The Dragon’s Path
Author – Daniel Abraham
Publisher: Orbit Books
Release Date: April 7th, 2011
In June of 2010, I threw a bit of a fit. I’d learned that not only was Tor Books not going to be publishing anymore novels by Daniel Abraham, they weren’t even going to do his fans the service of releasing the final volume of his The Long Price Quartet in paperback. I went on record, then, saying that Tor would regret letting the promising author go, that they were foolish to let such a promising young writer slip through their fingers.
Orbit Books wasted no time in snapping up Abraham and immediately announcing The Dagger and the Coin, a new series completely unrelated to The Long Price Quartet and set within a more familiar frame that was sure to appeal to the casual Fantasy fan that is so important in ensuring Abraham’s continued and inevitable rise through the genre. Tor made a mistake in letting him go and there’s no better proof of that than The Dragon’s Path, the first volume of The Dagger and the Coin.
As a fan of The Long Price Quartet, it’s difficult to consider The Dragon’s Path without drawing comparisons between the two. Throwing aside the unfamiliar world of his first series, The Dragon’s Path places the reader in a world heavily inspired by 15th Century Europe and populates it with 13 distinct races (comprising ‘humanity’), each rising from the ashes of the long-crumbled Dragon Empire . It’s somewhat alarming to see Abraham working with such twee Fantasy conventions, but with a little bit of faith, one soon realizes that this is no retelling of The Belgariad or The Lord of the Rings, but very much its own beast. There is an equal shift in the tone of the story and the characters met. When first describing The Dagger and the Coin, Abraham wrote:
The glib way I’ve been describing it is that I wrote my tragedy first, now I’m writing my adventure
And it’s absolutely true. When I first heard about The Dragon’s Path, and despite my initial alarm, I was nearly giddy at the idea of Abraham turing his attentions to a more traditional tale. Sure, it sounds silly, given that I love his other work so dearly for its originality and the way it confidently sticks out from a crowded Fantasy market; but, bottom line, it is one of my favourite authors working in one of my favourite sub-genres. A combination I would find it impossible not to be excited about.
At its heart, The Dragon’s Path is still absolutely an Abraham novel. Though the story features drunken pranks, dragons, priests with giant swords, siege warfare and an ‘evil’ cult following a spider goddess, it also deals heavily with the economics of war, the emotional toll of growing up and being repeatedly push to the dirt, the politics that boil under the surface of any successful kingdom and the subtleties of human relationships. And the characters, as I’ve come to expect from Abraham’s work, are where the novel truly shines.
Abraham manages to weed out those little mannerisms, those little ticks of character and setting that are so important in getting to know a person or a place, and reveals them to the reader quietly. One of the major roadblocks in dialogue in literature is that so much of the important communication happens through body language, yet so many authors use only the words spoken to reveal the relationships between their characters. Abraham manages to let us know so much about the characters through not only their words, but also through these little actions that define them. A small smile here, or a nervous habit there. Other authors try at this, but unlike Robert Jordan’s braid-tugging, Abraham’s prose and between-the-lines dialogue never feels bloated or unnecessary. It’s simply another level to the story that weaves organically between the other aspects of the prose.
“Why do you apologize for everything you say?” she asked.
Master Kit turned to her, bushy eyebrows hoisted.
“I wasn’t aware that I did,” he said.
“You just did it again,” Cithrin said. “You never say anything straight out. It’s all I believe this or I’ve found that. You never say, The sun rises in the morning. It’s always, I think the sun rises in the morning. It’s like you’re trying not to promise anything.
Master Kit went sober. His dark eyes considered her. Cithrin felt a chill run down her spine, but it wasn’t fear. It was like being on the edge of finding something that she’d only guessed was there. Master Kit rubbed a palm across his chin. The sound was soft and intimate and utterly mundane.
“I’m surprised you noticed that,” he said, then smiled at having done it again. “I have a talent for being believed, and I’ve found it problematic. I suppose I’ve adopted habits to soften the effect, and so I try not to assert things unless I’m certain of them. Absolutely certain, I mean. I’m often surprised by how little I’m absolutely certain of.”
“That’s an odd choice,” Cithrin said.
“And it encourages me to take myself lightly,” Master Kit said. “I find a certain value in lightness.”
“I wish I could,” she said. The despair in her voice surprised her, and then she was weeping. (p. 251 of ARC)
There are few authors whose prose I enjoy more than Abraham’s. He manages to be both plain and endlessly deep. He has the ability to touch on descriptions and characters with only a few words where other authors would devote paragraphs. With that, he’s able to pack so much into his novels that it makes writers like Robert Jordan or Brandon Sanderson seem incredibly obtuse and self-indulgent. Abraham packs more story and character into a third of the word count of those industry giants.
Cithrin walked through the streets of Vanai, her stomach in knots. The false mustache was the sort of thin, weedy thing a callow boy might cultivate and be proud of. Her clothes were a mix of Besel’s shirts and jackets resewn in the privacy of the bank and whatever cheap, mended rags could be scrounged. They hadn’t dared to buy anything new. Her hair was tea-stained to an almost colorless brown and combed forward to obscure her face. She walked with the wider gait Magister Imaniel had taught her, a knot of uncomfortable cloth held tight against her sex to remind her that she was supposed to have a cock. (p. 47 of ARC)
Dawson looked at his childhood friend. The months of winter had etched a frown into the corners of his mouth and left grey at his temples like the first frost. Or perhaps the signs of age and weakness had always been there, and Dawson hadn’t been willing to see them until now. The jewel-studded robes that Simeon wore—even the crown itself—looked less like the raiments of power and greatness than they had in the autumn. Instead they were the empty form of it, like a dry pitcher waiting to be filled. (p. 211 of ARC)
From Cithrin’s naivety to Dawson’s jaded politicking, it’s crude and sophisticated by turns, matching the necessary tone of the scene and revealing in small pieces how the characters view the world and their situation. There’s never a word out of place and even the most off-hand thoughts, observances or actions always have weight behind them.
Structurally, Abraham adopts a style that’s been popularized in recent years by authors like Joe Abercrombie and George R.R. Martin. The plot progresses via multiple view-point characters—sometimes half-a-world apart, sometimes sharing the same cramped cellar—and alternates between Geder’s politically charged story of princes and warfare, and Cithrin’s struggle to move a fortune half-way across the world. The characters sometimes cross paths and seeing the situations through multiple sets of eyes sheds light on the tale that wouldn’t be possible with a more traditional single point-of-view storytelling method.
As mentioned, the world Abraham’s created leans much more heavily towards the traditional stylings of classic authors like Raymond Feist or Tad Williams and contemporary authors like the aforementioned Joe Abercrombie or Scott Lynch. Magic is still only on the periphery of the tale, but the prologue and the later portions of Geder’s story hint that there are big things to come as magic emerges and finds a greater foothold among the thirteen races.
Speaking of the races, Abraham’s split ‘humanity’ into many different races. Some, like the Firstblood, Tralgu and Cinnae are heavily featured, while others, like the Timzinae, the Drowned and the Yemmu play almost no part. One criticism often heaped on The Long Price Quartet is that the ‘poses’, a cultural touchstone used by the characters to express their emotions, were hard to grasp; I can see a similar criticism being placed on The Dagger and the Coin regarding the thirteen races. Like magic, there are hints that the various races, and their origins, will play an important part later in the series, but I often had trouble separating them in my head and could rarely remember their physical appearances, especially given that they’re all (with the exception, perhaps, of the Drowned) human in their emotions, attitudes and personalities. Even a simple glossary breaking down the different races would have gone a long way towards easing the reader into the world.
Captain Marcus Wester, the third major view-point character, stays rather static throughout the novel, but his relationship to Cithrin and how it plays with the ghosts of his past, is interesting and I look forward to seeing how their relationship grows through the course of the next several novels. On the flip side, Cithrin and Geder both grow in leaps and bounds as they overcome the adversity heaped upon them. Geder’s transformation is very direct and reminiscent of a typical coming-of-age tale familiar to fans of Fantasy (and provides the thrust of storyline that appears to be setting up the main conflict of the series), while Cithrin’s development is much quieter; it’s very satisfying to watch her grow from a young girl to a confident, but toubled woman. Abraham’s characterization is always a strong point of his novels. Unlike many of the Fantasy novels that Abraham cites as an inspiration for The Dagger and the Coin (like Eddings’ The Belgariad, oddly enough), growing older and more adult introduces as many problems as it solves. In particular, it’s heartbreaking to watch Cithrin deal with everything from heartbreak to alcoholism as she struggles to grow up more quickly than any 17-year-old should ever have to. Her transformation from the novel’s beginning to its end is easily one of the highlights among many great moments.
Of all the novels (confirmed) to be released in 2011, The Dragon’s Path was, by a wide margin, my most anticipated. Of course, such anticipation is always a double-edged sword. Abraham took many chances with The Long Price Quartet and formed a dedicated (if small) following for those novels and what he managed to accomplish. By moving to a more traditional world and a more tried-and-true premise, Abraham is sure to make wary some of those fans who appreciated the originality of The Long Price Quartet; at the same time, he’s blown open the doors for a new, wider audience and has written a more accessible novel that is sure to appeal to fans of Tad Williams, George R.R. Martin or Scott Lynch. Regardless of whether you’ve discovered Abraham previously, you can rest assured that The Dragon’s Path is a tremendous novel and Abraham deftly mixes the classic foundations of the genre with a sophistication expected of him and rarely found in the work of his compatriots. Look for this one to appear on my ‘Best of 2011’ list come year-end.