A Kingdom Crumbles
Book One, the War
with the Mein
By David Anthony Durham
Doubleday. 576 pp. $26.95
The Akaran royal children in David Anthony Durham's thrilling Acacia bear a passing resemblance to the scrappy siblings from C.S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Aliver, heir to the throne of the Known World, worries that he doesn't have the stuff to be king; Corinn, his sister, is beautiful, deceptively shallow and adept with a bow and arrow; Mena, the younger sister, is courageous and astute; and Dariel, the youngest, tends to wander off where he shouldn't. But the world that Durham has created for them is far grimmer, and far more sophisticated, than Lewis's charming Narnia.
From the first pages of Acacia, Durham, a respected historical novelist, demonstrates that he is a master of the fantasy epic. He quickly sets out in broad strokes the corrupt world that these unwitting children have been raised to rule. For 22 generations, the Akarans have presided over the empire of Acacia. And for 22 generations, they've sent a yearly shipment of child slaves to mysterious traders beyond their borders, "with no questions asked, no conditions imposed on what they did with them, and no possibility that the children would ever see Acacia again." In exchange, the Akarans get "mist," a drug that guarantees their subjects' "labor and submission."
I give nothing away when I say that this empire is doomed. In the opening pages, an assassin from the Meins -- a "bickering people" from the frozen North, "as harsh and prone to callousness as the landscape they inhabited" -- is on his way to the capital city with his sights set on King Leodan, the children's kind and hapless father. The Akaran children must flee their sumptuous palace for hostile country, with no god-like lion poised to give his life for theirs. The Acacian god, the Giver, has forsaken them.
Durham sacrifices nothing -- not psychological acuity, not political complexity, not lyrical phrases -- as he drives the plot of this gripping book forward. The names of people and places sound as if they've been recalled from a dusty past, not cobbled from J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth, a far too common practice among fantasy writers. Tropes that sound outlandish -- "dream-travel," for one -- are credible in Durham's telling. And the story always surprises. Characters that seem poised to take center stage are killed abruptly. Evil often triumphs.
The rickety supports that grand empires rest on clearly fascinate Durham -- the long-time advisers who have grown resentful, the client states that fake their willing submission, the trading monopoly that sees profit in regime change. And the Akaran aristocracy is deaf to the rumblings beneath them. Hanish, the clear-eyed leader of the Meins and architect of the coming disaster, relishes their complacency: "Better that his coming shock them to the core and leave them reeling and grasping for meaning, too late to recognize the true shape and substance of the world they lorded over."
When the empire falls, it does so quickly and horrifically. Palace guards and household servants slaughter their masters. The Meinish have allied with the Numrek, "screaming, stomping, mirthful agents of carnage," who cut a gruesome swath through the land. Plague strikes the Acacian army, and its soldiers sweat blood and "lay prostrate in writhing intimacy with the earth." The dead are past counting.
But as exciting as all this is, the collapse of the Akaran empire is only the beginning of this grand tale. Aliver, Mena and Dariel, raised anonymously and separately in quiet corners of the fallen empire, become warriors eager to redeem "the rotten heart of Acacia," while Corinn, a captive in the palace where she grew up, plots bloody revenge from within. How will it all end? If the first volume of this projected series is any indication, in brilliant -- and brutal -- defiance of fantasy conventions.
-- Rachel Hartigan Shea is a senior editor of Book World.