Audiobook Review: Acacia: The War with the Mein by David Anthony Durham
Series: Book 1 of The Acacia Trilogy
Author Information: Website
Tiara’s Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
Leodan Akaran is the king of Acacia, which includes all the “known world.” The Akarans have ruled over Acacia for many generations with the throne being passed down from father to son. A bitter race called the Mein secretly oppose the Akaran rule and have since their occupation, feeling the Akarans have been disingenuous and underhanded in their rule, including how they dealt with their ancestors. The Mein’s version of history recounts how their ancestors were driven to the frozen north for being an earnest people and opposing the practices used to keep up this illusion of perfect.
Things aren’t as perfect as they seem on the surface. Leodan is idealistic, but buckled under the pressure of preserving the empire’s peace through unsavory means. Leodan hopes that his children will grow up and foster the change that he couldn’t. However, he doesn’t give his children the knowledge they need to fight for these changes st first, and when we meet the children they’re a seemingly clueless bunch whose father still spins tales when they try to question him about their true history. The Akaran children are the heart of this book as a whole, doted on by a troubled father whose only joy comes from loving them and mentally preserving the memory of his deceased wife.
Aliver is the oldest child and heir to the throne. Mena, Aliver’s younger sister, describes him as being afflicted with a disease called “boredom” that he hasn’t recovered from. He’s hot-tempered, given to action rather than inaction. He has a good heart and a naïve view of how the world should work. Corinn is the second oldest. She’s cultured, well-spoken, and versed in court behavior. She’s a princess’ princess. She considers herself the pretty one between her and her younger sister. After Corinn comes Mena, she is astute and curious, often described by others as having a wisdom and intuition beyond her years. Last is Dariel. Like his sister Mena he is curious with a taste for adventure and action. He has a way of getting into things under the noses of the adults.
With the twist of an assassin’s blade, the four Akaran children are thrown to the wind, a request made by their dying father to his most trusted adviser as the Akaran rule begins to crumble. He feels that allowing them to live their life unfettered will shape them into the people they’re meant to be, and with it, he hopes that the Acacian empire will become the bastion he wasn’t able to achieve in his reign.
This book started a little slow for me. It had those Game of Thrones vibes all around it as we meet the Akaran children. Despite that, I found Durham’s writing to be lyrical and thoughtful, so I toughed it out a little while longer, hoping it’d become more than a clone. Midway through the first part, Durham pushed off the ledge and began to distinguish this story as his own. It became a story about power, betrayal, redemption, love, and change coupled with a intriguing mythos that I mostly enjoyed.
One thing I truly appreciated about this is the lack of violence, especially gendered violence. I don’t mean that there’s not any fighting in this book, but there’s not pages upon pages of torture or rape or any of that nonsense to prove that this story is heavy. I’m especially glad there wasn’t the constant looming rape threat (against women) that is so prevalent in many fantasy novels trying to establish themselves as serious, grimdark books. I appreciate that he able to find depth in his writing that didn’t require that.
Also, I appreciated that that Durham tried to present a struggle where the grievances between these two races was not just a simple matter of who’s right and who’s wrong, who’s good and who’s evil, summed up succinctly by this quote:
Very little of what he learned of people’s actions began or ended with either the noble ideals or the fiendish wickedness he had been taught lay behind all great struggles. There was something comforting in this.
The readers do feel empathy for the Akaran children. Their father has been murdered and their fate has been placed in chance’s hands. However, the Mein aren’t presented as a despicable race of people. A people who would win a war through some questionable means, yes, but their actions hardly set a precedent in the book, as previous wars have been won through questionable methods and will likely continue to be won in that manner. Nothing about their actions say they’re worst than the Acacians. The methods seem brutal because we witness them in “real time” affecting characters in a current situation as opposed to only “hearing” about the actions of the former rulers and how they’ve affected the Mein in retrospect. It is, after all, war.
Durham doesn’t reduce the Mein people to just villain status. Their fears, wants, and needs are the same as any other people’s. Even in their war, the goal isn’t to annihilate these other people completely. This is seen as unrealistic and foolish. You fight the enemy and assimilate the people. They just want to claim what they feel they lost through treachery and end a dynasty. There isn’t needless slaughter of innocent to assert their rule (though there are casualties, of course) and much of life is the same for the people except the name and race of their rulers.
It makes readers question why they oppose the Mein rule so, but I think one character summed up the sentiment when they said they think people forgot the realities of the Akaran rule, that the nostalgia of having an Akaran on the throne tempered their opinions as neither rule is that much worse/better than the other. However, because the Mein aren’t some big bad, it does make the upcoming battle feel somewhat anticlimatic, even if the Akaran children are teeming with ideas about how the kingdom should be ruled, which brings me to my next point.
My main problem with this novel is that Durham obviously loves the Akaran children. There is nothing wrong with a writer loving their characters. They need to care about them in order to give the readers developed characters. However, the Akaran children don’t face many real dilemmas or most of the dilemmas they do face don’t give them actual crisis points with the exception of a few key moments. Even these varied situations they find themselves growing up in aren’t necessarily challenging them.
Situations that should be particularly prickly for them, they’re able to handle better than most people would with some of these outcomes feeling a little bit like Durham was afraid to really test the characters. This is especially true of a character I really loved in the book. For this reason, the novel didn’t have as much of an impact for me because, even when a scene got tense, you knew everyone was going to make it out unscathed while brandishing power beyond imagine. The story wasn’t tested because it’s characters were never truly tested.
As far as the narration goes, Dick Hill is an exceptional narrator for this story. However, I did find him to be a very slow reader, slower than normal. I could easily bump up the narration to two times the speed and he’d sound like he was reading at a more normal pace. He’s one of those rare narrators that I’m comfortable with listening to on three times the speed, which I still didn’t do very often. He has such a rich quality to his voice that I didn’t want to speed him up too much and lose that full-bodied, strong voice he brought to the story. Two times speed was a reasonable compromise between speed and narration quality for me. While I do think he has a rich, deep reading voice, that didn’t diminish the impact of the female characters since, for me, quality of timbre is a better way of portraying male/female characters over decreasing/increasing pitch arbitrarily.
Something I noticed with this audiobook is that it added content to the story. Sometimes, I’d read along with the narrator using the Kindle book, and there would be whole passages added to the story that are not in the book. I’m used to a missing or added word here and there when listening to an audiobook, but this is the first time I’d encounter a great deal of content being added to narration. It’s not necessarily a bad thing as it wasn’t just filler. The things added really helped to flesh out the story and characters, but it also made me feel a little apprehensive about reading the book without the narration because I felt that I may miss some great passages because the audiobook differed slightly from the book.