Here be Dragons

Daniel Abraham is one of my must-read authors. I reckon his Long Price Quartet to be the finest work of modern fantasy I’ve yet read, and his current sci-fi and urban fantasy series are coming along nicely too. Yes, he’s prolific, and, even better, he writes fast – a new book a year for each series. No long waits. This book is the second in the Dagger And Coin Quintet, his first attempt at a more traditional form of fantasy, and as such is still settling in. The first book was promising, if a bit uneven. This one follows the same four characters, Cithrin, Geder, Dawson and Marcus, plus one extra, Dawson’s wife Clara. Cithrin is the figurehead for her bank, but kept on a short leash by the bank’s notary, Pyk, who has an unimaginative risk-averse strategy and a strong personal dislike of Cithrin. Marcus is still a guard with a history. Geder has accidentally reversed into a position of great influence. Dawson is still a traditionalist nobleman and friend of the king. Clara is still the smart woman behind the public figure of her husband. These last three are involved in the political machinations surrounding Aster, the king’s son and heir, in Camnipol. Meanwhile, Master Kit, an apparently minor character in the previous book, is following his own agenda against the spider goddess.

Like most fantasy, this one takes a while to get going. The early chapters are reflective, and work well to set the scene as well as gently reminding the reader of the events of the previous book. I never felt at a loss, wondering who a character was or what was being referred to. The writing style is elegantly spare, with some nicely lyrical flourishes that never seem overblown. This is a writer at the very top of his game (did I mention I’m a big fan?). Even so, the slow pace early on is a bit of a turn-off. I’m not mad keen on the current fad for named point of view chapters; it’s all too easy to turn the page and think: hmm, another chapter about X, and put the book down. But after the initial settling in phase, things begin to get going and the pace picks up nicely, and somewhere around the midpoint, the proverbial hits the whatsit and all hell breaks loose.

The world-building is a little less perfunctory in this book. For the first time, there seems to be some real depth and structure to the various nations, so that the few cities which have a role seem less like islands in the midst of vast expanses of nothing very much. There is some attempt, too, to expand on the various races (the original First Bloods, and the twelve races created by the dragons long ago to fulfil various roles). I still get them mixed up, mind you, but it doesn’t seem to matter much, and it was nice to see the Drowned close up (I have a suspicion they’re going to be important). There are some hints about the dragons themselves, too, and what happened to them. There is also plenty of description of places and little snippets of history, which work very well to illuminate the author’s created world without becoming too heavy on the info-dump scale. We also get to see a little more of the religion (or cult, maybe?) of the spider goddess, and there are some moments here that are truly chilling.

I feel the slightest tinge of disappointment that Abraham, a man of infinitely fertile imagination, has plonked his characters into such a conventional world. Even though he set out from the start to create a more traditional form, this is very much the off-the-shelf fantasy world – a patriarchal society where men rule and plot and fight as kings and dukes and soldiers, women stay home and raise families and broker marriage deals, slaves do a lot of the work, and virginity is prized in a bride. Beyond the nobility and wealthy, fortunately, there is more variety, and the economic element (the coin of the series title) introduces a different perspective. Within the banking world, for instance, women can and do take an equal part in affairs (as Cithrin demonstrates). And it has to be said that so far the author has done a very good job of pointing out the deficiencies of a hereditary patriarchal system, which throws up a fair number of idiots and incompetents, thrusts unsuitable people into roles of great power, sometimes entirely by accident, and wastes fifty percent of its resources by leaving them sitting at home with their embroidery. It’s also a system which doesn’t seem to leave many options apart from war or not-war. There are three more books in the series for him to make his point (or not) on this, so I’ll reserve judgment until it’s done.

The characters always felt like real, rounded personalities, and that is even more true now. Geder, in particular, is one to ponder. I’ve no doubt readers will be arguing for years about his peculiar mix of naivitĂ©, insecurity and sudden bursts of vicious cruelty, but Cithrin and Marcus also have abrupt swings between common sense and reckless stupidity. Dawson I still find dull, and although Clara has her moments, she has too little to do here to really shine. Even the minor roles have great depth, and you really feel that they have lives outside the confines of the story, where they just get on with things until their arcs intersect with the main plotlines once more. Abraham has an amazing ability to show both the good and bad in people, so that even someone like Pyk, the notary, or the pirate, either of whom could have been made into a caricature mini-villain, are given complex motivation which brings them perilously close to being sympathetic. All the characters behave in believable ways, and if occasionally you feel the author’s hand nudging them along so that they meet up at convenient times, that’s acceptable, I think.

I found the politics of the first book quite confusing – so many odd names and titles and nations and shifting allegiances, and the difficulty of not knowing quite who’s important and who is just passing through for a chapter or two. This one is much easier to follow, although whether this is the author’s surer hand or just comes from greater familiarity with the story I can’t say. But Abraham has an uncanny ability to toss up the difficult questions. Is a decision right just because it seems logical? Where exactly does (or should) loyalty lie? Who can you ever trust? Which is the greater power, military might or money (the fundamental question of the series)? The hazy boundaries between truth and faith and certainty. And then there’s the matter of unintended consequences – in the last book, it was the events at Vanai that changed everything, this time it’s Dawson’s conscience that spirals out of control. And as always Abraham shows us both sides of every equation, so that there is no black or white, no good or evil, only people doing the best they can with whatever they have to work with, and trying to do what seems right at the time. Sometimes it turns out well, and sometimes it doesn’t, and sometimes it’s impossible to tell, and sometimes you just wonder, what on earth were they thinking? (Cithrin, I’m looking at you here.) And yet in all sorts of ways it makes sense.

Abraham is often compared with George R R Martin, which is probably unfair to both authors, and I suspect arises largely because they are personal friends. In reality, they are very different writers. Martin has larger than life characters, a cast of thousands, a depressing hyper-medieval setting and a sprawling mess of tangled plotlines spilling over two continents and numerous doorstopper volumes. Abraham populates his books with believably realistic characters, a tightly woven plot and a deeply intelligent sub-text. If Martin were a painter, he would be hurling great sweeps of colour over the entire gallery wall; Abraham would be more of an oil on canvas man, painstakingly building the layers, every brushstroke placed with considered precision. I love them both in their different ways.

A better comparison for this series is with The Long Price Quartet, Abraham’s much admired debut work, and no, this doesn’t quite reach those heights of awesomeness. The Dragon’s Path was a good, promising start to the series, and The King’s Blood is better, an excellent next step, but not quite extraordinary. For me, fantasy is about the otherness of a world that is alien, not like ours, and where the differences emerge – the spider priests, the cunning men, the lost dragons, that tantalising glimpse of the Drowned – the book is spine-tinglingly good. There are moments, too, when the characters step outside the boundaries and do something quite unexpected (well, unexpected to me, anyway, although always within the parameters of their natures), and these too raise the book to a different level.

However, the conventional nature of the setting is too commonplace to be interesting; there’s nothing surprising about men waving swords around while women stitch, and I do like to be surprised. Nor do the characters draw me in. Geder, of course, is fascinating, in a horrifying way, and Cithrin and Marcus are interesting too; Dawson and Clara not so much (I hope Clara has more to do in later books, since she has potential). But none of them really resonate with me (by which I mean, do I care what happens to them? and the answer is no, not a great deal, not yet). More worryingly, the book never pulled me into that desperate got-to-know-what-happens-next state; even at the height of the Camnipol mayhem, it was just too easy to put the book down (partly those pesky chapters named after characters, I suppose – it just breaks the tension). So no staying up till 3am to finish it. The final few chapters were a bit choppy, too, because of the need to tie up loose ends and set the pieces in place for the next book.

Having said all that, these are trivial complaints and this is still way better than the vast majority of fantasy around these days. It’s not high on action, but what there is makes sense and has consequences that have to be dealt with. Abraham’s elegant prose is a pleasure to read, the tight plotting is masterful, and the characters have a very human mixture of intelligence and idiocy, common sense and irrational impulse, completely believable. As always, there is a raft of thought-provoking ideas here for those who want them, particularly in the latter half of the book. I have every confidence that (as with The Long Price) each individual book in the series will be even better than the one before. A good four stars. Highly recommended. [First posted on Goodreads in May 2012]

Reviews of Daniel Abraham

Expanse Series (Written as James S A Corey with Ty Franck)
Leviathan Wakes
Caliban’s War

The Dagger and the Coin
The Dragon’s Path
The King’s Blood
The Tyrant’s Law

The Black Sun’s Daughter (Written as M.L.N Hanover)
Unclean Spirits
Darker Angels

Long Price Quartet

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