Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood

April 13, 2011

David Anthony Durham – The Other Lands

Filed under: sf — Tags: , , , , , — Sam @ 5:40 pm

This is book 2 of his Acacia trilogy—you can read my review of the first book here. It has several good points, so I’ll save those for last.

What I didn’t like—at all—is Durham’s writing style. It reads as though he’s attempting some nihilist theory of anti-narrative, deliberately flattening the emotional peaks and lending spurious bathos to the troughs. He consistently has his characters reveal important, plot-wrecking events in the past tense (“Last week I carried out my master plan, and now you’re not in the plotline you thought you were”) and doesn’t let us feel main characters’ reactions, instead telling us about their facial expressions.

His word choice is odd enough (there is no real reason to use the word “protuberance” unless you’re writing comedy pornography) but he seems to feel an over-eager need to tell us everything.

She made each assignment sound both simple and laced with threat. She was good at that. He would have to keep his wits about him, make journal notes regularly, and find a way to quell the nausea that roiled in him each time he thought of those ocean waves.

The end result somehow manages to be simultaneously lumpy and soggy, like a feather quilt caught in a thunderstorm.

I did say that it had good points, and they’re very good. As in the first book, there’s plenty of racial and cultural diversity, and (as far as I can tell) basically no white people. Given the wholesale erasure and exoticization of nonwhite people in nearly all fantasy, that’s a really good thing. There are women in positions of power, and he’s rowing back on the royal Mary Sue factor that the first book suffered from—one is clearly suffering the corruption of power, and another demonstrating that she’s a warrior not a general. All of the character-development arcs here are extremely dark and nihilistic; the only way to avoid corruption and loss of idealism, it seems, is to die young.

Another good point is that Durham understands and uses rural ecological economics—

Gone were the tiny kive fish, such an important source of protein fried or dried or ground into paste. Gone were the waterfowl that hunted them. Fading was the Halaly vigour—which had been so based on their reliable food sources—and dwindling were the tribute and trade that had made them the beating heart of the continent. If all that wasn’t bad enough, the air swarmed with the mosquitos and biting flies that now gestated in the lake untroubled by the kive fish that had once thrived on their eggs;one of these spread disease, while the other left welts on the skin that easily grew infected.

Strange and offputting were the backwards High Fantasy sentences, however. Needed was a better editor, and no less so for a particularly comedic homonym: when talking about royalty, “secession” really doesn’t mean the same thing as “succession”.

To be fair, Durham does well with descriptive passages where he isn’t required to choose a focus or write dialogue;the landscape porn in the first book was quite spectacular, and there are some passages here—including a literally epic sea crossing—that match it nicely.

Overall, I’d recommend it only to serious series-fantasy fans, and then only if you read & enjoyed Book 1, and only if you have a high tolerance for bad writing.

June 2, 2009

Acacia, pt III

Filed under: review — Tags: , , — Sam @ 10:07 am

Now I’ve finished it, I can give a proper verdict. It’s still worth reading, and I’ll want to read the next one – though I may go to the library for it, at least.

Unusually for series fantasy, we get a decent amount of plot closure – it’s very much “come back for another story” rather than “come back to see how it carries on”.

He’s got the bones of a very good story indeed there, and some really, really good imagery. If only we could crossbreed him with David Eddings…

Part 1 (start here)
Part 2

June 1, 2009

Acacia pt II

Filed under: review — Tags: , , — Sam @ 12:51 pm

OK, Durham’s got further to go than I thought before he’s a good writer. You can’t set up a tense political situation, where the only apparent options are failure and moral cowardice, and then find a third way to resolve it… in a catchup narrative.

And maybe one day he’ll stop writing royal Mary Sues, but I won’t hold my breath.

Part 1 (start here)
Part 3


Filed under: review — Tags: , , , , , — Sam @ 6:03 am

I’ve started reading David Anthony Durham’s Acacia Part 1: The War with the Mein. Will probably finish it today, but I wanted to post some preliminary thoughts first.

Let me get one thing out of the way first – it’s pretty good. I’d recommend it to all fans of secondary world fantasy series about kings and wars. Which sounds lukewarm, but then they’re generally not my cup of tea overall.

I probably wouldn’t have bothered reading this if it hadn’t been for the post-RaceFail emphasis on recommending BME SF & fantasy authors, but that would’ve been my loss, really. It’s good on the race issues, with actual diversity, sensibly placed skin colours, an explicit statement that they’re all the same people (none of this mucking around with pointy ears or green skin), and both some racial tensions and some resolutions to them. Of course, the cover’s still got a vaguely Celtic white chick in a red dress on it (along with a bunch of LARPers) but you can’t have everything.

It’s got a map in the front, which would be a strike against it if it didn’t already have a title including “Part 1″, the word “War”, and the name of a fantasy race, which renders the map somewhat redundant as a signifier. And yes, we will be visiting everything on it.

The character names are a bit odd in places – King Leodan Akaran, for instance. Which would be fine, if his Chancellor (“born within a few months, and from a family nearly as royal”) wasn’t named Thaddeus Clegg.

Right from the get-go, it’s like being beaten about the head with the infodump stick. We keep getting pages of stuff about history or character background, then someone notices they’ve drifted off into reverie. It’s like he’s heard of “show, don’t tell” and decided that meant “tell them then tell them it’s what a viewpoint character is thinking”. Omniscient narrator is pretending to be invisible.

The narration is – I won’t say dull and lifeless, because it’s not in the slightest, but it’s rather distant, as though he’s putting a glass pane between us and everything. That’s not helped by the way he keeps introducing us to interesting people, building them up for a large role, then zooming out and telling us how they died.

I suspect he’s still finding his pace as a writer, working out what to show us & how, but he’s got a lot of good stuff going for him – there are some unforgettable images in there, and he cares about material culture (what people wear, how they live, how they build) which is always a plus for me.

The plot follows the classic “does what it says on the back of the book, then some more stuff” arc – rebels attack Empire, Empire falls, heirs go into hiding, the counter-rebellion starts up. Nothing the slightest bit unexpected, but he carries it off.

Part 2
Part 3

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