Book jackets and blurbs tend to make all Fantasy epics look and sound much the same. On the cover there will be a castle or city, a clash of warriors and perhaps a scantily clad heroine, while the blurb is likely to mention fallen empires and desperate quests, rightful rulers and wars against evil. So, how do you tell the classic from the clichéd? If you yearn for a Fantasy epic of  grandeur and imagination which also challenges the rules of the genre,  the Acacia Trilogy by David Anthony Durham may be what you’ve been searching for. So this week I’m recommending Book One of this prize-winning trilogy.  In some editions Book One is just  called `Acacia’ and in others `Acacia : The War with the Mein’. You can get it in paperback or as an ebook. Try not to confuse the Acacia Trilogy with the Acacia City Chronicle Trilogy by Ray Santos, since the latter is about vampires in San Francisco.

Durham’s `Acacia’ is set in a world which believes that it has been abandoned by its creator, the Giver. For centuries most of the Known World has been ruled by the Akaran family from the idyllic island of Acacia. The current king, Leodan, is a widower with four much loved children – Princes Aliver and Dariel, and Princesses Corinn and Mena. Gentle Leodan has raised his children to revere the founders of their dynasty and to believe that the benevolent rule of the Akarans brings peace and security to all the diverse peoples of the Empire. There is a great deal that he hasn’t told them. The prosperity of the Akaran family is based on ruthless exploitation of conscripted labourers and on an infamous agreement with traders known as the League of Vessels to send an annual quota of children to the Other Lands in exchange for a powerful drug called Mist.

Mist keeps millions of  addicts in subjection but rebellion is stirring. It is led by the Mein, a people long ago defeated and banished to the frozen north. Hanish, the young leader of the Mein, plots against the Akarans, making allies of the Numrek, a brutal alien race, and even persuading Leodan’s chancellor and friend, Thaddeus Clegg, to betray his king. When Hanish launches a multi-pronged attack, the Akaran Empire crumbles. Leodan is doomed but Thaddeus tries to save the royal children by secretly sending each of them to a different part of the empire to be brought up as future saviours of Acacia. The plan quickly goes wrong.  Only Crown Prince Aliver gets to where he was meant  to go. Mena and Dariel are lost and Corinn is captured by the Mein. As years pass, King Hanish grows increasingly fond of his beautiful prisoner Corinn but he has a dark plan to lift an Akaran curse on his ancestors which he must keep hidden from her. Meanwhile, Aliver learns that his task is to seek out an ancient race of sorcerers known as the Santoth. Can the four royal siblings ever be reunited to defeat the Mein, and will it be a good thing for the Known World if they are?

If you enjoy watching or reading `Game of Thrones’, you’ll find that `Acacia’ has a similar mix of conflict and carnage plus an intelligent analysis of the compromises, cruelties and corruptions that go with power. Durham began his career writing well-researched historical novels, including one about the war between ancient Rome and Carthage. That experience must  have helped him to create the very convincing battle scenes in `Acacia’, as well as a whole range of cultures within the Akaran Empire. Durham is an author with a deep understanding of the politics and economics of empires. Fantasy fiction is full of dazzlingly rich cities and palaces and imperial families dripping in jewels but rarely explains how it is all paid for. `Acacia’ does ask this question and comes up with some very uncomfortable answers. That in itself makes this serious-minded trilogy stand out from the crowd. There are plenty of historical parallels for elite groups, comparable to the Akarans and the League, deriving their wealth from slave or drug trading and being indifferent to the sufferings of their workforces. `Acacia’ questions the belief that rulers who impose order and peace are always a good thing but also demonstrates that the price of freedom and independence may be very high.

Durham doesn’t write the most elegant prose and he’s not great at coining names but he is an excellent storyteller.  `Acacia’ isn’t the story of one person, or even of one family, but of a whole world. It involves a range of ethnically diverse characters struggling for power and justice, so Durham uses points of view from both sides of the conflict to tell the story. None of the characters are outstandingly original but they all have believable feelings, motives and ambitions. This, and the nature of the plot, makes it hard for the reader to know whom to side with. Lost heirs to the throne are Fantasy favourites but these princes and princesses don’t seem to be fighting in a good cause. After the darker aspects of Akaran rule are revealed, Hanish of the Mein seems the obvious candidate for hero, but he uses indiscriminate weapons and is planning to unleash a supernatural horror on the Known World.  My own favourite viewpoint character in Book One is Chancellor Thaddeus because he embodies the ambiguities of the story.  He betrays King Leodan, who is little more than a figurehead,  because of a crime committed by Leodan’s father. Thaddeus knows that Akaran rule is unjust but he can’t bring himself to kill the innocent royal children he has loved as if they were his own. As someone points out, will these children be as innocent once they grow up? One of them is destined to surpass Thaddeus’ hopes; another will murder him.

`Acacia: The War with the Mein’ is that rare thing, a first volume which is a satisfying story in its own right but leaves you eager to read the rest of the series.  After a tremendous battle and an unleashing of magical forces which will have long-term consequences, the novel ends with a surprising person coming to power. There are plenty of unexpected but plausible plot twists in this series and Durham is particularly good at planting hooks – those teasing questions which keep the reader turning the pages. Above all, he makes you want to know the fate of the unfortunate children carried across the Gray Slopes in the sinister League ships. To find out how extraordinary that fate is, you’ll have to follow the story into Book Two – `Other Lands’, which has more magic, more monsters and several startling new plotlines. I hope you enjoy the journey. Until next time…