SYNOPSIS: In a world once dominated by dragons, reaching out of a medieval level of development, a burgeoning wide scale conflict has roots and character perspectives military, political and economic.
PROS: Nice wide lens of seeing a building conflict from multiple perspectives; excellent use of money as a social force equal to military and political ones.
CONS: The various races aren’t distinctive enough; worldbuilding is a tad thin.
VERDICT: Although somewhat less innovative than his previous work, this is a solid Epic Fantasy from Daniel Abraham
Daniel Abraham is a unique and growing voice in fantasy. His Long Price Quartet, with a storyline and a set of novels spanning decades was fresh, different and heralded a unique voice in fantasy doing new and different things. But in The Dragon’s Path, the first of The Dagger and the Coin series, Abraham seems to step back to far more standard epic fantasy, eschewing his previous inventiveness for more standard core Epic Fantasy.
Or does he?
The world of The Dragon’s Path at first looks and sounds far more mundane than the world of the Long Price Quartet. The various kingdoms and polities seem firmly Western European, from the names to the cuisine. Kingdoms, Free Cities…it has the feel of 15th, 16th century Europe, without the gunpowder. The author uses a tried and true formula for presenting this world to us, with a number of viewpoint characters that we alternate through the course of the novel. Admittedly, he adds a key one in the latter half of the book, but otherwise it is a template and formula relatively standard in epic fantasy.
But look deeper. The world is not of humans, but rather of thirteen races, the remnants and legacy of long vanished Dragons who, Jack Vance style, not only ruled the world, but bred these varieties of humanity to their service. Now that they are gone, leaving only their indestructible roads, humanity is forced to find their own way, in all of their branches. In addition, the use of banking and economics as real forces with a seat at the table equal to the political and military spheres is innovative and different. Money matters and the movement and power of money are strong themes in The Dragon’s Path. While you see the power of money in the individual in other fantasy, how much gold or wealth can bring an individual power, I’ve not seen a book where banks, banking and bankers are afforded that power. That is partially due to the growing-out-of-medieval timeframe of the book, true, but even with Renaissance-tech fantasy or later, bankers are just not seen as social forces in fantasy. The Dragon’s Path averts that, hard. And did I mention there is a puppet master that seems poised to cause even more trouble? (Or should I say puppet mistress?) So, while The Dragon’s Path is at first seemingly a standard epic fantasy, the more one looks at it, the more subversive, or at least non-standard, it appears.
So what’s the story and who are the characters? On the surface, The Dragon’s Path (the first in this series) is about a seemingly limited conflict that spirals out of control because of the choices made by the various viewpoint characters. What should be a simple changing of hands of one of the free cities and an almost gentlemanly battle to do so, turns out to be anything but. In point of fact, the conflict appears poised to be a transformative conflict that will engulf all of the Kingdoms in this world.
Even though it begins from small beginnings, this conflict and its consequences connects all of the major viewpoint characters, from Marcus, former hero turned caravan guard, to Cithrin, adopted daughter of a bank who learns to wield that economic power, to Geder, minor noble who quickly is caught in the schemes of other political players in a way that reminded me strongly of Londo Mollari. The ending of the novel, especially, reinforced that theme for me. I look forward to what Abraham has in store for Geder, especially, even given the Mollari references, Geder is a character seemingly designed by Abraham to be identified with for (male) readers–he’s this world’s version of a geek. Each of these characters, above and beyond of their different stations, are well drawn, distinct, and different, and they are all given room to grow, show their mettle, and the reader is encouraged to see things from their point of view and perspective. Each of them has arcs, defeats, successes and grow and develop across the book. Most particularly is the aforementioned Cithrin, who learns to grow up, quickly. and not always gracefully.
Two viewpoint characters I didn’t mention that this is particularly true of is the noble husband and wife team of Lord and Lady Kalliam. High nobles, close to the king, the socially most powerful viewpoint characters in the novel. Ostensibly, and in lesser hands, they would be the villains of their piece, with their aims and goals definitely not sympathetic in the abstract. But in the execution? In the development of the characters, what they want and why they want it? The adage “everyone is a hero of their own story” gets put through its paces here. They come across as heroes of their own story.
The book is not heavy on gratuitous worldbuilding that you might find in other epic fantasy, and is much more in line with the author’s previous work. We are told enough, and given enough to follow things along and build up a picture of the world. There is not a lot of magic in this world, and in fact the number of times outright magic is seen in the book can be counted on the fingers of one hand. And the magic we see is very subtle, very understated. Both the parsimonious worldbuilding and the relative lack of magic does make The Dragon’s Path, for epic fantasy, a strong contrast to Jordan, Erikson and Sanderson. While I tend to prefer works more along the spectrum of those three gentlemen, my previous experience with the author’s work allowed me to easily get used to his style here.
What didn’t work for me? Mainly, it’s the depiction of the races. We are given thirteen former servitor races of humanity, true, which is a large bill to fill. The book doesn’t quite make all of them come alive as distinct sub-species that are easily distinguishable. Many of the races are just names at best, and those races that we do come in contact with are, by and large, not really distinguished well from each other. We also don’t get a true feel of how the races feel about each other, or a real pecking order. There are hints and intimations, to be sure, but for the moment, the races are much more rubber-head aliens than distinct entities in their own right. Perhaps subsequent novels in the series will correct this.
And apparently there will be more novels in the series. The sequel to The Dragon’s Path, King’s Blood is out now, with the promise of more to come. Despite my objections above, make no mistake, this is solid core epic fantasy by an author with enough experience to possibly make something truly special. The Dragon’s Path may be the start of that.