Monday, May 11, 2020

Review of The Dragon's Path by Daniel Abraham

Daniel Abraham’s Long Price quartet, kicked off in 2006 by A Shadow in Summer, is a good, solid but perhaps not exceptional fantasy series that did not receive the attention it deserved. The plotting fast and loose and never quite as balanced as one would hope, Abraham nevertheless showed he had a good grip on character and character dynamics in telling the generational story of two men with differing yet common directions in life. Possessing a spin on djinns and using a unique method of communication, the series is still able to poke its nose above the herd (and remains worth a read today). But when looking where to aim his writing ship after the Long Price, it would seem Abraham looked to more familiar territory, or, as is most likely the case, unfamiliar but realistic territory. 2011’s The Dragon’s Path kicks off the quintuplet of The Dagger and the Coin series.

Reading more like historical fiction in a fictional setting than the epic fantasy one typically associates with the genre label the book possesses, The Dragon’s Path feels very realistic. If the place names were real, and the settings described as Medieval, readers could easily put themselves into an Earth scene years ago. Kings, vassals, wars, courtiers, knights, retinues, etc., the panoply (har har) of Medieval life is conveyed in representative terms—but not grimdark (i.e. excessive wallowing in the dystopia of Europe’s past).

While there is certainly room to argue plot motivates a fair portion of the novel, The Dragon’s Path is largely a character study of people at various points of their lives. It moves through the viewpoints of a handful of characters, high to low society, as they deal with a land and societies shifting and adapting to planned and unplanned upheaval. Cithrin is a ward of the Medean Bank of Vanai, and at the outset of the novel she has been charged with overseeing the transfer of a huge amount of the bank’s gold to the city of Carse. Where other writers would use this opening as an opportunity for robbery (i.e. drama), Abraham takes her story in a different direction, helping to paint many of the underlying social and cultural conflicts in the process while getting to the heart of what drives her. Geder is prince but would rather be a scholar studying history and lore. Initially given control of a city, it isn’t long before he learns those above him know of his true desires, as well. And Dawson Killiam is an ageing man. Member of the court of nobles and friend to the king, he begins to uncover a plot in his day to day work in the court that would seem to point in one direction, but his hunches tell him it’s pointed in another.

While I hinted earlier that it’s possible The Dragon’s Path is in response to some readers’ dislike of the unique elements of the Long Price Quartet, I feel it’s far more likely that Abraham looked to the success of his novelette “The Cambist and Lord Iron: A Fairy Tale of Economics”, a story about the relationship between economics and power, and looked to expand it into a much broader and grander story. The umbrella title The Dagger and the Coin, Abraham would seem to seek to examine the ways in which money and violence change the lives of people and societies.

First book in a five-part series, not to mention reading like historical fiction, The Dragon’s Path takes its time getting off the ground. Dramatic events do occur (i.e. scenes which draw a lot of readers to reading), but Abraham largely maintains focus on his handful of characters. A banker, a scholar, and a nobleman are not a knight, assassin, or wizard, meaning it takes time and growing with the characters for the substance and intention of the narrative to begin to take shape. For me it wasn’t until three-quarters of the way through the novel things started to really click, and I became engaged with its aims and questions.

In the end, if readers are looking for the fireworks sensawunda that some fantasy books provide, The Dragon’s Path is not for them. Abraham approaches the setting and characters with a strong sense of realism, particularly the roles economy and war play in changing society. Beyond the standard “I’m evil because I’m evil.” fantasy shtick, Abraham looks to investigate those two primary mechanisms of power, and how they affected people, for better and worse, through bigger and smaller upheavals. For that, the book holds more in common with the works of Tolstoy than Tolkien. There are elements of fantasy hovering on the edges, and occasionally in the forefront, hinting at things to come, but by and large readers looking for a layered look into the power of money and violence should take a look.

1 comment:

  1. Looking around for some new reading material, I stumbled onto this. Though not exactly action packed, it has enough suspense to keep you interested. The story follows four characters on seemingly unrelated paths that smoothly come together as the plot moves on. A famous war hero sick of fighting, trying to find a way to stop getting recruited for that season's war (my personal favorite). An orphan apprentice of a bank trying to avoid losing riches to said war, gets thrown into a smuggling operation she is unprepared for. A bookworm nobleman's son who has absolutely no political or intrigue talent, finally has enough of being mocked and used and tries to prove he is his own man. And the friend of the king who truly and wholeheartedly believes he has his king's best interest at heart, but is completely too blind and proud to see he is only making things worse. This last guy is the reason I took so long to finish this book. His POV chapters were so full of dialogue about how he knows everything and most others are either simple minded low born fools or evil conspirators after the king's thrown, that my brain started to wander when I saw his name in a chapter heading. I would have skipped his chapters entirely if they weren't so vital to the plot as a whole.

    That being said, I enjoyed the world setting, story building, and most of the characters. A fantasy setting with different human races (I wish there was a chart or something listing them and their characteristics, I couldn't find one on my Kindle ) that felt completely fresh and new was a relief. While I am not sure about finishing the series thanks to how long it took me to finish this book, I do recommend it for those who want a fantasy story with so many plot twists you won't know where it ends.