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Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The King's Blood - Daniel Abraham

I walked into Barnes and Noble earlier this week. What I saw shocked me. I rarely buy books in a store (bad, I know), but I often go in just to see what's being advertised, what's on the shelf, and more importantly what isn't on the shelf. Those who follow me on Twitter will know by now that I consider Daniel Abraham one of the best writers in the business and among writers of epic fantasy he might be the best, period. With the stage thus set, scouring the shelves of my local B&N, it wounded me to see only one Daniel Abraham title on the shelf. This would be an appropriate time to gasp.

Believe it or not, there were no copies of The Long Price Quartet or The Dragon's Path, the first book in The Dagger and Coin series and the preceding volume to his newest release, The King's Blood (there were eight copies). How's an author supposed to find new readers when they can't find his books? How many shoppers will pick-up Abraham's new book, realize it's a second book, look for book one, can't find it, walk out, and purchase it on Amazon (or not at all)? And we wonder why book stores are going out of business.

It's a tragic circumstance as far as I'm concerned. Not only is Abraham a great writer, but when Dagger and Coin is finished it will be hailed as the most impressive work of epic fantasy to date. Maybe that's a lot to hang on a series two books in, with three (at least) still to come, but King's Blood is that good. It demands hyperbole.

Unique among epic fantasies, there is no clear conflict in Abraham's series. No Dark Lord, or bellicose neighboring savages, or king gone mad, Dagger and Coin is fundamentally a study in character. Abraham creates a sandbox in which his children play, lacking the supervision of their parents and only cruel ingenuity at their disposal to determine who holds the shovel.

It's not really even a particularly vibrant sandbox as far as such things go. His magic system is based solely on the ability to manipulate conviction. Interesting to be sure, but nothing quite as inspirational as Aes Sedai or Allomancers. His world is also fairly two dimensional, constructed around the notion that dragons once ruled the earth, created thirteen slave races, and then disappeared, leaving their creations behind to bicker over what remained. The places and history that populate the canvas are only illuminated when the characters require them to be, thus lacking the true sense of place that George R.R. Martin's Westeros or Brandon Sanderson's Scadrial evoke.

That said, King's Blood, by the very nature of having spent another five-hundred pages with Abraham's characters, allows a far clearer picture of the world to emerge. While it still isn't the novel's strongest aspect, there's enough of a milieu to get lost in once his lush characterizations set their hooks.

To that end, the cast from Dragon's Path is back, including the points of view of Geder, Dawson, Cithrin, Marcus, and the introduction of Clara, Dawson's wife. Through these individuals Abraham's novel thrives. He depicts fully formed, painfully conflicted, layered characters that entrench themselves in the reader's mind and refuse to leave, taking up residence like stray cat you wish you'd never fed, but can't bear to send away.

Cithrin, an orphaned ward to the Medean Bank, an alcoholic, and a financial genius, is the coin:
"Cithrin mulled over how much of the performer's craft relied on excellence in a small range and how much competence over a wide variety of performances. It was, of course, a single instance of a more general problem, and it could be applied to the bank as well. A certain range of contracts -- insurance and loans and partnerships and letters of credit -- required relatively little additional expense. To widen the business into renting out guardsmen or guaranteeing merchandise in bank-owned warehouses required more resources and higher expenses, but it also brought in coin that wouldn't have come in otherwise."
A microcosm in Abraham's novel, Cithrin has no discernible key by which the reader can define her moral barometer. She's neither good or evil, merely a woman trying for self-reliance. One of the hallmarks of the series, it's a facet likewise demonstrated by Dawson whom always seeks to do the right thing, but possesses a point of view rarely shared by the modern man,
"Before this same window, his father had explained that the walls of the holding were like the fabric of the kingdom, that the noble houses were the jade. Without their constancy, even the most glorious structure would eventually fall into ruin."
His stubborn denial of change and progressiveness, juxtaposed with the warmth and love for his family make him one of the most ambivalent characters I've ever read. It's a style Abraham wields with precision. Even Geder, a mass murdering insecure man-child, becomes an object of some sympathy in Abraham's hands as he caves in the face of someone who dared oppose him.

If Cithrin is the coin, Dawson and Geder are the daggers -- blunt instruments good for little else but destruction. Unable to think beyond the moment; the necessity of response to a perceived action. In one of the earliest chapters a minor character begins,
"Wars are easier to start than end, and where they take you is rarely where you intended to go," the ambassador said. "It will be better for all of us to avoid it."
Would that Geder and Dawson could conceive of such foresight. Instead it's left to Clara and Cithrin, who see the board many moves ahead, to pick up the pieces. Knowing Abraham, I suspect it's too easy levy the charge that women are the coin and men the dagger. Perhaps more appropriate is the notion that everyone, man or woman can be either. There is no black and white. A merchant one moment can be an assassin in the next. I can't wait to find out how wrong I am.

As disappointed as I was to see a bookstore lack the requisite staples of Daniel Abraham's work, I am just as pleased to advise my readers with every ounce of conviction I possess to read The Dagger and Coin series. Make it the commercial success it deserves to be.

The Dragon's Path and The King's Blood are available now, while The Poisoned Sword (or is The Tyrant's Law?), the third volume in the series has already been turned in to Orbit. I couldn't be more excited to read it this time next year. I trust it will blow my mind.

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At June 5, 2012 at 10:42 AM , Anonymous Kevin said...

It's strange, I have no urge to read this series. I'm sure it's good, so it's an irrational thing at work here. I can't pin it down. The summaries, excerpts, and reviews I've read, even this one, as positive and full of praise as it is, don't make me want to run out the door and find the nearest copy. It's the same feeling I got when I finished A Shadow in Summer--indifference.

At June 5, 2012 at 10:45 AM , Blogger Justin said...

I'm a failure then. I'm closing up the blog right now. If I can't convince someone to read Abraham, I don't deserve a blog!


I admit, that Abraham is lot more like KJ Parker than he is Sanderson, Jordan, or even Martin. And in that regard, there are many who will prefer more... overt(?)... writers.

At June 5, 2012 at 11:19 AM , Anonymous CarlosW said...

I read both series from Abraham, and I the dagger serie is much more fun, every chapter of it. It lacks grandiose settings, but has a purpose. Compare the beggining of the Temeraire series, when everything had a meaning, and the current "solve the next problem" books: Abraham never feels like it.

Even in the oriental series, the books were improving a lot. The problem with the series is that Abraham was trying too hard, but the books are great. In this series, you can safely invest in Abraham, I feel he won't recorse to filling the blanks with empty plots without character development or real plot development.

At June 5, 2012 at 11:23 AM , Anonymous CarlosW said...

And BTW, the second book has memorable scenes, incredible scenes that were building for a while and are amazing. You finish chapters with a sense of awe. It is just a great book.

At June 5, 2012 at 12:15 PM , Blogger Becky LeJeune said...

Your bookstore complaint is unfortunately not a new one. It's been my experience (as someone who's worked at two major chains) that this irritating trend is basic company practice. It drives me completely bananas for the exact same reason you mentioned: if I want to try a new-to-me author, I want to start at the beginning. Backlist stock is extremely important in the book selling business.

I absolutely loved DRAGON'S PATH and am really looking forward to KING'S BLOOD!

At June 5, 2012 at 12:26 PM , Blogger Jordan said...

I Liked TDP quite a bit and am excited to get into King's. But the Dagger and Coin being the best work of fantasy to date? Really? Let's not forget that Martin will likely still be writing the last Ice and Fire when Abraham completes this series. And Sanderson's Stormlight Archive is out there. I'd be perfectly fine ranking Abraham's work as great... but not the best.

At June 5, 2012 at 12:31 PM , Blogger Justin said...

It might be hyperbolic, but I'm confident it'll be done before Martin's series, thus the best epic fantasy work at least until Martin's is done. And I think Sanderson and Abraham are incomparable. Sanderson, for all his strong suits, can't match Abraham's writing.

The one author I might nudge over Abraham at this point is Parker or Abercrombie. But then I'm showing my bias as to the type of author I prefer.

At June 5, 2012 at 1:03 PM , Blogger Paul Weimer said...

As disappointed as I was to see a bookstore lack the requisite staples of Daniel Abraham's work, I am just as pleased to advise my readers with every ounce of conviction I possess to read The Dagger and Coin series. Make it the commercial success it deserves to be.

Amen to that, Justin.

At June 5, 2012 at 2:12 PM , Blogger Jordan said...

I agree that Abraham is a much better writer than Sanderson. No argument there. And Abercrombie... how'd I forget him? He is certainly up there when it comes to best fantasists writing today.

At June 5, 2012 at 5:15 PM , Blogger Elfy said...

I'll heartily second your recommendation, Justin. The Dagger and the Coin is one of the best, if not THE best epic fantasy series in progress at present. We get the same issue you saw at B&N down here in our one remaining chain bookseller, it's very frustrating to pick up a book by a new author and see that it's book 2 or 3 and you can't find the first volume anywhere on the shelves.

At June 6, 2012 at 4:41 AM , Blogger simon holland said...

I think its curiously unepic for an epic fantasy series. Yes its well written but I find it all a bit flat. Perhaps the problem is with me, the blogosphere knows nothing but praise for the two books. On a positive note I enjoyed the Kings Blood much more than the Dragons Path, do you think the current economic crisis has forced the authot to play down the bank/good guy angle?

At June 6, 2012 at 6:37 AM , Blogger Justin said...

That's the general perspective of its detractors. It's the same accusation levied at KJ Parker from time to time. But, I stand by it. I think Abraham is special. Really special. I recognize it may not be for everyone.

I don't particularly think Abraham would shy away from that due to real world politics. If anything, I would expect the bank to become less 'good' as things progress.

At June 6, 2012 at 6:44 PM , Blogger Zafri Mollon said...

I like Daniel Abraham a lot, but to suggest that any of his works (or his combined works) are anywhere near as good as GRRM's ASOIAF is just wrong.

I like Scott Lynch and Joe Abercrombie and Patrick Rothfuss more than Abraham. I read the Dagger and the Coin and it was extremely well written and expertly plotted, but it still felt, somehow, like connect-the-dots. Guess I need to read this second book?

At June 6, 2012 at 7:09 PM , Blogger Justin said...

I would put Lynch and Abercrombie right there (potentially). Although as much as I love those stories I think was Abraham is doing is more impressive. If I were judging Martin on his first three books alone, I'd agree with you, but I can't do that... Martin's lost his thread and I'm not confident he's going to get it back.

It's a bold prediction by me and it's entirely possible Abraham is going to train wreck in the next three books... but I'm guessing not. I'm a believer.

At June 6, 2012 at 9:11 PM , Anonymous Marduk said...

Has everyone forgotten Steven Erikson? Was not the Malazan Book of the Fallen the greatest Epic Fantasy series of all time? :-)

At June 6, 2012 at 9:13 PM , Anonymous Marduk said...

But back to The Dagger and the Coin - I really want to read The King's Blood and recall I did rather enjoy TDP - but I would like a refresher of what happened in that first novel (without re-reading). Can anyone point me to a decent synposis to refresh my memory?

At June 8, 2012 at 2:45 AM , Blogger Michael J. Sullivan said...

So this has no bearing on your reveiew (I don't want to read too much until after I finish the book. But I did look at the beginning - about your problem finding stock in B&N. This is a HUGE problem these days. The stores used to actually "stock" books now they are buying 1 copy and when it sells, they have to wait for the next shipment. How can you operate this way!! And we wonder why people buy online? Bookstores hate that people use them like showrooms...but they themselves are contributing to that behavior by having so few books on hand.

At August 8, 2012 at 4:17 PM , Blogger Unknown said...

I think the only way readers are introduced to books like Abraham's, is through reading other fantasy series and finding mention of them. That's how I got it. I am an avid reader and I love the epic fantasy. But it must be rich and at the same time make you think and feel. Make you worry,fear, cry, get angry, have empathy and see things you normally dont, etc..otherwise its just a book.
I like this series. I found it from a comment Martin made on it. Is it the best of Epic? That's Up to certain person's style. Mine? No.
I do like it though, but I had more like for the Riyria Revelations and more love for ASOIAF and Wurtz' Shadow and Light series and more awe for Stormlight Archive. He's good a writer and I like his different style, but compared to the others I spoke of? Not better than.
In the end though I am glad I found him. I am always looking for books I can sink into and most authors dont write fast enough for me. :) LOL


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