The Dragon’s Path by Daniel Abraham
As I’ve said previously in my reviews, I’d place Daniel Abraham’s THE LONG PRICE QUARTET among the top four or five fantasy series of the past decade. So when his new series, entitled THE DAGGER AND THE COIN, was announced, I was more than eager to see what he would do for a follow-up. I was not disappointed. The first book in the series, The Dragon’s Path, is one of my favorite reads so far this year and I’ll be surprised if it doesn’t make it onto my year’s best list at the end.
The Dragon’s Path is set in a world long ago ruled by dragons. Over time the dragons created thirteen subspecies of humans to act as specialized slaves, breeding one group with the attributes of warriors and another with traits better suited to underground mining, for instance. With the dragons long gone (though their artifacts such as roads and buildings remain), the humans have forged their own kingdoms, city-states, and empires. One such is Antea, whose Severed Throne sits in the capital city of Camnipol. Antea is currently ruled by King Simeon, but the land teeters on the edge of civil war as new ideas threaten the idea of fixed nobility and rule by king, leading to factions and rivalries within the court. Dawson Kalliam is an ultraconservative noble who will do all he can to protect his friend the king and the status quo (everybody in their place where they belong), sure in the rightness and, ahem, “nobility” of his position. Along with the group of nobles he enlists to his cause, he is also is helped by his wife Clara, son Jorey, and a houseguard named Coe. Caught up in the gamesmanship is a young noble, Geder Palliako, who is more scholar than soldier or political player, but finds himself at various points fighting in an attack on the Free City of Vanai, becoming head administrator of a city, trying to head off a coup, and setting out into the wilds in search of an ancient legend.
Meanwhile, the Medean Bank branch in Vanai, seeing the writing on the wall, smuggles out much of its holdings via a young ward of the bank, Cithrin, who disguises herself as a boy, the goods as wool and iron, and joins a caravan exiting the city before the battle. The caravan is guarded by the famous hero Captain Marcus Wester, his second-in-command Yardem, and a group of actors he’s had to hire to pose as guards, led by an older actor named Kit. Eventually, plans go awry and the caravan is diverted to another city where the characters have to find new ways to keep themselves and the bank’s wealth safe. The book weaves among several third-person points of view, most often focusing on Wester, Cithrin, Geder, and Dawson, with a few others (such as Clara and a character who appears in the prologue).
The Dragon’s Path shares many of the same qualities that made THE LONG PRICE QUARTET so good while working in a very different, and somewhat more conventional, type of fantasy story. The first of these qualities is excellent characterization. The two displaying the biggest growth are Geder and Cithrin, both of whom need to find new strengths within themselves as they are thrust into unfamiliar and dangerous new roles. Both begin in relatively weak positions: Geder is made a pawn of the political machinations around him while Cithrin has been a protected ward of the bank and has yet to come into her legal age. Rather than simply take us on the usual coming-of-age journey, however, Abraham throws a few twists at us, taking both characters into places we don’t expect them to go, and not such glorious places either. Even better is how their maturations take place in two wholly different worlds: Geder in the political and militaristic and Cithrin in the world of economics (yes, economics).
Wester grows in quieter, more subtle ways, struggling with the changing dynamics of his relationship with Cithrin and a heavy grief he’s carried with him for years. Kit, meanwhile, doesn’t really change so much as is gradually revealed. The same is true for Dawson’s wife Clara. Dawson, on the other hand, as one might expect from an ultraconservative, doesn’t change at all, even when change might be wiser than the path chosen. One of the more fascinating aspects of the book in fact is how the point of view puts the reader at odds with him or herself. As readers, one has a tendency to identify with the point-of-view character. Yet Dawson is just about the antithesis of all modern political thought: a man who will die to keep the poor in their place and the rich in theirs, not simply because he benefits personally from it but because it’s “right.” He rails against the new restrictions on slavery and worries the “rabble” may “choose to champion themselves.” He is almost the epitome of the sneering, condescending lord we all love to hate when our POV character works against him. But here he is front and center as the POV character – what’s a reader to do? Without spoiling things, I’ll say that Dawson is not the only character Abraham plays this game with, and its one of the most intriguing and compelling aspects of the novel.
The side characters vary in their depth and range, but none do a disservice to the reading experience. The prose makes for truly effortless reading — clean, tight, efficient without being monotone, with sharp dialogue. I’d say it is less stylized and elegant than THE LONG PRICE QUARTET, though it has its moments, as when he describes how a city has outgrown its ancient battlements: “The architecture of war slept in the middle of a living community like a great hunting cat torpid from the kill.”
The plot is, hmmm, perhaps Abrahamesque is the word? It’s certainly more conventional than THE LONG PRICE QUARTET, but it shares with that series a slow pace, quiet action, character-driven scenes, a focus on personal introspection and relationship, and a preference for political and economic maneuvering rather than sweeping military action. Abraham dispenses with “classic” fantasy scenes such as battles or journey-quests either super-speedily or in unexpected fashion. And magic — an obvious fantasy trope — is even more understated here than in his first series, which is saying something. There is magic, but like most aspects of Abraham’s style, it is a quieter version than we’re used to and comes in small, sharp moments (though we have hints it will perhaps be reentering the world in larger fashion).
I should emphasize here that “understated” and “quiet” are not euphemisms for “dull.” I read The Dragon’s Path in a single sitting, reading well into the night. Truth is, I find Abraham’s depiction of conspiracies and economic repercussions, as well as his parsimonious use of magic, to be more compelling than many a fantasy novel filled with “epic” battles and “wizardly fire.”
Finally, I’ll add that while I wouldn’t say The Dragon’s Path has flaws, in that nothing really detracted from the reading experience, it does have aspects that aren’t as strong as its good qualities. I can’t say I had a great feel for the thirteen human races; they seemed to blend in or blur. Part of me assumes we’ll delve more into them as the series continues, so this isn’t such a big deal. And part of me wonders if it matters much; that the fact they’re simply “there” just makes for a more realistic feel to the story, rather than giving the reader a “tour” of the Kooky Krazy Fantasy Races. In either case, as I said, it never bothered me or took me out of the story. The same holds true for a sense of culture: food, religion, etc. He has one scene where a character recalls a city he’d overwintered in: “There’s a lake in the middle of the city, and the whole time we were there, you could cross it anywhere. There’s a winter city they build on the ice every year. Houses and taverns and all. Like a real town.” I would have loved more of those kinds of details, as well as more on the races, but as there’s a lot of story left to come, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt on this and assume we will see more in both areas. (That scene, by the way, with the speaker teaching Cithrin how to ice skate, is one of those small but beautiful moments between characters that Abraham does so well.)
In the end, The Dragon’s Path impresses nearly as much as THE LONG PRICE QUARTET and I can’t wait to see where this goes. (One does need to wait; unlike that first series this book doesn’t end with a clear resolution. It isn’t a cliffhanger, but the story is in the middle.) This one will be hard to push off that Year’s Favorite list. Highly recommended.
The Dragon’s Path comes with a recommendation from George R.R. Martin on the front cover, and after the first few chapters I could see why the publishers wanted to play up that comparison (aside, of course, from Martin’s newfound superstardom with the success of the television adaptation of his books). The Dragon’s Path depicts a world that isn’t exactly similar to Westeros but certainly shops at the same trope boutique. It’s an epic fantasy heavily steeped in politics and concerned with warring families vying for power. Magic exists, but as in A Song of Ice and Fire it’s very understated and little-acknowledged. Overall, I think Abraham does a very good job with this kind of story, although I do feel that he could have given a bit more time to certain elements for a richer experience.
The plot is for the most part divided between four narrators, all of whom are conspicuously morally gray except for Marcus Wester, the noble but emotionally damaged soldier and closest thing the book has to a “traditional” hero figure. The others are Geder Palliako, a bullied and bookish knight who swings between petty mean-spiritedness and boyish naivete; Cithrin bel Sarcour, a young banker-in-training with more than enough ambition; and Dawson Kalliam, a patriot and principled lord with somewhat uncomfortable (but historically accurate) views on the superiority of the aristocracy over the faceless hoi poloi. Characterization is a real strength for Abraham. Each of his protagonists has a distinct voice and tone, and their opinions and actions are believable. Abraham delights in toying with the reader’s perception of a given protagonist, experimenting with what he can have them do while remaining relatable. While his success in that quarter is down to individual opinion, I personally found the balancing act well-managed.
The plot is straightforward and occasionally a touch predictable, but in this as in other arenas Abraham is more or less imitating reality: some outcomes simply are predictable, making the twists only more surprising when they appear out of nowhere, as they do just often enough. It’s a clever bit of work. The prose style is matter-of-fact and streamlined but works well here, reflecting what seems to be Abraham’s broader goal of a fantasy world somewhat demystified.
The world-building, unfortunately, does not quite live up to the complexity of the cast or the craft of the plot. We get a kind of vague history involving dragons having at one point ruled the land and crafted twelve new races out of the regular humans (here called Firstbloods), but I can only assume that these elements are being saved for importance in another installment. Despite what is otherwise a tight and well-managed book, Abraham really seems to have no reason in The Dragon’s Path for a total of thirteen races to exist (most of the text deals with Firstblood characters), and their presence leads to some confused moments as one tries frantically to recall what exactly was the difference between a Dartinae and a Cinnae. Similarly, if less immediately problematic, the history of this world is never really explained to a satisfactory extent. I get a feeling there might have been more of it that met a premature demise before Abraham’s red pen at some point, and if so I wish he’d shown it a bit more mercy — the world would feel much richer with a few legends and tales of yore to round things out.
Exacerbating these problems somewhat is Abraham’s ongoing love affair with realism as a concept. I can’t really call it a flaw in the novel — it certainly brings about some consequences that I think work very well for Abraham’s style — but its influence is ponderous. About the only times Abraham indulges in preachiness are those occasions where he allows a character to wax poetic about some recognizable but more romanticized epic fantasy trope he is keen to disassociate himself from. As regards the world-building, he seems concerned that his characters will be unrealistic if they start reflecting too much on things they should already take for granted, and is forced to work in the descriptions of his races and his countries in little incidental asides. It’s a noble effort on the part of what is (as I said before) generally sterling characterization, but at times I did wish he’d just broken down and given us a bit more to work with.
Overall, though, The Dragon’s Path is a brisk, well-crafted novel with fascinating characters and a lot of potential moving forward into the next installment. I hope to see Abraham deepen his world with succeeding texts, and if that proves to be the case then this first novel in his series may be the beginning of something truly remarkable.
Daniel Abraham is a very busy writer. Under the pen name M.L.N. Hanover, he is writing a series of excellent urban fantasies about Jayné Heller, a young woman who has inherited a dubious way of life from her uncle. As James S.A. Corey, he and Ty Franck are writing a space opera series. Under his own name, Abraham broke into publishing in 2006 with THE LONG PRICE QUARTET, a refreshingly nontraditional fantasy series set in a world with an Asian flavor. Now Abraham has embarked on a more traditional series entitled THE DAGGER AND THE COIN, the first book of which is The Dragon’s Path.
The Dragon’s Path is set in a vaguely western European milieu, complete with kings and castles and squabbling nobles. It also partakes of the ruthlessness of the viewpoint characters in the work of writers like Joe Abercrombie and Richard K. Morgan. Yet The Dragon’s Path is its own creature, resonating with the fantasy genre but playing its own chord. So, for instance, one of the principal characters is a dreamy intellectual, a feckless soldier, and a brutal ruler, and somehow Abraham makes them all blend seamlessly into a single complicated man, one the reader will simultaneously love and hate. Abraham makes this character’s motivations completely understandable, even while reprehensible. It’s a terrific job of characterization.
The frame for the tale is about an apostate from the religion of a spider god, but for the bulk of the book the introduction seems to belong to a different novel. Instead, we are first introduced to Captain Marcus Wester, an honorable military man who was once a hero but now takes on work as hired security. He has a problem: he’s been hired to guard a caravan, but doesn’t have sufficient men to do the job. He finds a solution in a traveling troupe of actors, who can act as security personnel as well as they can act as kings, queens, lovers and enemies.
Next we meet Sir Geder Palliako, Heir of the Viscount of Rivenhalm, who is the complicated man discussed above. He is such a dreamy intellectual when we meet him that he is easily pranked by his fellow soldiers, who decide he needs some toughening up — and particularly, therefore, needs his books taken away from him. You can goad a man only so far, though, and we get the first big hints of Geder’s resentment, which leads to his cruelty, in these first few pages with him.
Cithrin Bel Sarcour, Ward of the Medean Bank, is one of the few female characters with an active role in this novel. She is young and untested, but about to be subject to very difficult times — and rise to the occasion, at that. Her introduction is followed by a chapter about Dawson Kalliam, Baron of Osterling Fells, who is at least as complicated as Palliako. He is written in many ways as a petty man of petty jealousies, but also as a king’s confidant with only the king’s interests at heart. He is ruthless but fair, loves his lands, his son and his wife (who is one of the smart, strong women who populate this book, though mostly in the background), and plays politics with a relish that seems designed more to create havoc than to fix problems.
These characters come together and break apart again in many ways throughout the course of the novel, like a tapestry being partially unraveled and rewoven, making new patterns appear that weren’t obvious from the start. Geder is used and uses; Cithrin takes advantage of an opportunity; Dawson manipulates the king, but only for the king’s own good. Each character acts in his or her own self-interest, and none seems to understand what he or she is creating out of the other individuals that slip in and out of their lives. These characters grow and change in the course of this book. Most chillingly, the spiders we read about in the introduction start to play a huge, though still partially hidden, role as the novel goes on. Will the kingdom survive, or fall to the squabbles of petty nobles? Will the Medean Bank be destroyed, and Cithrin along with it? Will Geder outgrow his naivete and use his brains for something practical, or will he be mired in his dreams and resentments? What are the interests of the spider god? These questions are unresolved at the close of this first book in Abraham’s series, but the concerns of all the characters seem poised to grow larger and ready to deal with a more cataclysmic threat in the forthcoming second book, The King’s Blood. The Dragon’s Path is a promising beginning to a promising series, with characters written to be far more real than the usual archetype. You’ll turn the last page looking forward to more.
CLASSIFICATION: Influenced by the likes of Alexandre Dumas, George R.R. Martin, Joss Whedon, J.R.R. Tolkien, and J. Michael Straczynski among others, THE DAGGER AND THE COIN is Daniel Abraham’s take on traditional epic fantasy. Regarding The Dragon’s Path specifically, the novel brought to mind elements of GRRM’s A Song of Ice and Fire, Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Shadows of the Apt, and Abraham’s very own THE LONG PRICE QUARTET, minus the melodrama and Oriental-flavored setting.
FORMAT/INFO: The Dragon’s Path is 592 pages long divided over a Prologue, an Entr’acte, and 45 chapters with each chapter designated by the name of a main character. Also includes a Map, an Interview with Daniel Abraham, and an excerpt from The King’s Blood, the second volume in THE DAGGER AND THE COIN. Narration is in the third person via Captain Marcus Wester; Geder Palliako; Cithrin Bel Sarcour; Dawson Kalliam, the Baron of Osterling Fells; Dawson’s wife, Clara Annalie Kalliam; and the Apostate. The Dragon’s Path is the first volume in THE DAGGER AND THE COIN — a projected five-volume series. April 7, 2011/April 21, 2011 marks the North American/UK Trade Paperback publication of The Dragon’s Path via Orbit Books.
ANALYSIS: There are many reasons why I’m such a huge fan of Daniel Abraham’s writing, but the quality I most admire about the author is his versatility. Fantasy, science fiction, superheroes, urban fantasy, multi-volume series, standalone novels, short fiction, collaborations with other authors, shared worlds, mosaic novels, comic books… Daniel Abraham has taken on all of these different formats and subgenres and done so successfully. Daniel Abraham can now add traditional epic fantasy to his resume with THE DAGGER AND THE COIN, a promising new series kicked off by The Dragon’s Path…
In The Dragon’s Path, Daniel Abraham introduces readers to a secondary world once ruled by dragons, but is now populated by thirteen different races of humanity: Firstblood, Cinnae, Tralgu, Southling, Timzinae, Yemmu, Haunadam, Dartinae, Kurtadam, Jasuru, Raushadam, Haaverkin and the Drowned. Unfortunately, world-building was never one of Daniel Abraham’s strong suits, and it continues to be a weakness in The Dragon’s Path, especially regarding the thirteen races of humanity. At first, I was intrigued by the different races and hoped they would bring something new to the table the way Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Insect-Kinden does in the Shadows of the Apt. However, so little information is provided about the races over the course of the novel that I never even got a sense of how these races differed from one another apart from superficial traits — the Cinnae are “reed-thin” and “snow-pale”; the Tralgu have “hound-like ears”; Kurtadam possess “oily, bead-adorned fur”; Jasuru are “bronze-scaled” with pointed teeth; Timzinae are “chitinous”; the Yemmu have jaw tusks; Dartinae are “glow-eyed” and “hairless”; etc. — let alone finding anything that actually added value or uniqueness to the book. Thankfully, Daniel Abraham has posted a taxonomy on the different races which is much more informational, although it would have been better if the information had been included in the novel itself.
Compounding the world-building problem is the novel’s lack of history, religion, mythology, etc. You would think with thirteen races to choose from, The Dragon’s Path would be rich with diverse cultures, religious beliefs and myths, but that’s not the case. Not only does the author focus primarily on Firstbloods — the clay “from which all humanity arose” — but the kingdom of Antea with its nobles and court politics is disappointingly familiar, while religion, history and mythology hardly factor in the novel at all. There’s also very little magic in the book, which I’m okay with except what magic can be found in The Dragon’s Path is unimaginative and a little boring — being able to determine truth from lies and bending a person’s will in a manner akin to the Force.
World-building issues aside, there’s a lot to like about The Dragon’s Path starting with the characters. At first glance, Captain Marcus Wester, Geder Palliako, Cithrin Bel Sarcour and Dawson Kalliam seem like conventional fantasy stereotypes — there’s the veteran soldier haunted by his past, the pudgy noble ridiculed for his incompetence and the “roundness of his belly”, the young orphan who is coming of age, and the loyal noble who believes in traditionalism — but there’s much more to these characters than initial appearances. Especially Geder and Cithrin, the two most fascinating individuals in the novel. The former because of his unpredictability and the dangerous tightrope he walks between good and evil. The latter because of her unique skills as a banker and the trials endured on her journey to adulthood. And both of them because of their remarkable transformations from the characters introduced at the beginning of the book to the very different individuals found at the end of the novel.
Clara Annalie Kalliam, Dawson Kalliam’s wife, is another fascinating character even though she only has two chapters in the book, but hopefully she will receive more face time in the sequel. On the opposite side of the coin, Marcus Wester and Dawson Kalliam are the novel’s weakest characters, offering the least amount of growth and development, but even they have their redeeming qualities. Marcus for example, has a very complicated, but intriguing relationship with Cithrin, while Dawson is portrayed as a good guy even though his traditional beliefs seem outdated and misguided. Then there’s the Apostate who is largely a mystery, but factors heavily in the book as a supporting character. The rest of the supporting cast is shallow and one-dimensional, but my biggest complaint is how all of the main characters are Firstbloods apart from the half-Cinnae Cithrin. As a whole though, characterization is definitely an area of strength in The Dragon’s Path, much the way it was in Daniel Abraham’s THE LONG PRICE QUARTET.
Story-wise, The Dragon’s Path is full of recognizable fantasy tropes like a caravan, bandits, an acting troupe, a girl disguised as a boy, king’s hunts, duels, a seer, prophecy, coups, etc., while the politics and intrigue of Antea’s court reminded me of GRRM’s A Song of Ice and Fire. Yet for all of its familiarity, the story is still a compelling one, highlighted by unpredictable twists and interesting subplots like the one involving Cithrin, the Medean Bank and economics. At the same time, the story is stamped with Daniel Abraham’s own unique personality — methodical pacing, the swift passage of time, drama emphasized over action, self-contained subplots — all elements that can be found in the author’s THE LONG PRICE QUARTET. The bigger picture meanwhile remains a mystery after The Dragon’s Path is over, but no doubt it will involve the spider goddess, the Apostate and the Medean Bank. Hopefully it will also involve more of the thirteen races of humanity, and perhaps even the dragons — or at least their legacy — will have a larger role to play in future volumes.
As far as the writing, Daniel Abraham’s prose is more straightforward and less elegant than it was in THE LONG PRICE QUARTET, but the author’s performance overall remains skilled and polished, led of course by Abraham’s characterization and clever plotting.
CONCLUSION: The Dragon’s Path may suffer from shallow world-building and concepts that are underutilized like the thirteen different races of humanity, but because of main characters who are interesting and well-developed and a story that consistently surprises despite its familiarity, The Dragon’s Path is a very solid start to Daniel Abraham’s new fantasy series, THE DAGGER AND THE COIN. A series that I believe possesses the potential to appeal to a wide range of readers, including fans of traditional epic fantasy, fantasy that challenges the genre’s conventions, and Daniel Abraham’s own particular brand of fantasy. From a personal standpoint, I did not find The Dragon’s Path as engrossing as A Shadow In Summer, the opening volume in Daniel Abraham’s THE LONG PRICE QUARTET. However, considering how much THE LONG PRICE QUARTET improved as the series progressed, I’m confident that THE DAGGER AND THE COIN will follow a similar trajectory, and excitedly look forward to experiencing the rest of Daniel Abraham’s ambitious new saga as it unfolds.
Daniel Abraham has kicked off a terrific new epic series with The Dragon’s Path. I’ve come to realize that I love “EPIC.” The bigger, the more dramatic, the more flawed characters whose existences connect, orbit and intertwine in more surprising ways… the better.
The story revolves around a small handful of characters who live in an ancient world populated by a myriad of diverse human-like races. Abraham shifts focus between each of his key characters as he builds a world that’s clearly different than our own, but very recognizable in its sword-and-leather medieval-like inspiration.
One can’t help but see the clear influences of George R.R. Martin in the story. Abraham has collaborated with the Game of Thrones author and pays enjoyable tribute to the modern epic master.
The flawed main characters are respectively an orphan, a widower, a social outsider, and an influential nobleman who’s very focused on keeping the ‘natural’ social order of societal hierarchy. The characters are developed slowly, and drawn smartly and subtlety. While the action is limited in this first book, Abraham builds a magnificently rich world of intrigue and drama, all driven by the brilliantly realistic and complex core characters.
I also love the fact that the elements of supernatural fantasy are very limited. There’s no real magic, though you get a sense of something “more” running through the threaded experiences of the story. Dragons play a key role in the history and mythology in The Dragon’s Path. The dragon lorem, though, is just that: a heavy influence on the history of Abraham’s world, but a thing of the past.
The story is epic in its scope and the magnitude of the plot lines. It’s not quite as large and sprawling as The Game of Thrones, but the themes and atmosphere are similar.
If you enjoy that kind of depth and heaviness, then I strongly recommend this book. I thoroughly enjoyed it and look forward to Abraham’s second in the series.