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Friday, March 25, 2011

“The Dragon’s Path” by Daniel Abraham (Reviewed by Robert Thompson and Liviu Suciu)

Official Daniel Abraham Website
Order “The Dragon’s PathHERE (US) + HERE (UK)
Read An Excerpt HERE
Read Reviews via A Dribble of Ink + The Wertzone
Read A Dribble of Ink's Interview with Daniel Abraham HERE

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Daniel Abraham has been nominated for the Hugo, Nebula and World Fantasy Awards, and was awarded the International Horror Guild Award. His bibliography includes The Long Price Quartet, Hunter’s Run (w/ Gardner Dozois and George R. R. Martin), the short story collection Leviathan Wept and Other Stories, the Wild Cards: The Hard Call comic book miniseries, and The Black Sun’s Daughter urban fantasy series written as MLN Hanover. Upcoming releases include Leviathan Wakes (w/Ty Frank) under the pen name James S. A. Corey, and the comic book adaptation of GRRM’s A Song of Ice & Fire.

PLOT SUMMARY: Summer is the season of war in the Free Cities.

Captain Marcus Wester wants to get out before the fighting starts. His hero days are behind him and simple caravan duty is better than getting pressed into service by the local gentry. Even a small war can get you killed. But a captain needs men to lead—and his have been summarily arrested and recruited for their swords.

Cithrin Bel Sarcour has a job to do—move the wealth of a nation across a war zone. An orphan raised by the Medean Bank, she is their last hope of keeping the bank’s wealth out of the hands of the invaders. But she’s just a girl and knows little of caravans, war, and danger. She knows money and she knows secrets, but will that be enough to save her in the coming months?

Geder Palliako, the heir of the Viscount of Rivenhalm, is more interested in philosophy than swordplay. He is a poor excuse for a soldier and little more than a pawn in the games of war and politics. But not even he knows what he will become after the fires of battle. Hero or villain? Small men have achieved greater things and Geder is no small man.

Falling pebbles can start a landslide. What should have been a small summer spat between gentlemen is spiraling out of control. Dark forces are at work, fanning the flames that will sweep the entire region onto The Dragon’s Path—the path of war...

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 & Fire, Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Shadows of the Apt, and Abraham’s very own 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 forty-five 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.

ROBERT'S 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 HERE 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 & 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 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.

In the end, 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...

While previously I have enjoyed some of Daniel Abraham's short fiction, I am not a fan of The Long Price Quartet, so I had a mixed feeling about The Dragon’s Path when it was announced - an extremely tempting premise, but what if the author's style just does not match my taste at novel length?

Happily, I really loved The Dragon’s Path and the book quickly vaulted to my ongoing Top 25 2011 novels list and so far it is the only new fantasy series to do so.

The Dragon’s Path
is traditional fantasy as best as it gets for me : nothing that we have not seen before as content goes, but pitch perfect execution, vivid characters that we get to know and love during the course of the book and ones we are eager to spend more time with, beautiful writing, action, intrigue and well thought world building with great expansion potential.

The book is also tightly written so despite its almost 600 pages, it does not feel long and I strongly regretted when I turned the last page - the review copy I got has the traditional Orbit "goodies" from the finished product including an interview with the author and an extract from the next book and I just lapped that up and was really sad that I won't get to read the next installment for a while.

The structure of the novel is discussed above with four main threads following
Cithrin, Marcus Wester, Geder Palliako and Dawson Kalliam, while several other characters play important roles too, most notably Dawson' wife Clara, the master showman Kit who leads a performing troupe that will have its destiny intertwined with our heroes and Marcus' sidekick, his Tralgu faithful companion Yardem Hane, but the cast of the novel is large and varied as befits an epic.

The younger heroes, Geder and Cithrin who are set to be the main drivers of the action - however unwittingly - combine both expected traits: destined, try and achieve hard things despite the odds against them, with some unusual ones:

Geder is not in that great physical shape to start with, he is both the "nerd" and the lowest ranking noble of his small circle and the butt of the jokes for both reasons, not to speak of his secret interest in "speculative fiction" that sparks derision from his peers and superiors, but which of course will prove important as the story progresses.

Growing up as the ward of an important banker, Cithrin is manipulative and in love with numbers and with finance, so she is determined to have her own trading house which again is not quite what usual fantasy heroines who tend to be princesses or magicians desire...

Of the older heroes, Marcus is probably the most stock - the silent strong type with a tragic past, a cynical but generally accurate view of life and who finds himself doing the "right thing" despite all. While in
The Dragon’s Path, Marcus is outshined by Cithrin and Geder, I expect him to play an increasingly important role as the series goes on.

Dawson on the other hand is an unapologetic ultra-conservative noble with clear ideas about his well deserved importance in life, ready to commit what is essentially treason to further his class' interests against the upstart "new men" who compete for the king's influence by among other things daring to promote the interests of the common people... And the author' skill is such that what in other books would be the quintessential villain who opposes progress, turns out here to be an interesting character who also fights the "good fight" in his own way, however ideologically wrong it reads for us modern readers from a democratic age.

The Dragon’s Path world building discussed above by Robert at greater length is actually very good in my opinion - sure it is not yet spelled out in full detail, but there is enough to give a clear impression of what's what and to achieve a sense of the big picture, while of course leaving a lot of scope for expansion in latter installments. To me this is ideal since one of the things I dislike about fantasy series is predictability and conversely one of the things I appreciate the most is finding out new unsuspected things about the universe in cause and here we just scratch its surface, so this is another reason the next book is such a huge asap.

The Dragon’s Path (A++) is a first superb installment in a series that has established itself already in my top level of current ongoing fantasy series and moreover one I easily see becoming one of my top-top if the promise implied here continues to be fulfilled.


Unknown said...

Just finished this and everything you both said is true. Great story. One issue with the novel. Get a better editor. One who actually reads the whole novel and points out when entire words are missing from sentences. This stood out enough in the last few chapters it is worth mentioning.



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