What is Epic Fantasy?

“26 authors—13 women and 13 men—as well as an editor and a literary agent”, including the likes of David Anthony Durham, Steven Erikson, Patrick Rothfuss and Brandon Sanderson, attempt to answer the questions posed by Clarkesworld Magazine: What is at the heart of Epic Fantasy? and Why do you write Epic fantasy? From Durham’s answer to the second question, this bit, which also explains why his work, despite its massive, massive flaws, is still so attractive

I love the unlimited creative possibilities of fantasy. I’d written three historical novels before starting the Acacia series. The third, Pride of Carthage, was about Hannibal’s war with Rome. It was a massive conflict with amazing events and twists of fortune and inspired leadership. It was epic. Leaving that novel, I wanted another epic. The world building I’d done for the ancient world got me craving writing in an imagined world where I had more freedom to mash things together that were never mashed together in actual human history. How could I write a novel that mixed opium addiction with the Atlantic slave trade in a pre-industrial world that includes Nordic, African, European and Asian inspired cultures in the same empire, and introduce a foreign invasion that endangers them all, despite their differences? If I was writing straight history that wouldn’t be possible. A lot of historical writers would probably never want to do something like that. I did, though. Fantasy was the obvious choice of genre that would allow me to recast all those things in one big package.

David Anthony Durham: Acacia

Durham, David Anthony (2008), Acacia: The War with the Mein, Anchor
ISBN 978-0-385-72252-0

David Anthony Durham is one of a flood of new fantasy novelists, one of those who, like Brandon Sanderson, Patrick Rothfuss or Scott Lynch, has been able to command a great deal of attention. Praise for Durham and his fellow fantasy rookies often revolves around the changes they made to the familiar fantasy formula. It is indicative of the low expectations in the genre that a divergence from a tired old formula is not what is expected of all decent writing, but is seen as a hallmark of excellence. This does not, of course, diminish the quality of Rothfuss’ or Sanderson’s books (cf. my review of Rothfuss’ book here, and of a Sanderson novel here),where the departure from fantasy stereotype is a sign of larger visions and ideas than lesser writers like Jordan can boast of, as well as of a more complete understanding of what use the underpinnings of the fantasy genre really are. Changing the formula, in their case, is part and parcel of a more intelligent or more aware kind of writing. In this context, Durham is an odd writer. On the one hand, in Acacia: The War with the Mein, the first installment of the Acacia trilogy, Durham conjures up a ravishing world, one that is very different from the usual fantasy worlds in many ways and that displays the awareness of a writer who has, so far, primarily written historical novels dealing with North Africa. Fantasy novelists’ worlds are too often infused with one of two sets of imagery: either a middle European medieval scenario, or, often used by way of contrast, a world based on a vaguely East Asian image. In my reading experience, the varieties of African cultures have been severely underrepresented. Durham’s world is convincing in the way that it offers a multitude of non-European images and cultures, without losing the feudal, medieval charm of mainstream fantasy.

In fact, this is what makes this book such a curious experience. The setting, and the thoroughness of his use of setting (including discussions of skin color, race, and non-European concepts of magic) clashes with the gentle acceptance of almost every other aspect. This book is as harshly androcentric and vaguely misogynistic as Jordan’s multi-volume epic of tediousness is, and Durham’s take on feudalism and courtly intrigue, as well as his take on warfare and the individuals in it, are similarly unreflected and simplistic. Durham’s heroes are of royal blood, and he treats them like Gods, in the sense that the welfare of the people of his populous country is entirely up to them and their moods and their virtues or flaws. A general’s mistake leads to millions killed, a king’s cowardliness leads to their enslavement. The contrast to even as generic a book as Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy is stunning. Sanderson combines popular uprisings with courtly intrigue, he roots his magic in the earth of his world, connecting nobles and the poor through magic as a common element. Durham’s magic is written magic, the magic of the word, and by hiding a book away one can restrict access to magic and eventually remove magic from the world. The world of Acacia: The War with the Mein is extremely hierarchical, and there’s no signs of change and no real criticism of that fact (what’s debated are merely different varieties of feudalistic hierarchies). Instead, he endows two royal families with attributes (bravery, jealousy, faith etc.) that will determine the fate of the people of Acacia. There is something extremely unpleasant about this, an unpleasantness that is exacerbated by the fact that hierarchies include those of gender. Not in the sense that the society is misogynistic, as the broadly medieval setting would well explain this.

No, in creating his protagonists, Durham has recourse to archaic stereotypes, which makes for extremely accessible reading. There is the brave, bold and innocent hero, there is the scheming, mean anti-hero, and so forth. Needless to say, the brave warriors are all men, except for one woman, whom we are introduced to as a kind of Joan of Arc, a warrior-priestess, a permissible mode. The scheming, sneaky good guy-turned-bad is a woman, of course, who, as the book proceeds, turns from whore to assassin and scheming queen. Additionally, Durham cannot muster enough interest in his world to explore it to any degree of thoroughness. All descriptions, all the elements feel superficial, random, cursory. The plot as well, based as it is on various heroic and gender stereotypes, seems to run on automatisms. The changes that George R.R. Martin brought to the table, the way that Martin’s heroes die left and right, and not in glorious duels, but in ignominious arrow hails, the way Martin thought about the inner workings of feudalism, his deep commitment to heraldry and other geeky subsets of writing about a medieval world, none of that appears to have brushed Durham’s mind when he conceived his books. Durham writes in a way that is easy on the mind and heart, a fantasy that is comfortable because there are no surprises, nothing to jolt or excite the mind. Reading Durham is fun, but only for fantasy loyalists. I happen to have a sweet tooth for this brand of writing, and if you have similar predilections, you will have a great deal of fun. Durham’s world is sumptuous, his story is epic, and filled with magic and mystery. If you want more from your fantasy (or literature in general), you should give Durham a pass. Unlike Rothfuss, Martin, or even Sanderson, this is not for outsiders. This is fantasy for fantasy/romance fans. As such, it works well, and I highly recommend it for these purposes. It is an engaging, escapist read of war, intrigue and love in a warm climate.

What it’s not, is well written. Granted, great writing is rare in fantasy, even good writers like Rothfuss are not stellar stylists. But for whatever reason, Durham under-performs, even given the poor expectations of the genre he chose. The main problem is that he decided to at least partially imitate a high, elegant, epic register in his writing. Especially the first third of the book, while the reader is trying to get used to the language, Durham’s poor imitation of Renaissance English grates. Inversions, awkward rhythms and courtly circuitousness are but a few of the stylistic jinks employed by Durham to make the language of his book sound as epic as the story it helps tell. It’s hard to tell whether this annoying attribute is due to his past writing of historical novels, or whether it is an attempt to achieve what Martin and Tolkien did with their use of language. It’s likely he didn’t read Martin or didn’t read him well, because I always admired the way Martin constructed a sturdy yet old-sounding language that contained just the right amount of anachronisms to fit the setting; yet his language was always simple and strong enough not to seem more literary than it needed to. What Martin recognized, and Durham should have done, as well, is that Tolkien’s example is a tough act to follow. The readability of Tolkien’s work and the immediacy of his story hide the literary complexity of his writing. Like him or not, Tolkien was no mean writer and fantasy novelists who want to copy the effect without having the literary acumen to back it up, are bound to fail. And if, as in Durham’s novel, the result is primarily annoying and distracting, it’s arguably worse than if the writing were just simply bad and pulpy (insert random Lovecraft comment here).

However, the mediocre writing is symptomatic of a larger malaise in Durham’s book. Durham is a stylist, not in the sense of a writer with a good or remarkable style, but in the sense that he is heavily invested in style, not just (or even primarily) literary style. The interiors and landscapes of the book are polished, gleaming, well, stylish. One feels, as a reader, that this, his first experiment at constructing a world, has led him astray. I would not be surprised to learn that he had watercolors of the landscapes and cities made to flesh out his vision. Acacia is not an actual country and nothing in the way that the book is told suggests to us that it might be one, there is no sense that this may be a conflicting, opposing or in any way relevant reality. Durham has created his world as an object, as a location wherein to put elegant furniture and epic heroes. There is a chapter where he appears to try and slip out of this view of the world, by introducing a drug-addled ex-soldier, getting by on the streets of a country ravaged by war and a devastating plague, yet that chapter sticks out like a sore thumb (and it doesn’t work). It’s a testament to Durham’s qualities as a storyteller that the book as a whole nevertheless does work as a piece of escapist literature. But the distanced, artificial world Durham builds has severe consequences for other aspects of his novel. Durham is a smarter writer than the book shows him to be, and we as readers can see how he, time and again, attempts to inject interesting ideas into his story, social concerns, even allusions to contemporary politics, but the clean, non-stick surface of the book precludes any success in this endeavor. One hopes that the second and third volume blow the world of the book open enough for the ideas to take some hold in the flesh of the world and the book, instead of staying surface phenomena.

The story itself focuses on an invasion of the barbarians. Yes, that is a very common motif, but while other writers tease their readers with the imminent threat and start with skirmishes, Durham wastes no time in confronting the ruling people of the Known World, the Acacians, with the brutal invaders from the north, the Mein. Hanish Mein, the leader of the barbarians, soon proves himself to be a crafty and courageous enemy, smashing the Acacian army to bits and taking over the Known World. Durham is not interested in the things that happen to ordinary people and the minutiae of warfare is also of lesser interest to him. Instead he focuses on a few climactic events and then just briefly summarizes what happened. People die, the bad guys win, end of story. But while he is not interested in ordinary people, he lionizes epic heroic characters and who could be more heroic than a king and his brood. In fact, the whole book is narrated with a focus on the four children of the Acacian king. The king, killed in the brief war (dare I say Blitzkrieg?), has left instructions to send his four children, two girls and two boys, to the four corners of the Known World, to provide them with save havens and the opportunity to learn something about the land that their family has ruled for such a long time. That “Known World” is basically one long continent which contains all manner of vegetation and all kinds of peoples. A few scattered islands near the coast complete the Known World. It is contrasted by the Other Lands, an unknown country or continent beyond the sea. The king and his dynasty has been involved in shadowy dealings with the Other Land for generations, although they never dealt with them directly. Instead, they chose to trust the League, a group of merchants who watch over the commerce between the two continents. That much is not shadowy, but the goods that are dealt in are.

The Acacians buy a drug called “Mist” from the Other Land, and in return they pay with children. I’m not kidding. This is a country that knows not only enforced child labor in mines, but that also pays with children to acquire drugs. Drugs, moreover, that are not used to pleasure the decadent ruling class, but to keep the populace quiet and peaceful. Mist is literally an opiate for the people. The Acacian rule does not need religion, in fact, one of the most important kings of the dynasty, a consummate magician, has banned all magic from the kingdom, leaving him the only powerful magician in the realm. Subsequently, all knowledge of magic and the associated religion, was purged from the world. The fact that this family, who traffic in children, drug their populace and crack down on unwanted knowledge, that these are the good guys of the story, that was a brilliant idea, and one that deserved a better payoff. The bad guys, the barbarians from the North, were sent there by the same evil magician/king who purged his world from magic. Given the historical cruelty inflicted upon them, their return could seem morally justified, but in Durham’s book, they stay bad guys all the way through. And this is the problem. Durham had a brilliant idea but his decision to keep things simple and palatable, he is unable to divest himself of simple oppositions, and so he compartmentalizes, by killing every member of the dynasty except the children before the book begins, allowing him to use them as positive, innocent heroes, with royal (read: heroic) blood, but no evil past. The good children, the scheming woman, and the bad (but not really evil) barbarians, this reminded me a lot of the Song of the Nibelungs. Especially towards the end of Acacia: The War with the Mein, as power shifts, the book carried strong associations to the classic text.

But this association also makes one of his strengths visible. Because the landscape and the cultures of his book are so original, and diverge so much from the usual fantasy fare, his barbarians are fascinating creatures. Many fantasy books feature attacks from the north, but Durham is adamant that races exist, if they do, because people migrate somewhere, races evolve, and they can adapt. The Otherness, encoded in the Song of the Nibelungs through the Huns, is displaced here, and relocated. The Barbarians are not Other, they are victims, and fundamentally similar to the Acacians. However, the unknown and unseen population of the Other Lands is quite literally ‘other’. However rough he treats other details, he is very careful with that place. Even calling one continent “Known World” is enough to make any reader think of European explorations other countries and the imperialism it led to. The regime of Acacia is already far more evil than any monarchy in Europe was when explorers uncovered the unknown, and subjugated peoples on all continents. Yet in Durham’s world, we are led to believe that the Others are more rich, more powerful and far more dangerous than Acacians can imagine. Since Acacian culture appears to be a version of various African cultures, this turns the table on obvious assumptions as who ‘we’ are and who ‘the Others’. Most contemporary fantasy works with invaders who seem stronger, but aren’t really, who are mostly strange. With these books he shares a tendency to portray the Others as vaguely menacing, but the cultural parameters are different. This is part of what makes reading the book such fun.

I repeat: this was a very enjoyable reading experience. It has obvious flaws that might make reading the book for people who are not either fans of epic fantasy or fans of romance a less joyful event. But for me, the 750-something pages just flew by. Durham is a marvelous storyteller, not a smart or thorough one, but still an excellent craftsman. The suspense is built perfectly, as we move from one event to the next, his heroes are positioned perfectly. I said he relies heavily on typical elements. that’s true, but on the other hand, he has utterly mastered them. Acacia: The War with the Mein is not a good book, but I had so much fun reading it, that I cannot but recommend it.