Things have changed since Tolkien's time. In the aftermath of what the good professor wrought, many budding fantasists emerged to tell tales of simple bravery and the triumph of good over evil by decent people who knew better than to suffer under the rule of a dark overlord. Some, like Terry Brooks, mirrored Tolkien's approach to this sort of epic so completely they were accused of being rip-off artists.
But epics of speculative fiction have seen a slow shift away from tales dominated by heroic struggle, toward narratives and characters that seem more identifiable with present-day politics. This may have started in 1965 with Dune; Frank Herbert may not have been an epic fantasist, but his world of Bene Gesserits and conniving Harkonen royalty is certainly a work with far-reaching influences in any of the genres of the fantastic (Aes Sedai, anyone? Aiel? Emperor Jangang?). Certainly Tolkien has a strong moral, ecological, and therefore political message, but like the subtle master he was, he camouflaged this message with Ents and elves, fooling you into thinking you were reading a simple story of high enchantment and Good vs. Evil. He never, for instance, wrote George R.R. Martin-esque scenes where Eomer thinks of screwing Theodan over for control of Rohan, or a chapter where Sauron ponders (a la one of Robert Jordan's Forsaken) which of the Nazgul he's really going to make his right-hand disembodied spirit when the world of men comes a-tumblin' down. These days, fantasy authors like Martin or Raymond E. Feist are far more likely to get inside Sauron's head to see how he dishes out punishment and reward to his cronies—and then follow the cronies as they squabble amongst themselves, wreaking havoc on the hearts, minds, and private property of the innocent populace.
Why this fascination with the more Machiavellian side of politics has come to the foreground of epic fantasy is really anyone's guess. Does it stem from the death of '60s idealism, the authors of epics those same flower children who were there when America awoke from Nixonian rule and realized that our government wasn't acting in our best interest? Does our willingness to soak up sprawling yarns of double-dealing political intrigue somehow relate to an increasing demand for political transparency? As the media brings us live coverage of senators stocking their freezers with bundles of cash, does our fascination with corruption result in a love of tales about crazed kings and decadent emperors? Has fantasy always been Tolkien's despised allegory, pointing out societal flaws and political discomfort under the guise of simple entertainment (a notion even he has obviously failed to escape)? Or, after four years of an increasingly unpopular war, are we just superaware of the political aspects of art? Whatever the case, anyone who reads epic fantasy knows that it has become a form of storytelling where politics, more than old-fashioned heroics, generate the central conflict—whether we are dealing with the psychologically unbalanced rulers of Martin's Westeros or the thinly veiled soapbox banality of Terry Goodkind's later novels. Whilst reviewing Patrick Rothfuss's new novel The Name of the Wind, I was relieved to find most of the grandstanding by kings and nobility replaced by a more subtle class conflict and some good old Errol Flynn-style adventuring. I'm a huge George R.R. Martin fan, but when one sees the SF section of Barnes and Noble stuffed to the gills with politically driven fantasies, you can't help but feel frustrated. Why dole out your money for tales of fictional worlds when things there are just as bad?
One reason, I suppose, is that you would then miss out on novels like David Anthony Durham's tour de force, Acacia, a deeply political vision of the fantastic that exposes the humanity at the heart of every ruthless machination. Durham, a historical fiction writer, uses the same meticulous approach to detail here as he did in his acclaimed historical epic Pride of Carthage (2005). Through a vivid depiction of ethnically diverse cultures, breathless warfare, and a deep understanding of that old adage—"Those who cannot learn from the past are doomed to repeat it"—he creates not only a philosophical epic for the thinking fan but also a masterpiece of character and realism that even a theory-clutching Joyce scholar could appreciate. Acacia isn't just a vastly entertaining epic. With its symbolism, pathos, and penetrating examination of political motives, it's downright literary.
Acacia, the country named in the book's title, is an empire built on a lie. Prosperous and peaceful, it is in fact run on the profits of a brutal slave trade: a "Quota" of children given each year to the Lothan Aklun, a shadowy and, it is rumored, far more powerful government beyond the boundaries of the Known World. In return for a no-questions-asked shipment of slaves, the Lothan Aklun supply the Acacian monarchy with a powerful drug called "mist," which sufficiently distracts the poorer citizens, from whom the Quota is taken, from attempting rebellion. The idealistic King, Leodan Akaran, once had plans to stop the Quota, but after a millennium of Acacian rulers using such methods to secure the empire's continued domination, he finds himself a lone rebel in a sea of complicity. He becomes a mist addict himself, numbing the pain of his moral dilemma and the death of his beautiful wife through the intoxicating effect of the drug. He now lives to see to the comfort of his children: sons Aliver and Dariel and daughters Corrin and Mena, whose happiness, however achieved, is his one consolation.
This war between idealism and ill-gotten prosperity forms the heart of Acacia. Every character, whether notionally "good" or "evil," must struggle between what they see as morally right and the betterment of their people as a whole. In Durham's world, as in reality, the two are rarely one and the same. What Durham might think of allegory, I do not know, but he could just as easily have called his book America.
Out in the cold and less prosperous arm of the kingdom, the Viking-like Mein, led by a charismatic warrior, Hanish, decide the time has come to redeem the insults they have suffered at Acacian hands—Quota-related and otherwise. Driven from the sunnier climes of Acacia years before and constantly reminded of their second-class citizenship, they assassinate King Leodan and take over the kingdom. Leodan's children are separated to the four corners of the globe, there to be formed into adults who will either grow to avenge their father's death and restore their kingdom or, as so many Acacians have done before them, let the world remain intact, exactly as it has been.
Whether to maintain the status quo or force a change is a predicament all Durham's characters seem to share—yet how each one resolves it provides heart-pounding drama. The increasingly fascinating "dark overlord," Hanish Mein himself, a character with no qualms about physically paralyzing whole armies of enemy troops with his special brand of germ warfare before sending his own men in for an easy kill, must try and justify his totalitarian actions to his own soul—a feat not helped when he falls in love with Princess Corrin. He claims moral superiority over the Acacian race for enslaving his people, but once in power, keeps the world, and its sinister Quota, much as it was. Is there really a difference between how one man of power runs the world compared to another? The teasing ambiguity between the rule of the Mein and the rule of the Acacians sets the two on equal footing, daring the reader to take a side. Characters who hate one another realize they are essentially the same person, characters with blood vengeance sympathize with the actions of their enemies. And in the meantime, the dazzling battles that ensue as the cast of heroes, priestesses, warrior maids, and penitent traitors discover their respective purpose and moral stance fill the reader with awe at Durham's technical prowess.
There is no doubt Durham is an astute historian of ancient warfare. Barbarian hordes attack using gigantic rhinoceroslike creatures (a sequence in which naked warriors face off with swinelike monstrosities called "antoks" serves as the centerpiece for the deciding battle); sweat, dirt, and blood saturate the senses. Durham's uncompromising vision of warfare includes trampling, cannibalism, martial arts, flaming catapults, ferocious ritualized duels, and plenty of spilled viscera. Yet one never doubts that his meticulous descriptions of combat stance (like Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time, Acacia has a cogently thought-out method of sword fighting "forms") or catapult mechanics stem from hours of research (and hey! How 'bout that germ warfare!). This sort of realism can be truly terrifying in its implications. Have we really come any farther than the hordes? Scenes in which the heroic prince Aliver Akaran views his battlefield suggest not:
The Prince's gaze fell on a woman just a few strides away from him. She sat upright in a strange, broke-back position. Her body had been smashed at her pelvis and pressed down into the ground. Tears rimmed her eyes and her lips moved, saying something he could not hear. Her arms tried to make sense of things, the lay of the land and her position in relation to it. The flat of her hands swept across the ground as if smoothing wrinkles from a sheet. He had seen injuries in the previous days' fighting, but the complete, pathetic frailty betrayed in her smashed form gripped him. (p. 505)
Whether or not this is a conscious reference to the footage CNN brings us every day from Baghdad, I won't venture to say. But great literature touches upon the themes and dilemmas of its day, and Durham, with passages like this, so above and beyond the prose we are used to in fantasy, even from visionaries like Martin, is certainly a literary find. His vision of a broken female soldier cannot be read without noting the similarity to scenes in our own world. His tone is undeniably high, but also filled with an underlying tenderness and humanity. Children of a world that has lost its moral center, his characters have some bloody work to do, and this is the price.
Acacia is filled with memorable characters. Though the story is driven by the struggles of powerful men, it is in his women that Durham's message of "Power at what cost?" comes through with the most chilling impact. The most obvious standout is Mena Akaran, whose transformation from child to warrior is the most convincing "sword girl protégé" sequence I have ever read (apologies to Arya Stark). Like Martin, Durham sets his cards—three-dimensional character, believable warrior culture, realistic prose—up right. Yet something about the urgency of the story—armies massing on the horizon, assassins on the prowl—allows him more success than Martin, whose Arya chooses the sword in peacetime when she has yet to be burdened with fighting for an entire kingdom—or her own life. That Arya is also only eight years old at the time of her initiation to warriorhood requires the reader to suspend a certain amount of disbelief, especially when she slays, however accidentally, men who outweigh her by hundreds of pounds. By the time Mena starts slicing and dicing her way to victory no suspension of disbelief is necessary. Durham has already established that women fight in armies alongside men—another advantage over Arya, whose Westeros includes only one other notable swordswoman—and by this point in the novel we know Mena and her capabilities well enough to find her conversion utterly real. One finds oneself looking forward to her next exploit.
Mena's sister, the beauteous Corrin, who begins the novel as someone you suspect of being separated from Martin's prissy Sansa Stark at birth, undergoes the most fascinating metamorphosis of any of the characters, ultimately needing no sword to own her power or instill fear in the hearts of the wicked and innocent alike. In the evolution of Corrin from innocent romantic to big-time political player, we see how all her actions, whether they lead to ruin or solace, stem from her burning desire to be loved—by a father, a lover, or even herself.
Not everything she, or any of the other characters, decides to do is right, or even sane, but it is always human. In Durham, even sociopathic characters like Hanish's warmongering brother, Meander Mein, root their political ambitions in the desires of the heart. A love of one's people leads to the slaughter of another race. Loneliness results in aligning oneself with the enemy. And self-love betrays the narcissist again and again, even as it nets him eternal glory. At book's end, with characters you were rooting for dead and a new generation set to redeem or annihilate the Known World through their separate ambitions, you can only throw up your hands and thank God there are two more volumes still to come in this story of political fury and intrigue. Because as many twists as Durham has taken you on, you still get the sense that he's barely begun to get to the heart of his mythic vision—or the true soul of his characters. Will good win out over evil? In Durham's morally ambiguous world, the uncertainty is part of the thrill.
Hannah Strom-Martin currently lives and writes in California and is pursuing her MFA in popular fiction through the Stonecoast MFA program at the University of Southern Maine. Her fiction has appeared in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine and the anthology Amazons: Sexy Tales of Strong Women. Her pop culture writing appears regularly in the North Bay Bohemian. She is a graduate of the Odyssey Fantasy Writers Workshop.