The Spider’s War by Daniel Abraham
I thought Daniel Abraham was one of the best writers working in the craft when I first read A Shadow in Summer nearly ten years ago, and the rest of that series, THE LONG PRICE QUARTET did nothing to dissuade me of that first impression. Nor has what followed over the years, which includes the ongoing EXPANSE science fiction series (co-written with Ty Franck) and the fantasy series, THE DAGGER AND THE COIN, which wrapped up this spring with The Spider’s War, bringing to an end another great series in unsurprisingly excellent fashion. I’m going to assume you have already read the previous books and so won’t bother recapping/explaining previous events or characters.
The Spider’s War picks up shortly after the events of the prior book, The Widow’s House. Geder Palliako, Lord Regent of Antea, has, under the sway of the Red Priest’s magic and thanks to his own personal shortcomings and desires for Cithrin (his thwarted love interest), stretched thin Antea’s armies. Taking advantage of his overreach, the recently defeated regions on the edges of the Empire are throwing off their conquerors and threatening to march on the capital city itself, funding their armies via Cithrin’s new innovation of paper money (known as “War Gold”). But even as she uses the bank’s power to oppose Geder and achieve a hoped-for victory against him and the Red Priests, Cithrin is also desperately trying to find a way to forestall the inevitable desire of the conquered for revenge. Her goal then is not to simply end this war, but to end the seemingly endless cycle of war. Her allies are the same ones we’ve seen before: Marcus the mercenary leader and his second Yardem; Kit, apparently the one good priest of the spider goddess, Clara Kalliam, former Baroness turned spy; and Inys, the last dragon. That last not necessarily the most reliable of allies and one who might have his own not-so-human-friendly agenda.
As before, the novel follows four third-person limited POVs (Marcus, Geder, Cithrin, Clara), and to these are added several third person omniscient chapters to give us a wider range of perspective on what is happening in the world. Movement between the separate POVs is smooth, showing a good sense of when to exit one and enter another.
Characterization, as it has been throughout the series, is wonderfully complex and rich, with nearly every character presented with multiple layers. Geder performs absolutely horrifying atrocities, and yet rather than being portrayed as some dark lord without a soul or conscience, instead we see him being eaten away by what he’s done even as he is unable to recognize the cause for his “illness.” At times as well we see signs of the scholar he longed to be, the young man who aches for love and acceptance, the clear-sighted man who senses he’s in over his head. It’s a fantastically complicated fleshing out of character, made more so by his truly sincere love for the young king-to-be Aster, whom he treats with nothing but utter tenderness.
Meanwhile, Cithrin’s naiveté has created death and suffering for many over time, her drinking doesn’t magically disappear just because we’re near the heroic climax, and she shows herself willing to ruthlessly manipulate whomever she must to achieve her ends. As for Clara, Abraham had me just by taking a middle-aged widower and making her the equal (or more) of the other more normal “hero-types.” But she too is given a full personality. We see her still grieving for her dead husband rather than simply forgetting him as happens far too often with genre deaths even as she continues her current love affair. Nor does she grieve for him in the form of simple romanticizing, as for instance when she thinks how he had believed:
that the world could be kept as it had been, static and unchanged… For him the world had an order. To plan a war against a noble — and Geder wasn’t king but he was certainly of noble blood — with its being between peers would have been unthinkable… She was relieved that he hadn’t lived to see this.
Even she, later on, worries that this “people-power” thing may go too far. Far from a single-note character, we watch her move through multiple roles as mother, widow, lover, noble.
Marcus is the most stock character, but only in his type, not in his portrayal. And the dialog between him and Yardem remains a nicely mined source of humor. I said in one of my earlier reviews that at some point I couldn’t stop hearing Yardem’s lines delivered in the voice of Zoe from Firefly, and my margin annotations here include repeated notations of “Zoe, Zoe, Zoe, Zoe” — all of them moments of laugh-out-loud comic relief (now that I’ve put this in your head I defy you to not hear Zoe’s voice as you read Yardem).
Abraham has long been one of the best writers at the sentence-level and therefore the prose is excellent all the way through, whether it be in service of dialogue, descriptive passages, humor, deep musings on human nature, introspection, or action. The sentences are wonderfully crafted, and he shows the frequent ability to pack a lot of meaning and/or emotion into them when needed. The writing is also just often smart, with lines and passages to pause over while you really think about what is being said. Often in this book those lines will have to do with the major themes of war, mercy, justice, economics, the power of story and belief.
There’s even a bit of meta going on here, as when Kit, in his actor mode, explains how:
War, by comparison, seems to me so large and happens so differently to so many people that capturing it in a tale leaves me with the sense that I’ve simplified it so much that it no longer resembles the thing it depicts. The best I’ve managed is a story about people while a war goes on around them, but I think that isn’t the same.
Think for a moment here about what is ethically incumbent (if anything) upon an author who tells a war story — is it moral to tell one that does not depict it in its reality? (And here, in a momentary digression, I’ll point you to one of the greatest short stories on this topic, “How to Tell a True War Story” by Tim O’Brien, in perhaps the greatest war anthology The Things They Carried).
Later, Kit will ask Marcus:
Why do you suppose there are no plays about good people being kind to each other?
When Marcus says, “Because nothing would ever happen,” Kit rejects that notion:
It would though. People would be thoughtful and kind and gentle and resolve their hurts and confusions with consideration and love. Those are things. They happen.
Not a bad discussion for a storyteller to have in his story.
So deeply rich characterization, sterling prose, thoughtful themes. If The Spider’s War falls a little short someplace it’s probably in the plotting, which may seem a bit rushed at the end, a bit thin in spots. I wouldn’t have minded a bit more of the economics angle. But these were minor quibbles and none of them marred my enjoyment or prevented me from zipping through the book’s roughly 500 pages in a single read. As for the ending, it brings things to a moving and satisfactory close but also makes clear these events are just part of these characters’ lives; those that survived have more living and doing to accomplish. We just won’t see it. Though I for one wouldn’t mind if we do. A strong close to a fantastic series.
So, here’s a great writer whose work I had completely overlooked for some reason. Since I started reading THE EXPANSE series, I’ve been curious about Abraham’s fantasy, and both you and Terry W recommend him, so I guess he moves to the top of the TBR list. Thanks for this in-depth review.
The Long Price is, IMO, the best fantasy epic ever written (and I’ve read a ton of them.) I’m about halfway through TDatC now and, while it’s not quite as good as TLP (what is?) it’s still a very enjoyable, tightly written fantasy. Abraham is a wonder — he consistently produces very high quality genre fiction on a schedule that you’d think would cause his work to suffer. But it doesn’t.
I agree with you about tLPQ, best ever. I thought The Spider’s War was a slight letdown, but only because books 2-4 were so good. Clara was a fantastic character all throughout.
His urban fantasy series is quite good too. I’m really excited to see what he’ll put out next.