Monday, August 5, 2013

"The Dragon's Path" by Daniel Abraham

Publisher: Orbit Books
The review is based on a bought copy of the book

All paths lead to war...
Marcus' hero days are behind him. He knows too well that even the smallest war still means somebody's death. When his men are impressed into a doomed army, staying out of a battle he wants no part of requires some unorthodox steps.
Cithrin is an orphan, ward of a banking house. Her job is to smuggle a nation's wealth across a war zone, hiding the gold from both sides. She knows the secret life of commerce like a second language, but the strategies of trade will not defend her from swords.
Geder, sole scion of a noble house, has more interest in philosophy than in swordplay. A poor excuse for a soldier, he is a pawn in these games. No one can predict what he will become.
Falling pebbles can start a landslide. A spat between the Free Cities and the Severed Throne is spiraling out of control. A new player rises from the depths of history, fanning the flames that will sweep the entire region onto The Dragon's Path-the path to war.

There are writers who although they come with excellent recommendations and despite appealing premises for their works end up unread for a long time. Daniel Abraham is such an author for me, the volumes of his debut series “Long Price Quartet” beautifully aligned in personal libraries’ bookshelves ever since they were released, but always left aside for no good reason when it was time for a new book.  It took me five years since it was first published to start reading the first novel of that series, “A Shadow in Summer”. Daniel Abraham’s second series suffered a similar fate, only a bit more fortunate since it took me only two years to pick up the first novel of the series, “The Dragon’s Path”. Again for no good reason, but even stranger considering that the “Long Price Quartet” easily became one of my favorite fantasy series.

Even from the prologue Daniel Abraham manages to entrance the reader. A man is on a run from a religious cult, the worshipers of a spider goddess with the power to clearly differentiate truth from lie. Little is known about this mysterious man, mainly why exactly he is on a run, but the novel completes this circle to some extent with the epilogue. However, the story, or more correct the stories, found between the opening and closing acts of “The Dragon’s Path” have little apparent connection with the one of the prologue and epilogue. This false impression is shaken loose upon the complete reading of the novel though, because the entire composition has everything to do with the wide canvas of Daniel Abraham’s “The Dagger and the Coin” series. But that is a discussion to be made later on, after the next novel in the series is read.

Let’s concentrate on “The Dragon’s Path” instead. The story is told from the perspectives of four major characters, Cithrin Bel Sarcour, a young, orphaned bank apprentice who is sent away from her home town with the bank’s valuable assets and documents when war comes to the city’s gates, Marcus Wester, a veteran soldier who tries to escape the impending war and is hired to protect the caravan from which Cithrin is part, Geder Palliako, a misfit man, a knight in the war party that comes to the walls of Vanai (Cithrin’s home town) and Dawson Kalliam, one of the local barons of Antea, Vanai’s invading kingdom, who has an important part in the local political scheming. These four characters not only reveal the stories of “The Dragon’s Path”, but are also tools in revealing the world within which the novel is taking place.

Through Cithrin parts of the economic system are shown, Marcus and Geder help reveal the historical and military elements while Dawson is a cog in the political mechanism of the Antean Kingdom. They provide little pieces of information, but put together with the other particularities, rules and laws of each nation and region create a believable and sturdy constructed world. A quite dark one for that matter too.

“The crowd pressed here as thick as they had on the road. A great marble temple high as five men standing one atop the other loomed on the eastern end, the governor’s palace of red brick and colored glass on the west. God’s voice and the law’s arm, twin powers of the throne. And between them, scattered through the square, wooden platforms rose with prisoners suffering their punishments. A Kurtadam man with rheumy eyes and severed hands held a sign between his stumps announcing himself a thief. A Firstblood woman smeared in shit and offal sat under the carved wooden symbol of a procuress. Three Cinnae men hung dead from a gallows, flies darkening the soft flesh around their eyes; a murderer, a rapist, and a child-user respectively. Together, the platforms served as a short, effective introduction to the local laws.”

Daniel Abraham gives depth to the fantastical universe of “The Dragon’s Path” by touching almost every little detail of its structure, be that related to sociology, politics, history, economy, religion, geography, anthropology or civics. The world is made more believable and the feeling of archaic maintained through the way the story is told, never using the modern and familiar measurements, going instead for other methods of quantification such as men standing on top of each other for height or the number of breaths for time. It is an ambitious project that it is mostly successful. Mostly, because there are a few elements not treated enough, for instance all the different races inhabiting the world or its religious aspects. To give you an example, the world were once ruled by dragons and they created 13 races to serve them, but although we do get to see glimpses of the characteristics of every race these are mildly touched. It can be registered as complaint, but it is difficult to make one if we consider that Daniel Abraham does not build his fantastical world by dropping on the reader’s head long informing paragraphs, all the information the reader can acquire goes hand in hand with the story without impeding one another. To consider the wider picture of the entire series works in favor of this technique as well. I am certain that putting brick upon brick on the construction of this world doesn’t stop with this novel and the following ones in Daniel Abraham’s “The Dagger and the Coin” will reveal further details of the setting. In a manner that is far more convenient and pleasant for me.

The four characters are not mere instruments in the discovery of the world created here and not mere presences to help the story move forward. They are vivid protagonists, difficult to be named champions of the good or servants of the bad, each one with qualities and flaws, dreams and worries. The events around them constantly challenge them, forcing them to make decisions and suffer changes from one point of the story to another. Nothing is imposed on them though, the different courses their destiny takes comes naturally. And that makes them a set of very strong and realistic characters.

Marcus Wester is a character archetype we see very often in fantasy fiction. A veteran soldier, with a turbulent past but a soft heart. I found him easier to like than the other three because of his sense of correctness and internal turmoil, but Marcus is also the one of the four characters who changes the least from the beginning until the end. Nonetheless, his terrible personal history and the bond with his second in command and friend, Yardem Hane, are favorable points. Cithrin is a resourceful young woman that comes a long way from the start of the novel to its end. Her story is a coming of age but with fearful and insecure moments, the ups and downs experienced when handling the world on her own for the first time in her life. Dawson doesn’t change too much either from the conservative, narrow minded fellow, but the politics of the court alter constantly around him. He can be misjudged for a negative character if we consider his personal views of the world (“…the servants’ quarters and the stables were alive with stories, speculation, and gossip. Resenting that made as much sense as being angry at the crickets for singing. They were low, small people. They understood nothing that wasn’t put on the table before them. Dawson has no reason to treat their opinions of the greater world with more regard than he would a raindrop or a twig on a tree”), but Dawson just stands behind what he considers to be good intentions. And that is hard to argue when we personally believe that we have only good intentions. Geder starts, continues and ends his side of the story in spectacular fashion. From the subject of a very unpleasant prank to the different man he is in the end Geder’s character path is full of twists, sudden turns and a couple of much unexpected surprises.

The secondary characters are very convincing as well, they are an integral part of the story, completing the entire cast perfectly. Toward the end of the novel, for a short while, the readers are introduced to one such characters’ perspective, Dawson’s wife Clara. Although I’ve seen its relevance in the resolving of a particular situation and the implications left for the second novel of the series, I find Clara’s presence on the central stage rushed. I liked the further depth her perspective gives to the court politics, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that this jump is made all of the sudden. However, as I said, the implications her story arc leaves for the second novel left me hopeful for a better approach of Clara’s perspective in “The King’s Blood”, if that comes to happen. And while speaking of characters’ perspectives there is another thing that makes “The Dragon’s Path” less surprising than it could have been. Since the chapters of the novel are named after the character’s story arc it touches there are places where one protagonist or another is left in a dramatic situation but the existence of another chapter with his name a few pages later turns the outcome of that particular scene in a predictable one. Even so, there are plenty of unforeseen moments that take the reader by surprise in “The Dragon’s Path”. The stories of the novel are engaging and with plenty of tension, they take the reader in a powerful grip and even the end doesn’t offer a relief from it. There are a couple of stories developing in the novel, each moving naturally and gracefully and every time the novel veers towards one or another of the stories the reader is eagerly waiting for continuation. And while these stories seem disconnected from one another they still cross each other at certain points and the general feeling left by the novel is that all these stories will meet in a common place somewhere in the next novels of the series. Of course, Daniel Abraham brings all the story arcs to a certain closure, but he also leaves the doors wide open for the next novels of the series and do not offer any satisfaction if we consider “The Dragon’s Path” a stand-alone novel.

I’ve noticed in the recent years that I have plenty of series on my personal library’s shelves left unread after the first novel. It is hardly the case of “The Dragon’s Path”. As a matter of fact I enjoyed Daniel Abraham’s novel immensely, so much that I feel as eager as a child in a candy shop to unwrap the foil and savor “The King’s Blood”, the second novel of “The Dagger and the Coin” series.


Mulluane said...

So many books... so little time. This series is now going on my wishlist.

Mihai A. said...

Shari, I know exactly what you mean, I panic every time I look over my TBR list. :)
This is an awesome novel, I highly recommend it. Also Daniel Abraham's "Long Price Quartet" is an impressive series.

Anonymous said...

This is one of the best reviews I've seen of the book. I need to read more of your page. :)
It was a pleasure sharing the read-along with you. Let's do it again soon!

Mihai A. said...

Thank you very much. And I am happy to see you here. :)
I had a wonderful time sharing this read with you too and it was a delight from the start until finish. I certainly hope we can repeat that and if nothing comes along we can start it ourselves. :) Keep up the great work at Two Dudes in an Attic, you have a fan here. ;)

Anonymous said...

Mutual admiration society! Good times. We'll have to plan something in the semi-near future.

nrlymrtl said...

Wow! This is a very complete review touching on so many of the major points of the book.

I was a little surprised that near the end of the book a chapter seen through Clara's POV was given. I enjoyed it, but up to that point all my perceptions about her had been built upon other people's perceptions - like Dawson's. On the other hand, I wouldn't mind having a Vincen Coe or Yardem Hane story arc in book 2 and this gives me hope that might be a possibility.