Friday Read: The Dragon’s Path, by Daniel Abraham
Way back in 2011 (gosh, was it really that long ago?) I read Abraham’s debut, A Shadow in Summer, and loved it for its beautiful writing and unusual Eastern-inspired setting, so when I heard he had written a more conventional epic fantasy series I was a little conflicted. I couldn’t blame him for wanting to write something more commercial than The Long Price Quartet, but I’m not a huge fan of bog-standard medieval EF so it didn’t exactly leap to the top of my TBR list. However I’m currently waiting on several much-anticipated books that aren’t out until spring, so I decided to bite the bullet and give The Dragon’s Path a go…
The dragons are gone, the powerful magics that broke the world diluted to little more than parlour tricks, but the kingdoms of men remain and the great game of thrones goes on. Lords deploy armies and merchant caravans as their weapons, manoeuvring for wealth and influence. But a darker power is rising – an unlikely leader with an ancient ally threatens to unleash again the madness that destroyed the world once already. Only one man knows the truth and, from the shadows, must champion humanity. The world’s fate stands on the edge of a Dagger, its future on the toss of a Coin . . .
Abraham is well-known for his collaborations with George R R Martin, and I have to say that it really shows in this novel. Handful of medieval kingdoms jockeying for power? Check. Weak king beset by ambitious nobles? Check. Dragon skeletons littering the landscape? Check. Scary evil lurking on the far edge of the world? Check. Even the names of many of the characters – Jorey Kalliam, Geder Palliako, Paerin Clark – sound like they could have stepped right out of Westeros. It’s pretty obvious, in fact, that the publishers were aiming squarely at GRRM’s readership: not only do they have the great man’s endorsement on the front cover, but they even managed to get the words “game of thrones” into the back cover copy. Subtle marketing this ain’t!
And yet this book is a rather different beast from A Song of Ice and Fire; less brutal, at least in this first volume, and far more female-friendly. Which is not to say that all is sweetness and light. One character starts out as a likeable buffoon but when his superiors humiliate him one time too many, he takes his revenge in a breathtakingly dramatic manner that reminded me very much of Londo Mollari, one of my favourite characters from the TV series Babylon 5 (and I’m not the only one). Abraham also balances out his military storyline – the Dagger referred to in the series title – with one about banking, i.e. the Coin.
The banking storyline centres around Cithrin bel Sarcour, a ward of the Medean bank who, disguised as a boy, escapes the tide of war with a cargo of valuables, guarded by jaded mercenary captain Marcus Wester, his gruff second-in-command Yardem (a not-quite-human – of which more later), and a bunch of actors pretending to be his crew. Sound familiar to my readers? Indeed, the further I read, the more it felt like a bunch of characters from Night’s Masque had wandered into a Joe Abercrombie novel by mistake
Cithrin is a wonderful character: at first terrified by the situation she has been thrust into, she gradually gains self-confidence and shows herself to be highly intelligent and capable, yet still possessing the vulnerability of a girl on the cusp of womanhood. I also liked Clara, wife of one of the other PoV characters, who becomes a PoV herself later in the book; she’s a woman locked out of power in a patriarchal aristocracy, who nonetheless provides insight and resourcefulness to counter the male characters’ head-on approach to problems. As with The Long Price Quartet, Abraham shows himself adept in writing strong, interesting female characters, with nary a rape in sight!
If I have one major criticism of this book, it’s that the other humanoids are too thinly developed. There are normal humans like us, called Firstbloods, plus (IIRC) twelve additional “races” created by dragons thousands of years ago, most of whom can interbreed with Firstbloods. They have a variety of distinctive physical characteristics – the Cinnae are thin and pale, the Kurtadam are furry and otter-like, the Jasuru have scales – but otherwise their only purpose in the story seems to be to allow racial tensions without the real-world baggage. There’s little sense that these are separate peoples with their own cultures, and OK, maybe they aren’t, but it made for a kind of thin, underdeveloped multiracial culture. Even when one of the PoV characters ventures into a part of the world where Firstbloods are rare, it’s easy to forget that the foreigners he is interacting with aren’t exactly human – they’re just not as alien as I would like. I don’t know if Abraham is deliberately playing safe by not taking his readers out of their comfort zone or whether this is an aspect of worldbuilding he’s not particularly interested in, but it felt like window-dressing to me.
The writing also felt a bit sub-par compared to Abraham’s earlier work – lots of repetition of words within sentences, and not in a poetic sense. This added to my feeling that the genesis of this series was driven by a desire to rapidly fill the ever-longer gaps between volumes of ASOIAF. Still, I doubt most readers will even notice; being a writer oneself, it’s almost impossible to turn off the editorial voice when reading what should be polished work!
One final nitpick that’s more specific to my interest in history is Abraham’s apparent lack of knowledge in some areas. There’s his habit of referring to noblemen as Sir <Surname>, instead of Sir <Firstname> or Baron Whatsit and, worse still, a sword fight in which he mentions the “blood channel” on the blade. If you don’t know why I’m annoyed, or just want to know where the idea comes from, I’ve discovered a great article on the myth of the blood groove (its actual name is the fuller). I was totally thrown out of a tense fight scene by my astonishment that an otherwise good writer would make such amateurish mistakes. OK, so this is a made-up world, but I feel that if you’re going to base your culture so closely on a real-world one, you should get the language right, otherwise it comes across as sloppy.
From all this criticism you’d be forgiven for thinking that I didn’t enjoy the book, but honestly its faults are so minor that they merely knocked it down from five stars to four – if I have been sparing in my praise, it’s mainly to avoid specifics that would constitute spoilers. With its engaging characters and well-paced, deftly woven plot (and, crucially, none of the “grimdark” aspects that have made me abandon other similar series) The Dagger and the Coin is close to my ideal epic fantasy. I shall certainly be picking up the second volume to find out what happens next!