By Neil Drumming
Updated June 20, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT

Like C.S. Lewis’ classic The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, David Anthony Durham’s thrilling new fantasy, Acacia, follows a quartet of young siblings — two male and two female — for whom growing up means accepting the mantle of royalty in some grand, mythical kingdom. But where the fate of Lewis’ Narnia turned on the treachery of one greedy little brother and a bite of Turkish Delight, the sun-drenched land of Acacia crumbles under the weight of one vile betrayal after another. There are no magical moral compass points like evil witch queens or Christ-like lions, just a host of deliciously self-interested parties jostling for power and resources. In that way, it’s also a bit like Dynasty — with swords.

The plot, typical of many fantasy novels, is intimidatingly complicated. When Acacian ruler Leodan Akaran is assassinated, he leaves behind a kingdom of shady allegiances and secrets as ugly as his addiction to ”the mist,” an opiate that the kingdom has been trading for centuries with a mysterious race known as the Lothan Aklun. In exchange, they receive Acacian children as slaves. Now, having hooked most of the realm, these glorified pushers demand more flesh. Meanwhile, Acacia’s enemies, the Mein, slighted long ago by Leodan’s forebears, invade from the frozen north. Three of the Akaran orphans are forced into exile, where they witness firsthand the scars of their family’s regime. The fourth, haughty Corinn, becomes a prisoner in her own palace, seduced by her captor. Haunted by their sullied inheritance and hunted at home and abroad, Leodan’s children struggle, reluctantly at times, to reclaim the throne and salvage the Akaran legacy.

Since the narrative rotates between roughly a dozen perspectives, introducing many characters’ darkest desires, it’s tough to decide whom to root for. Heroes wrestle with self-doubt. Traitors seek redemption. The righteous are guided by false faith. And innocents are corrupted. ”Before you die,” says Corinn, coldly sentencing her lover to death and ending the Mein’s decade-long coup, ”you should know all the ways in which you’ve failed.”

In its 576 pages, Acacia tackles some big themes: In addition to military occupation, slavery, and substance abuse, Durham weaves in holy war and chemical weapons. Since this is the author’s first foray into fantasy — he has three historical novels to his credit — it makes sense that he would bring Earth’s ills with him. But you don’t have to draw parallels between, say, Halliburton and Acacia‘s seafaring war profiteers to savor all the throat-cutting and dirty dealing. It is enough to know that Durham’s new world — like our old one — is crawling with wickedly fascinating scumbags. A-