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Fantasy Review: ‘The Tyrant’s Law’ by Daniel Abraham

Pauline’s Review (5/23/13)

This is the third volume of the Dagger and Coin Quintet, the difficult middle book – the one that drags the weight of two books’ worth of previous history, that also has to begin arranging all the pieces for the endgame and still has to make sense by itself. It should be an impossible task, an experience as dense and heavy and glutinous as treacle. Yet it flows like cream, tastes like chocolate and slips down just as easily. Abraham’s prose is a joy to read, elegant and spare, every word in its proper place.

As before, the cast of point of view characters is limited – Clara is finding her feet amongst the nobodies of Camnipol after her noble husband was executed for treason; Cithrin is in another new city learning more about banking; Geder the unstable Regent of Antea is making war again, aided by his spider-goddess priest; and Marcus the former soldier is hiking through the southern jungles with escaped spider-goddess man Kit looking for a magic sword. And as before, the story jumps about from one to another, but the individual plotlines are not independent, so one chapter will show the events of that character is close-up, while also revealing something of events elsewhere, glimpsed from afar in rumour and hearsay. This is done very cleverly, so the overall plot flows beautifully from chapter to chapter.

This is industrial-strength fantasy, so Geder’s war is spilling across the whole northern continent, and is seemingly unstoppable. This is the third campaign to feature in the story. The first book centred on the fall of the city of Vanai. In the second, Antea conquered neighbouring Asterilhold. This time, Geder (or rather, his spider-priest adviser) has his sights set on Sarakal. There is inevitably some sense of repetition in all this, but Abraham gives the events a new perspective to keep things fresh. This time, Geder’s capabilities are well understood, and there are no illusions about the consequences.

The series is called The Dagger and the Coin, and is presumably intended to contrast the two powerful forces of conquest, by armed force, or by economics. Geder’s military ambitions continue to roll onwards, but for the first time there are signs that the financial clout of the bank can have an impact. There are hints about the difficulties of maintaining long supply lines, and getting the staple crops planted and harvested when so many men are tied up in the war. There are hints, too, that the bank can help indirectly with the refugee and resettlement problem, and more directly, in supporting covert acts of rebellion. However, it’s still not obvious how economics will bring a real direct challenge to bear against military might. Perhaps this isn’t Abraham’s intention, but if not, the whole banking plot becomes marginalised.

Abraham has a nice way of subverting the tropes of the genre. Most fantasy is (in the broadest sense) about swords and sorcery, so that all problems are eventually disposed of by one or other of these elements (or occasionally both). The evil villain is bent on global domination for vague reasons, and the hero (or occasionally a heroine) tools up with a magic sword or else learns to use the magic powers they’ve mysteriously been endowed with. Here, the evil villain is sort of bent on global domination, but it’s a role he more or less reversed into accidentally, and all with the very best of intentions. What could be so malign about spreading the spider-goddess’s message of truth across the world? Meanwhile, Marcus and Kit go on a traditional fantasy quest to track down the magic sword which will kill the goddess, but (without giving too much away) that doesn’t go quite as they expected. As for magic, there’s very little around at all. Proponents are called ‘cunning men’ and have minor roles as showmen and healers.

One nice aspect is that we have two interesting female characters taking strong leadership roles in the fight against Geder the war-making Regent. Clara is now released from the stifling conformity of court rules and taking advantage of her freedom to plot and scheme in Camnipol, as well as enjoying a degree of personal freedom. I very much like Clara, her subtlety, her cleverness and her determination. It makes a nice counterpoint to her husband’s more ham-fisted efforts in the previous books. Even though things don’t always go quite as anticipated (what ever does in an Abraham book?), she always makes well-considered decisions.

In contrast, Cithrin… Look, I’m going to have a bit of a rant about Cithrin, so feel free to skip ahead to the next paragraph if you want. Cithrin, you stupid, stupid woman. When will you ever learn? Your entire character arc has been defined by short-sightedness and downright bad decision-making. You find yourself stuck in the wrong city with the bank’s wealth? Why not forge a few papers to set yourself up as a pretend bank? After all, it would be too simple just to write to the bank’s head and await instructions, wouldn’t it? And if you find yourself trapped during an uprising with a powerful but totally unstable character who wants sex? Well, why not? This book is quite a good explanation of why not, actually. And then, given a one-time opportunity to get close to the Regent, to influence the events of history and do some good, could you actually, just once in your life, do something sensible? Course not. Gah. Stupid woman. I mean, what exactly does she think Geder is going to do now? Smile sweetly and forget all about her? He already burned one city because he felt slighted.

Geder himself is a fascinating character. Of course he makes dumb decisions as well, but in his case his motives are entirely understandable and believable, and it’s possible to feel very sympathetic towards him, and appalled at the same time. Being the focus of everyone’s amusement is dispiriting and annoying, and being the patsy for other people’s political games would get anyone riled. His response to the Vanai problem, although it was more a fit of petulance than a rational decision, was not an unusual way to deal with a recalcitrant conquest. Even when he’s behaving very badly, it’s easy to see exactly how and why it happened. He’s a social incompetent, who would be very much at home in the modern world, head buried in his iPad or harmlessly slaughtering orcs in World of Warcraft. It’s only in his fantasy setting that he is the tyrant of the title.

Marcus – meh. I like the banter, and the low-key cynicism which sometimes borders on suicidal fatalism, but it’s not an original character trait, and the whole tragic wife and child history is a bit over-used. I like Yardem a lot better, in fact, because although he has baggage (why did he leave the priesthood, exactly?) he doesn’t let it define him. Although that may simply be an artefact of not being a point of view character; because we never get inside Yardem’s head, we never see how tortured his soul is. Or it may just be the ears. Gotta love a character with such speaking ears.

This is not a high-action book. Even though there’s a war going on, and a new religion spreading like a stain from Camnipol, and the whole continent is in turmoil, it still feels like an intimate, close-up portrait of the characters before all else. A whole chapter may feature nothing but Clara walking about Camnipol, Clara taking tea with a friend, Clara going home again, but this gives the characters the space to breathe, to live, to think, to feel. Between paces, Clara can contemplate a great many subjects without it becoming heavy philosophising. Abraham doesn’t ever tell his readers what to think about anything (religion, war, slavery, inherited monarchies), and those who want can simply enjoy the story and the author’s exquisite prose, but the deeper themes are there to be explored by those who wish, usually by the contrast of one approach with another. For example, Kit and Basrahip are both spider-infested; one is using that to control people so that he can take over the world in the spider-goddess’s name, while the other goes to great lengths not to control people at all, and is trying to find a way to end the spider regime altogether. Is it evil to remove lies from the world and impose honesty? Good question.

The ending? Awesome. A great big bowl of awesomeness, with lashings of awesome sauce on top. The first two books I had some settling down reservations about, but this one, none at all. It’s a quieter book than the previous ones, but in my view it’s all the better for that. Perhaps the series is just getting into its stride, or the characters have grown into their roles (even Cithrin, maybe, possibly), or perhaps it’s just that, after a lot of circling round, we’re getting to know something about the dragons at last. Dragons make everything better. So unquestionably five stars. And now the long wait until the next book…

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Nathan’s Review (5/23/13)

I can think of no way to talk about The Tyrant’s Law without including some spoilers from the previous books.  While I will try not to be blatant, consider yourself warned.

Three books in and the series continues to keep a hold of me.  What the series is trying to be continues to confuse me, but if the sole goal of the author is to entertain me and steal my sleep whenever a new book come out the consider book three of ‘The Dagger and Coin’ to be yet another success.

I am not sure what the series wants to be.  Through two books I would have suggested it was a subtle bender of fantasy tropes.  Geder seems destined to be the good guy who rises in power due to hidden strengths; instead he was an insecure monster who has risen well beyond his capabilities.  Cithrin was a genius who seemed to embody purity; when in reality she was reckless and concerned with her own wellbeing more than anything.  Comparing the series others trope benders in the genre Abraham was doing it in a much more subtle way.  Most are taking all the hero tropes and making them unlikable jerks, Abraham is doing the same but made you think they were all nice deep inside.

But outside of Geder (who takes yet another creepy turn) this track seems to no longer be the case.  Cithrin is turned into a near angelic figure and Clara is genuinely likable.  Marcus had a dark past but his big talk of violence stays talk.  I am not passing judgment on this apparent change of pace, just making an observation.

Simple by purpose, outside of the prolog and epilog the book once again sticks to the point of view of Marcus, Cithrin, Geder, and Clara.  If a reader already had a favorite, or most hated, PoV then I doubt it will change after this outing.  Personally I feel that Clara is threatening to take over as the star of the series; her fall from grace allowing her to work behind the curtain, never quite certain if she is making a difference or not.  She walks the line delicately, working within the system she has grown up with while fighting against it where she can.  Loved it.

The simple nature of the book is also present in the story itself.  Nothing surprised me, only a few big reveals, just more of the same entertainment.  Gedar continues to wage war, Cithrin works within the bank in yet another city surrounded by war, Marcus goes on quests (remarkable simple quests in my mind, but perhaps Kit’s presence explains the ease).  There is a bit of middle book syndrome going on here, outside of a certain reveal near the end I can’t say for sure anything all that important happened.  But I was entertained the whole time.  How can I explain this?  I don’t know that I can.

A few areas of enjoyment I can explain.  I love the spider cult and the difference between Kit and the other followers.  The priest scoffing at putting a contract in writing amused me.  I love that the only obstacles that Gedar seems to be facing in his war are financial, really bring the “coin” portion of the series into play.  I hope that the ending leads to some big movement in the next book.

We are now three books in so I have to assume people are either invested in the series or they are not.  If you happen to be someone who is, this is a fine continuation.  I think Clara’s passages are some of the strongest yet in the series.  Fans like me who keep hoping for the series to take the upward turn of the author’s Long Price probably need to reset our expectations.  It is apparent the author isn’t trying to do something completely unique at this point, but rather seems to be taking the most enjoyable points from the history of fantasy and fine tuning them into the best piece of book candy around.

Rating it is hard.  I enjoyed every word, with Abraham’s smart but easy flowing style allowing me to read the book in near record time.  My minor disappointments have more to do with expectations that may have never been fair.  But there was a lack of movement in the plot I have to take into account,as the book was a lot of set up.

4 stars.   

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

Series Review: ‘The Long Price’ by Daniel Abraham

List of books in original series…’A Shadow In Summer’; ‘A Betrayal In Winter’; ‘An Autumn War’; ‘The Price Of Spring’
Now republished in combined versions… ‘Shadow AndBetrayal‘; ‘Seasons of War’

There are some books you enjoy reading as entertainment, and once you finish them, they’re gone. There are some that have memorable characters or plot twists or settings that stay with you. And there are some that completely blow your mind, and haunt you for ever. For me, this series is in the last category. It has all the strong points I look for in my fantasy – believable characters, a simple magic system with profound implications, an unusual setting, an interesting political system and, above all, some depth beyond mere entertainment. I like my reading to give me food for thought.

It starts, as so many fantasy works do, with a prologue. Unlike most, however, this is not just a teaser for events to come or an excuse for a bit of breathless action before settling down into the body of the book. This prologue is the crux of the entire story. Virtually everything that happens afterwards is derived from the interaction of the two boys, Otah and Maati, their personalities and the decisions each of them make at this point.
The characters are a strong point of the series. The story follows Otah and Maati through their whole lives, each book a fifteen year jump forward, and even though there are one or two significant events passed over with little acknowledgement because they happened during these gaps, nevertheless the reader knows them well enough to understand all the decisions they make, and the reasons for them. But even the lesser characters are fully rounded, real people, with their own credible motivations. Who could not sympathise with the Galts, for instance, excluded and marginalised by the power of the Khaiem empire? Or Amat, a rare portrayal in fantasy of an older woman as a main character? Or Idaan, the disregarded daughter?
The magic system in the world of the Long Price is, so far as I know, unique. By an incantation, or poem, an idea can be literally embodied, brought to life as a manifestation of the poet’s mind, and bound to his will, although in a constant battle against such control. Once created, the ‘idea’, called an andat, can be used as magic whenever required. In the first book, the andat is Seedless, and his power is to remove the fertile parts, the seeds, from crops like cotton, a very profitable talent, although, as it turns out, there are other applications as well, including using andat as weapons of almost unimaginable power. The andat are hard to create, difficult to hold on to, impossible to recreate once lost and there are few of them, no more than one per city, but they give the city rulers vast power and wealth.
The ruling Khaiem have an unusual means of inheriting. Only the eldest three sons are retained, and the current Khai makes no choice of successor from amongst them. Instead, they have to kill each other, and the survivor becomes the automatic and undisputed heir. Unwanted younger sons are sent off to train from early childhood to be poets, and those who fail are branded, to ensure they never join in the fight for the succession. Then they have to make their own way in the world. Abraham doesnt shy away from the implications of such a system. Daughters? No more than marriage fodder, and that situation too is addressed.
The empire of the Khaiem, powered by magic and slavery, is vast, stable and elegant. It has strict hierarchy and stifling protocol, awe-inspiring architecture created by andat abilities, art and music – even the beggars in the streets sing for their charity. Language is augmented by a system of poses which adds complex layers of subtlety to all social interactions. Saraykeht, the city seen in A Shadow in Summer, is a beautiful place, perhaps the only place in the fantasy universe that I would actually have any desire to live in. Beyond the empires borders, other nations struggle to survive or turn to technology instead of magic, but are unable to deal with the Khaiem on equal terms because of the incredible power of the andat, which could wipe them out – or worse – in a heartbeat.
For those who enjoy battles and outright war, ‘The Long Price’ certainly has that, and there is as much dramatic tension as anyone could wish for in the desperate race against time and weather as the war reaches its conclusion. But the series is about so much more than that. The characters, the decisions they make, the situations they create and the tragedies that unfold as a consequence are unforgettable. Beneath the story, too, are layers of subtle questions that Abraham raises without ever beating the reader over the head with his own opinions. Are the andat a force for good or evil? Is there any justification for the violent Khaiem succession principle? Which is better – static traditional ways, or innovation and change? Which is more important – family loyalty or duty? Should you toe the line or follow your own path? It is rare in fantasy to find so many thought-provoking themes.
These books are not perfect, of course. There are plotholes and implausibilities in places. Not everyone likes Abraham’s spare writing style. Some readers dislike the system of poses to augment spoken language. Despite the war which is a central point of the plot, the story is not as action-packed as many fantasy works. Nevertheless, it remains, for me, the pinnacle of what good fantasy should be about – taking a simple idea (the andat) and exploring in full all the implications of that through memorable characters. It remains the only book to keep me up reading almost till dawn, and then, after a minimal amount of sleep, carrying on to the end, because I simply could not put it down. It remains one of the most emotionally affecting works I’ve ever read. It is an extraordinary series, and I highly recommend it.

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

Long Price Quartet

Fantasy Review: ‘Darker Angels’ by M L N Hanover

This is the second of the ‘Black Sun’s Daughter’ series of urban fantasies, written under a pseudonym by Daniel Abraham. The first, ‘Unclean Spirits’, was a bit spotty, overfull of angst, shopping sprees and housecleaning, not to mention a certain amount of breathless sex. This one is a lot better in all respects. I find the three blokes a bit hard to distinguish, though, and even though I know there’s an ex-priest, a calm chanting one and the love interest, it still took me most of the book to get straight which one was which.


The plot this time involves an ex-FBI agent who’s been tracking down ‘riders’ (demons of some sort who latch onto a human, inhabiting their body), and wants the gang to kidnap a child because… OK, never mind about the plot. There are some dramatic encounters which never go quite the way they’re supposed to and it makes for a solid, pacy read. There are also the beginnings of depth to the characters and their relationships, and now that Jayné (the heroine, and if you think that name is bad, the sidekicks are called Ex, Chogyi Jake and Aubrey; but the FBI agent is Karen, so make of that what you will). Where was I? Oh yes, now that Jayné has calmed down a bit, she’s beginning to show signs of intelligent life. She thinks the way to wind down after a close encounter with a ‘rider’ is a night of heavy-duty clubbing, but it’s better than break-the-bank shopping binges, I suppose. She’s still not got much self-confidence, but the author is allowing her to grow rather well from book to book, and the dynamic between her and the three sidekicks is beginning to blossom nicely.

The story this time is set in New Orleans in the wake of Katrina, and the setting is beautifully realised, and feels totally real and atmospheric. I’ve only been there once, many years ago, but some of the descriptions brought back vivid memories. The voodoo background is perfect for the story, too. There is some rather heavy-handed drawing of parallels between the Katrina-wrought changes and the events of Jayné’s life, but it does give the book a bit of much-needed depth.

A small quibble. I don’t expect to see punctuation issues with a book put out by a major publisher, but this one repeatedly had lines that went: ‘Blah blah blah, I said. It drove me nuts. Hiring a decent editor is not just for self-publishers. But it’s a minor point in a book which builds to a terrific finale. Again, nothing quite goes according to plan, but (as in the first book) I like the way that Jayné doesn’t quite turn into the all-powerful kick-ass heroine, gets injured and needs help and support from a few of her friends.

To be honest, I’m not much enamoured with urban fantasy. I like the big sweep of a created world, and it seems a little odd to me for characters to battle demons and then drive off down the I10 or pop into a Starbucks to check their email. But I’m very much enamoured of the writings of Daniel Abraham, so I’m definitely on board for the whole series. This was a step up from the first book, and the more credible heroine, evocative setting, breathless finale and greater depth make it four stars.

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

Long Price Quartet

Fantasy Review: ‘The King’s Blood’ by Daniel Abraham

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 naivité, 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

Fantasy Review: ‘Dragon’s Path’ by Daniel Abraham

This is the first of a proposed quintet (‘The Dagger and the Coin’), and is the author’s first foray into what might be termed mainstream fantasy, after the critically applauded but unconventional ‘The Long Price Quartet’. The dagger of the series title represents war, while the coin is economics – the twin approaches to conquest, or defence against it. The story centres around four main characters: Cithrin, a girl who is a ward of the Medean bank, shortly to achieve independence; Marcus, an experienced soldier; Geder, a low-ranking nobleman with a liking for speculative writings; and Dawson, a middle-aged nobleman with political tendencies. The plot jumps from one named POV to another.

I found the book slow to get into at first, but that is common with many fantasy novels, and this was easier to follow than many. But after a few chapters everything seemed to click into place, and the story picked up speed. It is still distracting, however, to hop around from one named POV (and plot thread) to another – just as you get interested in one part of the story you are whisked off somewhere else, perhaps less interesting. And some parts are definitely less interesting – Dawson, for instance. I much prefer not to know who the POV is in each chapter. It makes it much easier to stop reading, and harder to pick up again, if you think – ‘Hmm, another Dawson chapter…’.
It was hard to keep track of the politicking that went on in Camnipol, in Antea. The different factions and motives were not easy to follow, and it felt sometimes as if there was a whole subtext that I just failed to get. Why, for instance, was Dawson exiled but not Issandrian? I had a similar problem with the economics sub-plot in Porte Oliva, but this worried me less. I just assumed that if I took the trouble to work it out, it would probably make sense.
The four main characters build quite nicely in depth as the book progresses. Geder, in particular, is a fascinating character, and while his actions may seem horrifying they are always entirely understandable and (in some sense) justified. What he does to Vanai is a perfectly sensible solution to an economic problem, after all – what else is one supposed to do with an unprofitable vanquished city? – although the way he does it leaves something to be desired. Master Kit, of course, is clearly going to be significant somewhere down the line. Marcus and Yardem have a terrific relationship, and Cithrin is more complex than she appeared at first sight. It is quite fun to meet a female protagonist who is pragmatic about sex, and responds to setbacks by taking to her bed with as much booze as she can get her hands on and staying there until it’s gone. Even Dawson, for all his faults, raises a certain sympathy and his wife Clara is interesting too.
The world-building is not spectacular so far. It is yet another post-dragon, post-magic (more or less) world. The cities have interesting individual quirks, but the countryside in between seems pretty empty. The jade roads are intriguing, and the 12 created races are fascinating. At the moment they are merely ciphers, but presumably the differences will become important later. In particular, I suspect the Drowned will be crucial to something.
The plot rounds off with a flourish. Geder’s political success is, in retrospect, predictable but I failed to read the signs. On the other hand, Cithrin’s success is totally predictable and therefore dull. So she threatens the bank and the auditer promptly caves in? Rather lame. And the big reveal in the ‘Entr’acte’ was surely spotted by everyone long before. In summary, not earth shattering but a good and promising start to the series. Four stars. [First posted on Goodreads May 2011]


[Edited after a reread May 2013] Having just read the third book in the series, ‘The Tyrant’s Law’, I was disinclined to start reading anything new or different or (frankly) inferior. So I started all over again with book 1, and given that I hardly ever reread anything (so many books, so little time) this is a Big Deal.
What strikes me most is how well this reads for a little extra understanding. It’s not just knowing which characters will be important, recognising names of places and the foreshadowing of events, but so many scenes are perceived entirely differently because of understanding the full implications of the prologue (the identity of the apostate, the peculiar nature of his ability and the way he deals with that). There’s a lot of history, too, which makes far more sense when viewed from a couple of books further on. There are bits and pieces which whizzed by me previously: the prejudice against non-First-Blood races, for instance, which jumps out at me now.
The characters still fall into their original stances: Geder is fascinating, Cithrin is whiny and childish, but most of the time I like her, Marcus is still the laconic cynical ex-warrior with a tragic personal story (but I kinda like that trope) and Dawson is – yes, Dawson is still irritating and prejudiced and insufferably stuck in rigid protocol. I still don’t understand the whole plot business in Camnipol. How is it that Dawson and Issandrian were both penalised, when one of them stirred up an armed rebellion against the throne and the other ensured it failed? How does that work?
But still – great book, a brilliantly devised if controversial character (Geder) and that huge whoa! moment at Vanai. And I still love the way that Geder simply reverses into success in his clumsy, half-arsed badly-thought-out way. Hes almost a sympathetic character, with his oddly not-quite-one-of-us ways, always trying to please, always falling short, a disappointment to his father and the butt of everyone elses jokes. Terrific stuff. The plot is still half-formed at this point, but the characters just glow with life.

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

Sci-Fi Review: ‘Caliban’s War’ by James S A Corey

May contain spoilers for ‘Leviathan Wakes’.

I don’t read a lot of scifi these days, although it was my drug of choice for a decade or more, but I love Daniel Abraham’s fantasy works so this is a must-read for me. Written under a pseudonym with co-author Ty Franck, this is the second in the Expanse series. If the first had a sort of detective-noir feel to it, this one is much more classic space-opera, with space ships, inter-planetary alliances, zero-gravity battles, hi-tech weaponry and all the usual shenanigans, and although there is a bit of a mystery to solve, it’s no more than backdrop for the action. I suppose a lot of scifi falls into the traditional grooves, and this one feels like it’s made from the Firefly cookie cutter. Holden is the renegade captain (Mal), Alex the ace pilot (Wash without the dinosaurs), Naomi is Zoe and Amos is Jayne. There’s even a Kaylee, Sam the red-headed pixie on Tycho, but thank all the gods, there’s no lipsticky Inara. 


Holden is the sole point of view character retained for this outing; Miller, the shoot first forget the questions cop, was…. hmm, eaten by? killed by? absorbed by? the alien monster thingy in part one. We have three new main characters; Avasarala is an elderly diplomat from Earth, Prax is the botanist from the moon Ganymede, and Bobbie is the marine from Mars (sorry, just can’t say Martian marine, sounds too weird). These soon coalesce into two pairs and eventually overlap, and the authors manage to sweep the plot forward by deftly swapping from one to another. All four are interesting, well-drawn characters, and the minor characters are likeable too, especially Holden’s crew. Prax comes in handy for the sciencey bits, while Avasarala is pulling the political strings of the complex tensions between Earth, Mars, big business and the outer planets. And Bobbie? She makes one hell of a warrior babe, that’s all I can say.

The book seemed slow to get going, I thought. There was a lot of scene-setting and general background that wasn’t exactly filler, but didn’t seem to get very far, but to be fair, there are several new characters and a heap of backstory to get across. But almost imperceptibly the pace picks up and then we’re off into the usual action-packed whirlwind. There were a few creaky moments, when the rationale for a character to do something obviously essential for the plot seemed a bit dubious, but really, it doesn’t matter much. And just occasionally, when they do something completely and utterly in character, it feels absolutely punch-the-air glorious.

Although this is sci-fi, the technology is really not the point. It’s obvious that a great deal of research has been done behind the scenes, but it very rarely breaks out into impenetrable jargon, and even when it does, there is usually another character there to say, on the reader’s behalf, what does that mean, exactly? But none of it stretches credulity overmuch, and for me, as a fantasy fan, it’s no problem to accept the high-tech ‘magic’ of instant wound-repairing medical equipment or fancy weaponry, in the same way I accept wizards with healing spells, or a magic sword. The nature of the setting also lends itself to some very atmospheric moments peculiar to space opera – the zero-gravity bounces, the weird moons, the outside-the-ship moments, the sheer scale of the universe – which the authors convey very well.

My biggest complaint would be that too much of the plot hinges on finding and recovering unharmed Prax’s small daughter, Mei. Given the interstellar nature of the conflict and the countless unnamed minions who died along the way, it seems unrealistic to devote so much effort to one child. I appreciate the need to humanise the conflict, but it still seems excessive. There also seemed to be a lot of emphasis on individuals who got close to mental breakdown, either by highly stressed circumstances, or lack of sleep, or just personality. I’m not quite sure what purpose this served, except to ramp up the tension a bit. But these are small points.

The ending fell a little flat for me, seeming to be no more than a sequence of high tension encounters which were actually resolved very quickly, without any unexpected twists or great drama. The authors are very good at not spinning the action sequences out too far, but these felt almost abrupt. There were a few moments of near Galaxy-Quest-ness, but it’s hard to write this kind of stuff without evoking parody, and the authors deftly sidestepped the worst of it. And the dramatic reveal in the final paragraphs was hardly unpredictable – well, if I could see it coming, anyone could.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed most of the book, up until the last few chapters, even more than the previous one in the series. I liked Bobbie the marine, I liked the little romance Holden had going, I liked seeing more of Amos, Alex and Naomi (who make a great team), and Avasarala had all the best lines. The writing is taut, the pacing is perfect, and the authors ping-pong the plot between points of view effortlessly. And no, I have no idea who wrote which characters. A good entertaining read with plenty of action and a few moments of real depth lurking beneath all the drama. Four stars. [Originally published on Goodreads June 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 Black Sun’s Daughter (Written as M.L.N Hanover)
Unclean Spirits
Darker Angels

Long Price Quartet

Sci-Fi Review: ‘Leviathan Wakes’ by James S A Corey

I don’t read much scifi these days, but I’m a huge Daniel Abraham fan so this was a must-buy for me. Writing in collaboration with Ty Franck, this is a traditional Firefly-esque space opera with overtones of police procedural (sort of). Right from the start, the story grabs you and just never lets go, building pace and tension all the way to the unexpected twist ending (well, I didn’t see it coming, anyway, but like Abraham’s fantasy books, the outcome is one of those oh-of-course moments, rather than wait-what?).

I very much liked the use of only two alternating point of view characters to tell the story (with a prologue and epilogue featuring different people). The way the plot develops the two different storylines, and then merges them so that it seamlessly weaves from one viewpoint to the other is masterful. Both characters have depth and terrific personalities too. Holden is the righteous, almost naive, spaceship officer determined to do the correct thing. Miller is a borderline psychotic cop on an asteroid trading station, following his own train of deviant logic to pragmatic keeping-things-moving solutions. The collision between the two is inevitably fraught, but also deeply thought-provoking.
The world-building is breath-taking. The background is a solar system colonised by man and beginning to fragment, and every component part – the (asteroid) Belt, the various space ships and settlements – is beautifully realised and totally believable. The technology is not so complex or radical that it needs long explanations or a post-graduate level education to understand it. The minor characters and relationships are well-drawn and realistic, and I liked the way we are regularly reminded of the physical differences between planet-born and native Belters. Although this book reads as a stand-alone, there is enormous scope for developments in other parts of the solar system (Earth, the moon, Mars, the outer planets).
Like Abraham’s fantasy novels, this is a wonderful pacy read, with well-rounded characters, and an absorbing plot, with more depth to it than I expected from the initial reviews. It isn’t quite up to the stellar levels of ‘The Long Price’ (what is?), but it’s still a good 4 stars, and I look forward to more in the series. Four stars. [Originally posted on Goodreads August 2011]

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

Long Price Quartet

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