their POVs, and it was their stories I was most interested in. Go figure: they're women, and both of their stories had a romantic subplot. But those subplots were damn important. Mena's was subtle and allowed her to exalt above her previous station and become the warrior woman everyone came to revere. Corinn, well, hell hath no fury like a woman scored. I felt sorry for her, but then worried as I saw her self-centered view of the world start to negatively effect those around her. I don't mean the massacre in the palace either: her appropriation of The Song of Elnet may have been the very thing that thrust Aliver into his ill-fated duel with Maeander. Had Clegg not been distracted by Corinn (that was no fault of her own, at least) and decided to rescue her, Aliver might've gotten the book in time, and we would've had a much happier ending.
Not that I mind the ending we've got: it leads into the second book of the trilogy rather nicely, and I find myself appreciative of the bittersweet ending. Yes, Acacia is back in Akaran hands, but is it for the better. Seeing Corinn through Mena's eyes, I have my doubts, and I'm looking forward to seeing what unfolds between them. Plus, I have a hard time believing that Aliver could have pulled off all he set to accomplish as king. Yes, his rise to leadership was moving and inspiring, but in the end, he wasn't the character I cared about. Odd, that, because while I loved the boys' names (Aliver and Dariel), their stories weren't the ones that gripped me.
Which leads rather nicely into the problems I had with the book: if Durham's characters had been given the depth and complexity that was given into the world-building, we would've had an amazing book. It's not to say the characters are shallow or one-dimensional either. It's just that there's too many damn POV characters to truly sink your teeth into any one of them. Even though I found myself pulled along by Mena and Corinn's tales, as soon as their chapters were over, I knew I would see more of them for some time, so I had little incentive to keep reading, if that makes sense.
Which might make more sense if I say the root of my problem with characterization WAS the multiple POVs. We had at least . . . ten different POV characters, and that's more than enough. Certain minor characters could've been passed over for more development of the characters who were really at the heart of the story, mainly the four siblings. But that's my take. One thing I found myself doing while reading was examining the scope of the novel (takes place over a decade) and wondering what could've been done to either tighten it all up or expanding it. Quite different reactions, but I kept comparing this book (as many others have done) to George R.R. Martin. Admittedly, I've only read A Game of Thrones, but Martin, like Durham, also uses multiple POVs, and that didn't bother me at all.
I think the biggest difference is writing style. Martin gives each of his POVs a tight, limited third person camera, whereas Durham as a strange omniscient narrator thing going on, sliding in and out of characters' heads within scenes so that I'm not for certain whose POV I'm truly supposed to be grounded in. The narrator in Acacia also possesses a degree of KNOWING that allows for quite a bit of telling and info-dumping, which further distances me from the story.
The telling was a problem. The flashbacks were a BIGGER problem, because if it was important enough to flashback to, why not relate the scenes in real time? In fact, many of the flashback scenes were glossing over action, which gave the book a rather plodding pace. Unfortunate, because in a world rife with tension and conflict, not much of that truly leapt off the page in a visceral manner, and that's because I wasn't close enough to the characters, wasn't close enough to the action in most cases. Even the most harrowing action scene, Aliver's death, was observed, and while I can't offer any solutions as to how that scene could've been made more exciting to my eyes (I admit, I already knew he died, so that DID suck some of the tension out of the scene. Ooops!), I feel it could've been made more exciting somehow. But that's me.
What's interesting, despite my comparisons to Martin, was that this book reminded me more of Narnia than A Game of Thrones. Maybe it's because the movie Prince Caspian is still fresh in my head, but I was suddenly struck by the realization that it's Lewis where the whole two brothers/two sisters cast originated (at least, I think that's where it originated: Martin sure as hell didn't come up with it), and the comparison to Narnia was further ingrained by the fact that Corinne (Susan) was such a fabulous archer. This took me by surprise, as prior to the exile, I never saw her as anything but a dolled-up princess, which is a shame.
At any rate, that's my random comparison. ;) This book is by no means Narnia, but one could make a case that it's Narnia for grown-ups. It's much darker, and there seems to be far more at stake. Durham's mythology and histories are truly gripping, and I love the creation story. And my complaint about character may very well be a symptom of writing historical fiction. I've not read Durham's other work, so I don't know if he wrote about real people or not, but I would imagine that historical fiction focuses on details and setting first, and character second. But seriously, don't hold me to that. I've read all of one historical fiction EVER, so what do I know? :)
Buy the Paperback: (told you I'd use it soon). Despite the fantastic world-building, it's not a "must have" because the same energy wasn't put into the characters, despite my attachment to certain characters, and it's not "worth the cash" because I truly would've been fine waiting for the paperback. Even though I intend to continue reading the series as it's published, I'm not yet addicted. I don't feel like I MUST have the next installment the moment it's released. But I'm definitely looking forward to seeing what Durham can accomplish. If his characterization can rise to the same level as his world-building, damn. Look out. He'll take the fantasy world by storm.
Next review: The Wreck of the River of Stars by Michael Flynn
Next read: On Writer's Block: A New Approach to Creativity by Victoria Nelson