The Big Idea: David Anthony Durham

David Anthony Durham is one of my favorite new fantasy writers, and I’m not alone in having this opinion; Durham this year found himself in possession of the Campbell Award for Best New Writer, taking the tiara from an exceptionally competitive field. Durham nabbed that award on the strength of his acclaimed debut fantasy novel Acacia: The War With the Mein, and this week expands on that world with the long-anticipated sequel, The Other Lands.

As Durham expands this world for his readers, he’s also doing something else — building his confidence in building that world. What does this mean, exactly? Durham explains below.


Where to begin? At the beginning, I think. So…

The big idea in Acacia: The War With The Mein was that I wanted to explore the intersection of personal responsibility and inherited national history. What do you do (young prince or princess that you are) when you discover that the benevolent empire you’ve been raised to take pride in isn’t… ah… benevolent? When you discover that in many ways, and for many people, YOU are the bad guy, the evildoer, the Evil Empire? How do you face the fact that dad never told you some really important stuff about the family history before he kicked the bucket – like that for hundreds of years the family “business” has centered around a global trade in enslaved children and drugs?

The Other Lands is built on the same history, but it takes things a step further. So now you know about the family business, and about how hard it is to get out of it without bringing the entire empire crashing down around you. Fine. You tried. Let’s call it a mixed success. But there are some things you don’t yet know. For instance, you don’t know what happens to those enslaved children when they reach that distant land. A third party has handled all the details of the exchange, a commercial interest that profits from it while conveniently keeping the unpleasant specifics to themselves.

So what (young prince or princess) happens when you finally voyage to that other continent, meet your previously unknown trading partners and come face to face with the adults those child slaves have become? How do you explain yourself to them? How do they challenge your loyalty to your people or your vision of yourself? Do you accept responsibility for the crimes that led to your prosperity, or do you throw up your hands and claim it wasn’t your fault? Or… do you grasp the opportunity to make the best of a horrible situation?

These are some of the thematic questions facing my main characters this time around. The way I tell the story has a lot to do with sea journeys and quests, political treachery and sorcery and mutated monstrosities… Oh, that puts me in mind of a secondary “Big Idea” area – a writing process one.

For me as a writer this series is a chronicle of my transitioning from a “realistic” to a “fantastic” author. I didn’t arrive in Acacia: The War With The Mein fully formed, and I’m not done morphing yet. Folks that read the first book will have found, I hope, an imagined secondary world that’s relatively low on magic, beasts and some of those other obvious components of classic fantasy. That’s because I entered publishing as a writer of literary and historical fiction. I’d been itching to try fantasy for a while, but even as I began to develop Acacia many of my real world impulses were still in place. So one of my early ideas was that the series would become more and more fantastically set as it progressed.

In the first book I worked in the new (to me) genre elements gradually, building the details of the world with an eye toward historical credibility, introducing individuals that blundered through the challenges thrown at them as imperfect people, and developing a logic to the magic system that only slowly brought it to the center of the story.

That’s still true in many ways with The Other Lands, but I also took great joy in loosening up and creating monsters and horrific beasts this time around. I turned to my characters to help me through the tough spots, the scenes or ideas I didn’t know quite how to get to by myself. Thank the gods for characters! With them, I got to set my eyes on sea wolves, kwedeirs, freketes and various Foulthings. Doing it with them – and doing it safely in the pages of a book – is rather a nice way to go about it.

I’m hoping that they’ll be my guides in to the third book in the series also. If things go as I have them planned, by the end of the series my nearly-realistic secondary world will be rife with the weird and wild and magical. In a way, the series isn’t just about writing in a fantastical world; it’s about watching its creation.


The Other Lands: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s

Read an excerpt of The Other Lands (pdf link). Visit Durham’s blog.

25 Comments on “The Big Idea: David Anthony Durham”

  1. Sigh. Clearly, this is another instance or Scalzi’s general evilness, that he dangles these works before us, taunting us with our lack of funds. Can anyone suggest an appropriate bank to rob?

    Luckily, Acacia seems to be available through inter-library loan.

  2. I am really looking forward to this. I’d never heard of Durham or this series before the Hugo packet arrived, and very much enjoyed it.

  3. David, along with Joe Abercrombie, K. J. Parker, and Daniel Abraham, is one of _the_ finest of the new crop of fantasists. Acacia was excellent, and I expect nothing less when I start reading the sequel in a few days.


  4. I’m looking forward to this. I can’t recall when I first heard about Durham, but I enjoyed the first Acacia mightily. (Despite some erroneous Amazon reviews which compared it to Narnia. Dune might be a more apt comparison.)

  5. I really Do Not Get all the Acacia love. I mean, it was okay, and yeah, it turned a few of the standard-extruded-fantasy-product tropes on their heads, but apparently everyone else who read it fell madly in love with it and couldn’t wait for the sequel.

    (Sorry, seems kind of rude to dump on the book a bit in the Big Idea thread. But I want to know: Why did you love it?)

    Also, the sequel sounds better, especially the sea wolves, kwedeirs, freketes and various Foulthings. I’ll pick it up if it gets good word of mouth.

  6. This sounds good, but I suspect the series will lose sales in the UK because of its name. To our ears ‘Acacia Avenue’ is the quintessence of mundanity.

  7. Chuk (@ #7): I admit to being bored by much typical fantasy and not having high expectations when I read Acacia. But I found it one of the best novels, not only fantasy, that I read last year. What I found breathtaking was Durham’s ability to breath 3-dimensional life into all the characters and make the reader contemplate ideas of good and bad in scale – that the villain (Hamish) is probably just as ‘good’ in his own right as the heroes – the scattered children. And vice-versa for that matter. The other thing that made me happy about the book was that even with it being the opening volume of a series it was a complete story not stopping in the middle of action because of page/word count. It had a beginning, middle and end.

    In my opinion I haven’t read a genre book with such rich, real political appeal since Dune. While the action was always moving forward, the machinations of intrigue entangled themselves deeper into every character’s life. Quite simply, it was expertly crafted and brilliantly written.

  8. Hi Chuk. I’m not the greatest at explaining why I like a book, but I loved Acacia for much the same reasons I love the George R. R. Martin stories: the politickin’, the shades of gray, the realistic personalities, and the truly fine prose (which isn’t a given in the genre by any means). GRRM might have a slight edge on humor and bawdiness, but in my opinion Acacia involved even more interesting politics and personal dilemmas than SOIAF. But then I’m not exactly a fan of fantabulous creatures and wizardry so the fact that there wasn’t a lot of that stuff in the first book was a feature not a bug.

  9. Currently reading The Other Lands and am quite enjoying it. (I’m blogging as I read it, too, for fun, though there’s a lot of spoilers there (with due warning). Currently I’m in the middle of the second book, and wow.)

    The world of Acacia is what some call “low fantasy”: gritty, realistic, political problems over magic (but magic is involved as well), deeply conflicted characters are common, lots of shades of gray morality and very little black and white.

    George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire is in this vein, as are technically SF epics like Dune.

    “High fantasy” on the other hand is almost always exactly the opposite in every respect. Examples include The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars. In a way, their relative simplicity in terms of political matters (it’s not completely simple, but it’s relative) allows them to cut to the fantastic/futuristic elements much more quickly. It’s not for nothing that in many ways The Lord of the Rings is more of a journey-through-Middle-Earth novel (cultures as well as geographical aspects) than the pointed and ever-turning conflicts of SoIaF and Acacia.

    “Low fantasy” does get to more wild fantasy/future elements, but these elements are not the main point of the story, although they contribute a lot to the considerations and motivations of characters and plots.

    The Other Lands is much more fantastical than Acacia: The War with the Mein.

    Neither “high fantasy” nor “low fantasy” is better than the other. Each has its points and its purpose. Personal preferences point one way or the other. And anyways, it’s more of a gradient….

    I think “low fantasy” does tend to be more popular mainstream than “high fantasy”, because of the more realistic backdrop. If we look at very popular shows like Lost and Battlestar Galactica, they tend more towards “low fantasy”/”low SF” than otherwise. Even Heroes has more “low” notes than “high”.

    As a sort of side point, Discworld for most of its life is something of a low fantasy mindset that sits in a high fantasy world. At its beginnings, however, it was high fantasy—sarcastic, but still high fantasy.

    Anyways, that’s why I like Acacia—complexity and conflict in terms of characters and plot. I last saw that in SoIaF.

  10. I’m really not a big fan of fantasy, but I like that cover art. And Durham’s description of his work piques my interest, I will have to give this one a read.

    Slightly off topic, but on the subject of the last couple of days – this is one of the things I seriously dig about the Whatever, i.e. The Big Idea pieces. I wouldn’t have looked twice at a fantasy book in the store, but Durham’s description of his own work has now put him on my radar. Additionally, as a writer myself, I truly enjoy these glimpses into another writer’s process. It’s similar for me in artword/woodturning. As a turner, I tend to my own particular style and technique when working on the lathe, but I enjoy listening to other turners and observing how they work. Thanks Scalzi for doing what you do, and thanks David for the insight into what you do. Next time I’m in Anchorage I’ll pick up a copy.

  11. I was being a bad girl and checking Whatever while my students were working on a worksheet and I didn’t realize the sequel had come out already and kinda maybe let out a little yelp of joy/surprise. My students now think I’m crazy but I don’t care because I’m so excited for this book! Just bought it and have plans to devour it over the weekend.

  12. …the intersection of personal responsibility and inherited national history. What do you do (young prince or princess that you are) when you discover that the benevolent empire you’ve been raised to take pride in isn’t… ah… benevolent? When you discover that in many ways, and for many people, YOU are the bad guy, the evildoer, the Evil Empire?

    This reminds me of Time Will Run Back by Henry Hazlitt, which is pretty good. Looking forward to reading these books.

  13. I liked the story in Acacia. Unfortunately there were so many characters, and each with only very small chapters, that I ended up having to slog through stuff I didn’t care about. I really, really liked the stories of the kids. I admit that the rest of the characters’ stories were essential to the overall plot. However, I didn’t enjoy those parts anywhere near as much as I did the kids. And so I ended up only really enjoying about 40% of the chapters. Everyone else’s stuff I just read so I could get on to the next chapter about Dariel (or whomever).

    I enjoyed the world and the setting, but I was sort of “enjoyment-blocked” by the presentation.

  14. Thank you so so much for regularly recommending super awesome sounding books. Even though I don’t know if I’ll like till I actually read it.. the success rate has been super so far, and you’ve introduced me to new authors / books that I love. Stories change my life, ergo, you change my life with your recs. LOTS OF LOVE TO SCALZIIIII!!!

  15. Hello. I just wanted to drop in briefly and thank John for providing me the Big Idea space. (Yes, LOTS OF LOVE TO SCALZI!!!)

    And thanks to you folks for reading it! If you do get a chance to try my work – even through inter-library loan! – feel free to let me know what you think. – David.

  16. I just wish Acacia had had a hardcover printing when it first came out. The stickler within me does not enjoy the sight of a series on my bookshelf where the lesser softcovers mingling with hardcovers. It’s just… uncivilized.

  17. Heh. Foot, meet mouth. I asked about it at Barnes & Nobles and I was (mis)informed that it was only in paperback. Admittedly I did not bother researching it as well as I probably should have. Ah, c’est la vie

    Congrats, Mr. Durham. Now I get to buy your first book twice.

  18. A little late, but this finally worked its way to the top of my TBR stack.

    I have to say that these books have a pretty high Y value in this chart:

    Folks, if they’re monks, call them monks. If they are swords, call them swords. Really.

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