29 June 2007

Locus Magazine reviews David Anthony Durham

by Nick Gevers

from Locus Magazine, June 2007

Acacia: Book One: The War with the Mein, David Anthony Durham (Doubleday 978-0-385-50606-9, $26.95, 593pp, hc) June 2007.

When mainstream writers set out to produce SF or fantasy, the results are often disappointing and ridiculous, either because the author in question doesn't know the existing genre literature well and consequently "reinvents the wheel" of genre concepts and situations in naïve and presumptuous fashion or because the author's style and sensibility simply won't mesh with such unaccustomed subject matter. A notable counterexample arises this month, with the publication of book one of David Anthony Durham's planned trilogy Acacia, titled The War with the Mein. Here the social relevance and complex characterization of contemporary fiction fuse very effectively with the broad-canvas exoticism and excitement of high fantasy, in a notable and knowledgeable genre debut.

Durham is an acclaimed African-American writer whose first three, nonfantastic novels all dealt with aspects of African (not always black) historical experience — the lives of black Americans in the Old West; slavery in the Old South; and, in the superb 2005 historical novel Pride of Carthage, the struggle of Hannibal against Rome in the Second Punic War. Durham's understanding of history; and growing acquaintance with the form of the grand epic, constitute a natural trajectory into the grim dynastic terrain of George R.R. Martin's brand of fantasy: clashing kingdoms, sundered families, continental crises. Indeed, so natural and fluent is this evolution, the reader might be forgiven for thinking initially that Durham is a Martin clone: his map of the Known World is in outline not unlike that of Westeros in A Song of Ice and Fire, down to the number and distribution of provinces; Durham, like Martin, makes a mysterious inhuman threat from the far North the catalyst of his plot; like Martin's King Robert Baratheon, Durham's King Leodan Akaran is an ambiguous figure destined for assassination; and like the children of Eddard Stark in Martin's series, the offspring of Leodan scatter far and wide to escape the assassins and usurpers, and their individual destinies are comparable with those of the Starks: Aliver, Corinn, Mena, and Dariel certainly echo Robb, Sansa, Arya, and Bran in various ways. But such correspondences shouldn't be exaggerated; Durham is very much his own writer, and his treatment of this material is distinctive, idiosyncratically meditative, politically topical. Unlike Martin, Durham is a novelist in the modernist tradition of Faulkner, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin.

What is striking about The War with the Mein is the expert precision with which Durham maps the so tangible "real world" of our present onto fantastic territory normally regarded either as escapist or as broadly allegorical. On the textual surface, there are all the color, excitement, intrigue, combat, grotesque invention, grandiose scene-setting, perilous questing, and pyrotechnic supernaturalism that genre fantasy demands; but every incident and vista counts toward a socioeconomic calculus that few blue-state Democrats would gainsay. When the Meins of the frozen North plot rebellion against the Akaran Empire, they are, like many minorities, expressing a well-founded grievance, but their belligerent racism and bigoted ancestor worship comment caustically on how easily grievance can segue into neo-Nazism or religious fundamentalism. When the younger brother of the Mein leaders ventures to the island of Acacia to murder King Leodan, he is striking at an empire that is in many ways liberal, tolerant, inclusive, mild in its governance, at least by feudal standards; what follows that dispensation can only be worse, and so the morality of political violence is questioned. However, there are severe indictments to be made of the Akaran empire anyway: its wealth and stability are founded on the slave trade — the export of a "quota" of children every year to an unknown foreign land and likely a terrible fate — and on the drug trade, the import of an addictive opiate that dulls so many minds that revolt is unlikely. King Leodan is an idealist who would love to reform this corrupt system, but he lacks the political capital to do so — Durham's critique of timorous liberalism — and when his children are orphaned, they discover just how many abuses have been concealed from them, a reflection on enlightened parenting (should the young be protected from hard truths?) and on the unthinking habits of privilege. The allies of the Meins in their sudden conquest of the the Known World are the mercantile League of Vessels (amoral capitalists) and fearsome mercenaries (be careful in how you build your coalitions). When Hanish Mein is installed as king, he, who previously claimed honesty and virtue, is soon as complicit in misrule as Leodan ever was. The four young Akarans, sent into exile after Leodan's assassination, each learn sober lessons in the ethics of power: Aliver, the crown prince, goes to a desert region where any respect he is accorded must be earned, a quietus for his arrogance; Mena becomes a priestess on a tropical archipelago, learning the politics of religion and the limits of faith; Dariel is inducted into a band of pirates, which he proceeds to lead into guerilla war, an exploration of justifications for terrorism; and Corinn, the elder sister, is recaptured by the Meins, becoming a hostage whose survival depends fatally on compromise and cynicism. And so the resonant scenario of The War with the Mein advances, exposing numerous other crises of philosophy and identity — the chancellor who betrays Leodan only to become the champion of resistance to the Meins, the general who loses hope and regains it, the governor who turns his coat again and again out of psychological inadequacy. The analysis is deep, the roots of action in character painstakingly laid out, the chains of consequence impeccably drawn forth; the ideological implications of Durham's text are best compared not with Martin's but rather with the Marxist thesis of China Miéville's Bas-Lag — less extreme, but just as urgent. The War with the Mein, or the first third of it, is a political novel of large impact, as radical a rewriting of Martin as Martin himself has performed on Tolkien. Rarely has medieval epic been quite this pertinent.

Read more! This is one of over forty reviews from the June 2007 issue of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe or buy the issue.
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