When Abraham released The Dragon’s Path, the first volume of The Dagger and the Coin, it was something of a departure from the thoughtful and unique tetralogy that put him on the Fantasy map, The Long Price Quartet. This new series was Abraham’s attempt at stepping into the realm of more traditional Fantasy, drawing influence from a more Medieval Europe, rather than the asian-influenced setting of The Long Price Quartet. In some ways, it was a risk for Abraham to step away from such a unique setting, but, in hindsight, it allowed Abraham to open himself to a whole new range of readers who are looking for novels that draw inspiration from familiar elements and novels. Of The Dragon’s Path, I said:
[A]nticipation 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.
And, indeed, it did wind up on my Best of 2011 list at the end of the year. All of the superlatives I spouted about The Dragon’s Path continue to hold true for its sequel, The King’s Blood, and I’d even go so far as to say that it’s a superior book in most ways, solidifying The Dagger and the Coin as one of the most exciting Fantasy series currently being written.
Still, despite the high quality of The Dragon’s Path, it wasn’t met without resistance from some readers, specifically those comparing it against The Long Price Quartet or the works of some of the genre’s other rising stars. One argument often levelled at The Dagger and the Coin is that the world isn’t developed enough to properly attract an audience among Epic Fantasy fans. Speaking recently with Justin Landon of Staffer’s Book Review, he suggested that for an Epic Fantasy series to really take, in the vein of series like The Wheel of Time or A Song of Ice and Fire, that the world where the story is set must engage the reader as strongly as the characters do. He also suggested the idea of “theorycraft,” which is presenting the reader a world so incredibly fleshed-out and logical in its mechanics and history that the reader can tackle the theories and unrevealed plot points with an almost mathematical precision. George R.R. Martin does this very well, and so do Brandon Sanderson and Robert Jordan.
It’s true that The Dagger and the Coin isn’t the all-encompassing package necessary to compete directly with those heavyweights, and Sanderson is poised to become “that guy” in the Fantasy genre (if he’s not already), but, then, I’m not sure that it was ever Abraham’s intention to compete that style of Fantasy, regardless of how he’s being held up as “the literary successor to George R.R. Martin,” as quoted in the front of The King’s Blood. As much as I enjoy those big “theorycraft” novels and worlds, I prefer the way that Abraham has decided to tackle Epic Fantasy, drawing as much from Babylon 5 and Hamlet as he does from David Eddings and other classic Fantasies.
He engages with the story with every word he writes.
One of the aspects of Abraham’s work that I respect and enjoy the most is how he engages with the story with every word he writes. Where so many authors of Epic Fantasy pound out six- to nine hundred page novels, Abraham publishes novels that tell an equal amount of story, (if not more, when held up against some of Jordan’s later novels, for instance) in 140,000 words of pure storytelling and character building, instead of 140,000 words of storytelling and 100,000 words of worldbuilding/magic system self-indulgence. There’s absolutely a place for both types of Fantasy, and I enjoy both, but Abraham’s approach stirs my drink just a little better.
This time around, the world feels better lived in than it did in The Dragon’s Path. Though the history in the story stretches out far behind the story told in The Dagger and the Coin, it could sometimes feel like the reader wasn’t always being fed all the history and mechanics of Abraham’s world. The King’s Blood pulls back more of the curtain on some of these aspects, just a little, but it is also enough to convince the reader that the history is there, and essential to the overall storyarc of the series, but Abraham is using a deft, delicate touch as he peels back the layers, only as necessary.
It’s not that Abraham spends a lot of time worldbuilding, in fact, if anything, there’s less of it here than in the first novel, but he does so with better economy and more specific to the characters who provide access to the world for the reader. We see the world as Cithrin knows it, as Geder and Dawson know it, not as Daniel Abraham, the overarching omniscient being of all-knowledge, knows it. This hearkens back to my earlier thoughts that Abraham has a history to tell, a world to reveal, but he only does so in ways necessary for the reader to understand the story, and only in ways that the characters themselves naturally transfer the knowledge of the world to the reader. Abraham spent some time establishing the rules and the boundaries of his playground in The Dragon’s Path, this time around he spends all of his time playing in that established world.
They say that the dragons could sleep as long as stone when they wanted to,” he said. “It was part of the war. The dragons would bury themselves or put themselves in deep caves. Hidden. And then when the armies had their back or flank, the dragons would spring back to life. Come boiling up out of the ground. Slaughter everybody.
This ignorance towards the history of the countries, the people and the history of Abraham’s world is important to the themes explored in The Dagger and the Coin. Taking myself as an example, I live on the west coast of Canada, an area of the world rich with culture, history and more than a little of its own magic; much of this is tied to the First Nations people of Canada, for example the Lekwungen People and the Snuneymuxw People of Vancouver Island, and it is as intricate and fascinating as any backstory developed for a Fantasy novel. If one cares to look for it. There’s a secret history to my “homeland” that has been shut away and forgotten, censored by the winners of a one-sided war. These First Nations people had an enormous effect on the island where I spend the vast majority of my time, and yet I’m woefully undereducated about the aspects of their history and culture that define them and much of Vancouver Island. Instead, I live in a world where there’s a nice coffee shop on the corner, and a pretty beach at the end of my road, and the “old” buildings are only 150 years old.
Abraham’s world has this secret history, the one forgotten by the winners, and yet, much my little bubble in the world, whose history is fighting to stay alive in its own way, this lost history is bubbling under the surface of current society, remembered and loved by a small few, and trying to return to a world now ignorant of it.
One of his younger Kurtadam was in the medical wagon, his arm being shaved and bound. Beneath the pelt, his skin looked just like a Firstblood’s.
Another major argument levelled at The Dragon’s Path was that there wasn’t enough definition between the different races. In my review of The Dragon’s Path I complained that “I often had trouble separating them in my head and could rarely remember their physical appearances.” And futher, I was concerned about this because “they’re all (with the exception, perhaps, of the Drowned) human in their emotions, attitudes and personalities.” I missed the contradiction of these two thoughts, and instead suggested that a glossary would help. One is included in The King’s Blood, but I didn’t reference it once during my reading. Something changed in my perception of Abraham’s world this time around, and I considered my first reaction to the different “races” of humanity in his novels. Like our own world, which is populated by billions of people, some of whom are tall, some short, some have dark skin, some have light, some an epithantic fold to their eye and black hair, others blue eyed with pin-straight hair the colour of hay. But they are all humans just the same, irregardless of race. I can hear a story about fellow humans, something funny or sad, something true or something fictional, and never once stop the person telling the story to stop and describe, at length and with specificity, what ethnicity these characters are, what colour their skin, or whether they had brown eyes or blue. In some cases, cultural tendencies might have an effect on the context of the story, but often not. Generally, none of it matters a lick to the story being told. So, what does it matter if a character in Abraham’s series has glowing eyes, porcelain skin, or walrus-like tusks growing from their mouth? As Abraham’s characters are wont to point out, the thirteen races of humanity all spawn from a single starting point and, despite their differences, and their own set of racial standards and prejudices, are all just humans. They are characters, and when I stopped trying to define them visually or pigeonhole them for being Timzinae, Firstblood or Kurtadam, I was able to fall further into the story.
In many ways, I believe this is the point Abraham is trying to make by building the world in the way he has. Though racism is rampant in Abraham’s world, even among the protagonists, there is a danger looming that threatens all of humanity and they will soon have to decide whether to put aside those differences to save themselves, or continue to squabble amongst themselves over race, culture and religion. The friendship between Yardem Hane, a Tralgu, and Marcus Wester, a Firstblood, who have a wonderful rapport and, through their differences, some due to their cultural and environmental upbringings, some due to simple differences in personality, creates a wonderful core to the novel and, without hitting the reader over the head with it, explores and measures friendship, respect and a loyalty that goes beyond (or simply ignores) the preconceived expectations of culture, creed and politics. Some of my favourite scenes in the novel are spawned by these two wonderful characters exploring the universal truths that lie between their own personal beliefs.
There are no clean starts, Dawson thought. Just as there are no clean endings. Everything is built like Camnipol: one damn thing atop another atop another reaching down into the bones of the world. Even the forgotten things are back there somewhere, shaping who and what we are now.
The story itself is less concerned about convincing the reader of these characters and this world, and is instead more comfortable with itself and more direct in its telling. It’s amazing to watch all of Abraham’s plot strings, many first established in The Dragon’s Path, and characters come together in a satisfying, emotionally intense collision. There’s a particular instance, just near the end of the second act, that had me equally amused and astounded; I never would have expected it, and it’s such an innocent and believable scene between two of the point-of-view characters, but the seeds planted promise of so much chaos to come in the later novels, that I couldn’t help but feel somewhat impressed with Abraham. There is another scene, which I’ve been expecting for a while, that left me equally confounded and surprised. Abraham’s ability to take me away and pull the rug out from under my feet while playing with familiar concepts is a rare ability for writers. The King’s Blood can sometimes feel like a second book, with no real beginning or end, just a whole lot of middle, but the plot devices and motivations set in place for later novels promise of great things to come as the series concludes.
Abraham’s ability to take me away and pull the rug out from under my feet while playing with familiar concepts is a rare ability for writers.
Central to everything is Geder Palliako, the conflicted “hero” of Vanai. Geder’s unlikely rise to fame, and his slight sociopathic tendencies were fascinating in The Dragon’s Path, but are taken to a whole other level after a major even that occurs in The King’s Blood. In watching a character like Joffrey Baratheon from George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, a young man with too much power, he becomes easy to hate. Joffrey is cruel and revels in his power for its own sake. Geder, on the other hand, commits acts that would make Joffrey seem friendly, but does so in a way that the reader doesn’t so much hate Geder, but feels sorry for him, with some slight humiliation and horror underneath that. In speaking with someone else about Geder, they mentioned that they feel he is intoxicated by his power and authority. And while it’s true that Geder holds a grudge and revels in getting back at those individuals who once humiliated him, he also considers himself a good, gentle man. He does not seem intoxicated by his power so much as he’s a man afraid of the authority and responsibility handed to him. This fear and lack of confidence causes Geder to look for an easy way out, allowing him to be easily manipulated from behind the scenes, justifying his cruel actions by hiding behind the advice of his shadowy advisor. It’s fascinating to watch Abraham establish the “Dark Lord” as a regular person and the bad mistakes and circumstances that lead to him becoming a tyrant.
In addition to Geder, each of the characters in the novel matures in a satisfying way. The nicest surprise is how naturally Clara Kalliam joins the other point of view characters. She’s a layered and smart woman, equal to all of the men in her patriarchal society, and deals with the court politics in her own way that is as clever and fun to watch as her husband’s. Clara’s chapters are reminiscent of Regency Fantasy, showing another side to Abraham’s already impressive range as a writer. In particular, Abraham writes Clara’s relationship with her husband with a deft hand. It’s tough not to smile inwardly while reading passages like this:
“I am sorry the world came to this, love. It ought to have been on better behavior with you in it.”
“How eloquent,” she said, only half mocking. “You’re a flatterer, you know.”
“You’re worth flattering,” he said, rising from the bed.
The King’s Blood is the real deal, and cements The Dagger and the Coin as one of the best new Fantasy series in recent years. If you’re looking for something to read while you wait for the next George R.R. Martin book, Abraham’s series is sure to satisfy. In many ways it’s a smaller series than A Song of Ice and Fire, from breadth of plot to number of characters to page count, but where it really counts, characters you can’t help but love (or hate), shrewd politics, and the mixing of magic into a setting the rings of real world history, The Dagger and the Coin is equal to Martin’s beast. And, hey, Abraham will likely be done the entire series before the next volume of A Song of Ice and Fire hits shelves.
It’s about time we stop comparing Abraham to other authors, and start comparing other authors to him.
But, I also feel it’s a disservice to constantly reference Abraham alongside Martin, his good friend. Not because Martin’s success is so enormous, but because Abraham’s work deserves to stand on its own and find its own success. It’s about time we stop comparing Abraham to other authors, and start comparing other authors to him. Given the successive improvement and expansion of plot seen in The Long Price Quartet, and thinking on some of the plot advancements in the later half of The King’s Blood, it’s hard not to get excited by what The Dagger and the Coin holds in store for readers before they turn its final page. Like its predecessor, I expect to see this on many ‘best of’ lists at the end of the year.