David Anthony Durham's novel Acacia: The War with the Mein opens with the story of a nameless assassin, traveling south from the stronghold of Mein Tahalian to the island of Acacia, the heart of the empire. His namelessness serves as a metonym for much about this assassin--we don't know his purpose, we don't understand his reasons, and we're not sure we really like him.
In the second chapter, the perspective shifts--now, the reader sees things from the point of view of Mena Akaran, the 12-year-old daughter of the king of the Acacian empire. Unlike the nameless assassin, Mena is easy to understand, easy to relate to, easy to like.
For me, this difference posed a big question: why didn't Durham start with Mena's story? Why start with the story of someone harder to relate to?
After reading a while longer, though, I realized what Durham was up to. If he had started with Mena's story, I would have unquestionably been on the side of the Akarans throughout the novel. But by starting with the story of the assassin, his was the voice I heard first. The assassin's story, however confusing, was the story that had primacy in my mind. And so the novel was much less black and white than it would have been, had Mena's story been told first. Although Mena's story was easier for me to relate to, I was also more willing to give the assassin's story a chance. This seemingly simple choice about narrative structure affected the way I read the whole novel.
This is a perfect example of what makes Durham's Acacia trilogy well worth reading. Although the trilogy resembles other recent epic fantasy series in many ways--the threading of multiple points of view, the gritty realism of warfare and torture, the blurring of the line between good and evil--the first two novels in Durham's trilogy stand out because of his skill with language and storycraft. Rather than using character dialogue to explicitly spell out the themes and main points of his novels, Durham much more subtly weaves these themes into the very structure of his narrative.
Throughout both Acacia: The War with the Mein and The Other Lands (the second book in the trilogy), I was also impressed with the way the plots of these novels seemed extremely relevant to the political situation of the last ten years, but without being an obvious allegory for it. Certain events seemed to reflect, and even predict, events such as Barack Obama's presidential campaign and even the recent "Occupy Wall Street" protests. To me, this suggests a number of possibilities--Durham has captured the zeitgeist of the beginning of the 21st century, but in a way that is general enough to appeal to later readers as well; OR he has portrayed universally relevant themes and ideas in a way that connects to my own experiences, making me feel more intimately involved in his narrative. Either way, this further reinforces my appreciation of Durham's skill as an author.
Another very intriguing thing about Acacia: The War with the Mein and The Other Lands is the way they seem to be engaged in a subtle conversation with other works of fantasy literature. There is a giant flying creature that one of the characters interacts with, much like in Anne McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern series. The importance of commerce (and the underhanded dealings of merchants) points to Joe Abercrombie's First Law trilogy, and there is a horrific moment of mass murder that reminded me of a scene from Scott Lynch's The Lies of Locke Lamora. What is most impressive, however, is again the subtle way these elements appear. It's not that Durham is borrowing these elements from McCaffrey or Abercrombie or Lynch--rather, they seem to be used in a way that suggests that Durham sees himself as part of a larger conversation that asks the question, "So, what can happen in a fantasy novel when you do this?" And this has the effect of creating a series that is very smart and self-aware and engaged, all in a very subtle way, particularly for readers who are familiar with a lot of other fantasy works.
But perhaps what I appreciated most about the first two novels in Durham's trilogy was the women. Most epic fantasy seems to think that just because it's set in a vaguely medieval-like time period, it needs to adopt the gender norms of the medieval period in the real world. The epic fantasy trilogy I read over the summer, for instance, had three major female characters. In a series of over 1500 pages, three major female characters is ridiculous, particularly when they all match up with a stereotype.
The first two volumes of the Acacia trilogy--particularly The Other Lands--don't do this. Not only are two of the major power players in the trilogy women, but the supporting cast is filled with women as well. I get the sense from reading Durham's novels that this is a world that has both men and women in it, in equal numbers--rather than being a world that is filled with men and three or four token women.
On occasion, I wished that Durham had pared down his narrative threads a bit, since particularly at the beginning it was a bit too much to keep track of. But overall, I found the first two books of the Acacia trilogy to be the most captivating epic fantasy series I have read in a while. I was drawn to the subtle way these novels used language, engaged with other works of fantasy, and wove the themes of the story into the very structure of the narrative. And rather than stagnate during the second book of the trilogy, as happens with many epics, the plot continued to develop in complicated and interesting ways--I greatly look forward to seeing how it resolves in The Sacred Band.