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Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Dragon's Path - Daniel Abraham

The Dragon's Path marks the sixth book I've read from Daniel Abraham and
the first time I've reviewed an author twice. Abraham has been a favorite of mine ever since his Long Price Quartet. His more recent science fiction debut, Leviathan Wakes, under the pseudonym James S.A. Corey was also impressive. Although Abraham's first series never garnered wide spread popularity, I never doubted he would one day put himself among the bestselling authors in the speculative genres. The Dragon's Path, Abraham's first installment in The Dagger and Coin Quintet, is the first step on the road that will lead him there.

Unlike the Long Price Quartet, which eschewed a lot of genre tropes that permeate fantasy, Abraham embraced many of them in The Dragon's Path. The setting is decidedly European medieval. It has dragons, magic (albeit minimal thus far), swordplay, and religion. While the setting is... expected... how Abraham tells his story is anything but.

Abraham ignores the genre tendency to use the heroes journey (monomyth) as the primary narrative force. Instead, he takes his artful, yet familiar world, and uses it to tell personal stories. The plot is built around four point-of-view characters - Cithrin, Marcus, Dawson, and Geder. It all begins when the free city Vanai comes under attack sending Cithrin on a mad dash to escape the city with the riches of the Medean Bank (think Goldman Sachts) in tow. With Marcus and his crew as her only protectors the pair represent Abraham's coin.

In contrast, Dawson and Geder - noblemen of great and no repute respectively - are the dagger. Interestingly, this side of the story has almost no connection to the other, sharing at most 25 pages of "screen time". Dawson, the King's childhood friend, is at the head of a coalition that would reject social reforms (think Magna Carta) and maintain the status quo of a class based society. Caught in the middle of the political wrangling, Geder must overcome his reputation as a laughing stock scholar before he gets trampled by those jockeying for position.

One of the reasons the novel has been met with such mixed reviews is that not one of these characters is terribly likable. They all exhibit admirable traits at times, but not one escapes Abraham's unique ability to color his characters with shades of gray. Even Cithrin and Marcus who are most definitely trending (to steal a twitter term) hero have character flaws that are difficult to see past. For me, this made it too easy to put the book down in between chapters.

Similarly problematic is that the story itself underwhelms with very little action. I don't mean in a swashbuckling sort of way (there isn't that either) but there's just not a ton that happens over the course of 550 pages. Nothing that resembles an "epic" arc gets going until the conclusion and it's quite clear that The Dragon's Path is all about moving Abraham's pieces into place. Unfortunately, for a first book in a series that's a difficult place to start. Abraham is asking his readers to invest considerable time into a story that hasn't even really begun.

However, it's easy to make the mistake of disliking a book because it isn't what it "should" be. Like Pulp Fiction or Get Shorty, The Dragon's Path is a character study more than epic fantasy. While I am certain future novels in The Dagger and Coin series will have a more epic scope, this is a novel about real people in an unreal world. Each of Abraham's primary characters have their own story that could have been self contained novellas. He stitches them together in a coherent way and drops hints about how they'll come together in the future.

As a character study, I think The Dragon's Path is incredible. Geder and Cithrin are extremely compelling and I fully expect one or both to become iconic characters in the fantasy pantheon by the series conclusion. For a reader who's looking for a traditional epic fantasy adventure, this may not be the best choice right now. Moving forward, I have faith that Abraham will produce a series that exceeds his brilliant Long Price Quartet and sells a few more copies too.

The second book in the series, titled The King's Blood, is due out next spring. I'm literally counting the days.

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