Acacia, by David Anthony Durham
We pause TV week to bring you some entertainment in a different medium (psst: books!). A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of reading a new fantasy book called Acacia in preparation for interviewing the author, David Anthony Durham. Acacia’s debut was much anticipated amongst a certain crowd of fantasy readers because the author is black and the characters promised to be of many different hues and cultures as well. Durham already has a reputation in the mainstream lit world because of his well-received historical novels. His move to fantasy may be viewed by some genre insiders with suspicion–after all, mainstream authors who dabble often do the genre and themselves a disservice. But, in my opinion, Durham hasn’t made any clueless mistakes.
Acacia is an epic fantasy–the first of a trilogy–and contains all the standard trappings of the genre: entrenched royalty, mighty empires, disaffected subjects making war, princes and princesses in hiding, and a fight to regain what has been lost. However, wrapped up in all that there are a few surprises and unusual elements. Enough to make Acacia stand out from the usual high fantasy contenders without going so far afield as to turn off lovers of the form.
The book begins on the cusp of war. The Acacian empire is overseen by the lonely King Leodan but effectively ruled by the shady lords of commerce. The King’s four children are awfully reminiscent of the Pevensie children from the Narnia books. The eldest son, heir to the throne, is a little too serious for his own good. The eldest daughter is overly concerned with her looks but is, deep down, strong and capable. The younger daughter is the tough one, and not at all worried about or interested in the feminine pursuits that define her sister at the beginning of the book. The youngest son lacks the capacity for treachery that Edmund has, thankfully. Durham has other characters for that. Over the course of the book, all four royal children develop beyond their surface sketches into characters one can really care about. Naturally, it takes them being raised away from the posh privilege of their youth to bring this about.
Durham particularly connected with me via the characters. Much more so than the situations they found themselves in or the war that frames their lives. Though he doesn’t disappoint in the worldbuilding arena. One of the great things about the world of Acacia is that it’s multicultural and multiracial, and not in a random, surface way. It’s apparent that the author gave much thought to the different cultures he crafted. Durham doesn’t skimp on the social issues, either. The empire is built on slavery, commerce, and drugs. Neither he nor his characters shy away from this truth. There are no simple explanations or answers, and morality has as many layers as there are shades of skin in this world.
This book will definitely appeal to readers who love epic fantasy while giving them some new elements to consider. Durham subverts some elements of the genre while maintaining the structural integrity. It makes for a very interesting read, but probably won’t appeal to readers who are tired of epics.
My interview will run in the next issue of Fantasy Magazine, due out in October. But I’ll give you all a sneak preview of a section I think you’ll find particularly interesting:
Fantasy: It’s great that you resist pigeonholing… Has that been hard to do?
David Anthony Durham: Part of me wants to say no, it’s not been that bad. But another part of me says that I only feel that way because I’ve come to accept a lot of pigeonholing as the norm. I did write two novels before Gabriel’s Story. The first one got my first agent (an African-American), but she only signed me because her reader (an African-American) was so enthusiastic about that book. But neither of those first two sold to a publisher. They were contemporary, introspective, literary coming of age stories with black male characters as the leads. I don’t think any publisher saw that combo as a homerun.
So I wrote the third novel. That one sold because that reader for my first agent became an editorial assistant. She tried to get Doubleday to buy my novels several times. By the time I gave them Gabriel’s Story they were ready, but would they have been if there wasn’t someone in the room with them everyday asking them to see me? Since then, Doubleday has been very supportive. They seem to think I can do whatever I want and that the box don’t fit anymore. That’s great.
On the other hand bookstores have tried to box me in. Walk Through Darkness went straight to the African American section in Borders. This disturbed me for many reasons. For a while there reviewers were happy to pay attention to my books around February, but sometimes wondered–in writing–why all my titles weren’t published to correspond with Black History month. So, I guess it hasn’t been easy. But I’m always aiming kind of high, so I don’t expect it to be easy.
Fantasy: Lately there has been a lot of discussion about the lack of diversity in the SF genre. Did you know that before you got started?
David Anthony Durham: Sure, and that’s another reason it felt important to take a crack at it. The book is not a “Black Fantasy” (although I wish there were more of those, too). But my experience with life makes it impossible to create an imagined world that lacks diversity. I think only a white writer could do that without even noticing it, without an inkling that’s it racist. In my case, though, I wanted a complete world, multi-colored and messy and conflicted. Just like ours, but different. And I hope that some out there take some inspiration from my doing it as a black writer. We should be able to do whatever we want. And the more we do in the more places the better everyone will be for it.
We talk about this a bit more in the interview and the last part of Scalzi’s interview with Durham touches on some of the same stuff. I’ll let you know when the Fantasy issue is available. In the meantime, go out and buy Acacia if epic fantasy is your thing.