In Brief: Daniel Abraham’s The Dragon’s Path blends political intrigue, medieval finance, and forgotten religions against a familiar fantasy backdrop.
Pros: The author’s familiarity with conventions of traditional fantasy allows him to turn down some unique corridors. The characters are well-realized and far from the typical archetypes, and the world with its different (sub) races of humanity seems well layered and interesting.
Cons: Pacing and long stretches that border on repetitive let you know the author is slogging along in trilogy mode. The lack of action, palpable danger, and physical conflict are puzzling.
Review: Sometime you pick up a new series on the strength of recommendations, reviews, and cover blurbs. In the case of Daniel Abraham, I’d read of his skill with plotting and character from several trusted sources, seen comparisons to other authors I’ve enjoyed. And so I picked up The Dragon’s Path, first book in The Dagger and the Coin series. It has some of those pleasing fantasy conventions: girth (555 pages), a map, a prologue, and multiple point-of-view characters.
Abraham’s first 100 pages introduce the world and main characters in expert fashion. A familiar setting – neo-Europe in the late Middle Ages, a smattering of kingdoms in political conflict bordering on war. The story features different races of humanity also – firstblood men (regular humans), elf-like Cinnae, thick canine men called Traglu, insectoid Timzinae, and so on – according to legend fashioned by the ancient dragons to do their bidding. There’s a hint of magic, though it’s certainly not pervasive, and the textured feel of rich history and speculative geography.
The author introduces this history through his scholar-character, Sir Geder. He introduces political nuance through a high noble in a pivotal kingdom, a stubborn traditionalist called Dawson. A war-weary mercenary, Marcus Wester, adds perspective and grit. The final lead character is Cithrin, a half-Cinnae orphan teen and ward of the powerful Medean bank. She probably gets the most pages in Dragon’s Path, and provides us with an interesting alternative turn to the youthful coming-of-age trope. Cithrin is no aspirant warrior or magician or explorer; she is a banker – a financier. She seems to represent Abraham’s obvious fascination with medieval banking. Definitely a different path for your fantasy trilogy.
The opening action focuses on the siege and sack of the city-state of Vanai by the Kingdom of Antea to the north. The siege has more to do with internal kingdom politics (as seen by Baron Dawson) than overt conflict. Geder, in his role as a the young knight who’d rather be in the library provides added perspective.
As events unfold, Cithrin finds herself the last hope of the Vanai branch of the Medean bank in getting their considerable fortune out of the city intact. Her mentor and master banker decides to put her in disguise and ship her out with a merchant caravan, hauling a considerable cache of jewelry and official bank documents.
Here Cithrin meets Marcus Wester, a mercenary captain who also wants out of the city before it falls. Marcus has lost his company of men to the gaoler, so he enlists the help of an acting troupe to pretend their fighters and gets hired to escort the merchant caravan out of town. Marcus is one of the good guys, despite his gruffness, and he soon sees through Cithrin’s disguise and realizes something is up.
Abraham handles this plotting and introductory section expertly, but somewhere within the first third of the book or so, the pacing slows. It was here I realized we were in trilogy-mode. Trilogy-mode is when the author starts to space out events and refer to his grand outline for the tale he’s telling, making the book longer than it needs to be. At it’s worst, you get Robert Jordan syndrome – an inability to compress and summarize, with every single scene and event written in detail. Alternatively, you get what’s happened in George R.R. Martin’s –A Song of Ice and Fire – whole sets of chapters on sidebar characters we’re not that interested in to extend the novel, the series, and presumably, the payout.
Nothing that blatant occurs here. And yet plot points move at a stately, sometimes slow clip, and the two larger dilemmas turning points being sign posted on the horizon take too long to materialize. Is this editing? Is it, again, one of my own hang-ups with the genre? Hard to say. I can usually accept trilogy-mode if there’s enough other action, mayhem, or uniqueness to otherwise hold my interest. But that just didn’t happen with this book.
Bottom Line: I enjoyed reading about Cithrin and Marcus, Geder and Dawson, and Abraham fleshes out his world with style and grace. But pacing and action were definitely an issue for me, so the jury’s still out on whether I seek out the next book in this series.