The Dragon’s Path is the first book in Daniel Abraham’s series The Dagger and the Coin. On the face of it, the series promises a rich dish of the epic fantasy cuisine. The story takes place in a secondary world whose description is bound to raise pretty high the expectations of many readers. This world is a vast one, as it behooves a specimen of the genre; its history reaches thousands of years backward, when it was ruled by the ruthless dragons, who later destroyed each other in an internecine war. The dragons modified extensively – through magic or science, who knows – the genetic make-up of the Firstblood humans to spin from them twelve more races, better adapted to serve their masters’ hungry needs. In the present, the dragons are gone but their “corrosive” heritage is reflected in the fractured political map and the endless squabbles between the human-ruled states. The Firstblood, due to their adaptability and facility for progeniture, mostly dominate the younger races. The political and economic landscape is a mixture of medieval and modern mores, with vassalage and international banking coexisting throughout much of the continent. Forces are on the move, however, and about to turn the land into a boiling pot waiting to explode in the bloodiest manner possible.
Sounds awesome, doesn’t it? Abraham has proven his talent for constructing mind-blowing metaphysics – his Long Price Quartet revolves around the unparalleled idea of the andat – abstract concepts captured through poetry into human forms. Well, The Dragon’s Path is anything but awesome, in the sense of that escapist, sense-of-wonder-and-vastness quality epic fantasy is tightly associated with. It tells the stories of four people that intertwine in a larger conflict, only hinted at in this first book. Cithrin – an orphan half-human girl raised by a banker and forced to flee the home she has known her whole life. Marcus Wester – a veteran soldier and hero, who has deliberately faded into obscurity after losing his family, now earning his living as a caravan guard. Geder Palliako – the weakling son of an undistinguished baron, who prefers to live life through his books and frequently bears the brunt of his peers’ cruel pranks. Dawson Kalliam – a powerful lord fighting a secret war to keep the throne under the king, his one-time close friend.
Abraham doesn’t seem to be interested in constructing an “awesome” world and this shows in the way he has presented it to the readers. The four viewpoints are entirely focused on the personal and the political. They examine microscopically, even when macroscopic events are screeching to get into the central spot. The immediacy of dialogue is ever more important than the urge for world building, and the characters behave akin to actors on a stage. There is even an actual troupe of actors who make up a large part of the list of dramatis personae. All of which is fine, a similar approach works quite ingeniously in The Long Price Quartet. Here, though, it’s as if the author can’t really find the pulse of his own world and keeps showing us fragments of it that, simply put, are not that interesting. The characters themselves are often painfully annoying in their stupidity, ignorance, bigotry and tunnel-mindedness. Even the drama-heavy interactions between them don’t quite coalesce into an object of real interest, for, in contrast with Abraham’s previous fantasy series, the narrative here is too scattered in space and time.
Despite all that, The Dragon’s Path managed to preserve a grip on my attention. Gradually I developed a hypothesis about its hidden agenda, which is what kept me invested into the novel. Whether it will turn out at least partially true, I have yet to read and find out. I am quite prepared to see it crash and burn. If it doesn’t, well then The Dagger and the Coin might cinderella itself into one of the most original epic fantasy series I’ve read. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Before laying out this little theory of mine, I want to suggest what really doesn’t work in The Dragon’s Path. The faulty element is the secondary world, the canvas. Abraham throws occasional hints about the awesome scale of his creation, about the dragons and their terrible wars and everlasting jade buildings and roads. But not only does he never reveal anything significant of that ancient history, he barely makes it an object of interest. He allows us a peek at the other twelve races, tells us how they are commingled in all the great cities, implies the astounding differences between them. And absolutely neglects their description, denies them agentivity, refuses to make these differences focal in any way, essentially glossing over that otherness. This whole world of his comes off like a mere reference frame in which to situate the dramatic exchanges between the characters. The other races could be just humans in weird costumes and it really wouldn’t make that much of a difference.
In a brilliant little essay Jeff Vandermeer demonstrates how point-of-view can (and should) be ingrained in the very texture of the fictional world. He writes that “everything around us has, to some degree, a point of view”. Material objects and practices bear the traces of cultural invasions, they structure implicitly the framework of tensions that breathes life into a (pretend) reality:
“Such situations, in which different operational realities slide off of each other—the ways in which they do not connect—are important to realistic depictions in all types of fiction. When in fiction we match up too perfectly the meeting points between cultures or differing world-views, we make assumptions that can degrade the quality of our fiction—and we miss opportunities for further complexity. The kind of complexity that organically creates conflict, characterization, and more specificity of detail.”
These point-of-view traces are sadly absent from The Dragon’s Path. Very rarely did a passage instill in me some sense of otherness, of a misalignment between the current principal point of view and the surrounding environment. Which makes for quite a dull read, as three of the four main characters are Firstblood humans and the fourth one is half-human raised by humans. With the exception of Marcus Wester, who is merely cynical and straight-forward, all the POVs show a conceited and blinkered perspective toward this supposedly very weird world, which just doesn’t square with me as a reader.
Moreover, it is as if these characters are completely unaware of the abundance of difference that must have shaped the world they live in. Probably the single way the novel brushes meaningfully against these differences is through Wester’s second-in-command, the dog-person Yardem:
“Yardem grunted and turned to face the boy. When the boy met his gaze, the Tralgu deliberately flicked an ear.”
But the construction of race doesn’t go much beyond this. On the other hand, there are off-hand sentences like:
“…a pack of Firstblood boys laughed and pointed at him and called out, Clicker, clicker, ass-licker and other racial insults.”
“Some, Stannin Aftellin the perpetually lustful Fistblood in his traditional love triangle with a phlegmatic Dartinae and a manipulative Cinnae, were bawdy and racial and political all together.”
These are some of the most informative passages concerning the non-standard races. Even within their kind there is far too much telling and almost no showing. The adjectival labels and the embarrassingly limp “and other racial insults”, among others, help entrench the human-centric viewpoint to a level at which the world building is not even broken, just miserably flat. This scarcity in the model of the world that we see through the characters’ eyes severely impoverishes the potential of the book – to excite the imagination and engage it in the rampant world construction processes that go hand-in-glove with epic fantasy.
The first possibility is, of course, that the book simply fails at this element. Judging by The Long Price, this is fully possible. The quartet is wonderful, but apart from the andat, it does not really show off Abraham as a world-building wizard. The second hypothesis, however, is that these weaknesses of the novel are at least partly a deliberately-sought effect. Let me explain.
The Dragon’s Path is strongly preoccupied with the topic of false appearances. This motif is central in practically all the story lines. The troupe of actors I mentioned earlier pretends to be a company of guards in order to escort a certain caravan to a safe land. Cithrin pretends to be someone else more than once. Captan Wester has sunk into semi-anonymity from a once lofty position, and also has trouble comprehending his relationship with Cithrin. Geder Palliako is touted as a hero by hidden political players, after he has done monstrous and dishonorable things. Lord Kalliam is obviously not able to judge, on several occasions, where the true loyalty of his king and peers lies. Etc., etc. The Big Thing that is kind of revealed in the end of the book also depends heavily on the metaphysical side on the dichotomy of truth/falsehood. The language too supports the preoccupation with this Shakespearean view of the world as a huge stage.
Then there is the annoying personalities of the characters. These people are simply begging for something terrible to happen to them. The Firstblood empire Antea, where about half the narrative takes place, is just as annoying as the characters. It is basically a medieval state ruled by a bunch of conceited aristocrats, most of who don’t give squat about anything else besides their little power games. The rulers of Antea are racist, chauvinistic and often stupid, from what we read.
Finally, there is the problem with the history of the world and its metaphysics, which are never elaborated upon. The brief glimpses at the dragon age that we are allowed through Geder’s books paint an almost alien world of savage brutality and high-culture. This has no bearing whatsoever on the peoples, states, organizations and events in the novel. Or at least this is the impression I got from the text.
At one point in the novel, one of the characters is taking a cart full of jewels through a city where almost anyone would kill to get their hands on the treasure. A street urchin asks her what she is hauling. She answers that the cart is laden with paste jewels. The boy walks away disappointed.
What if Abraham deliberately crippled the world building? What if all those failures described above are the result of the world-views of the characters, rather than the author’s negligence? What if the next books suddenly flip the page and show the reader a new perspective – by introducing radically different narrative agents, or even better, by exposing the POVs from the first book as fundamentally flawed? What if a world that was conceptualized up to a moment as extremely human-centered, chauvinistic and boring was suddenly imbued with vigor, diversity and tension? Just by switching the narrative camera from black and white to full color. That would be bold and inventive on a scale rarely seen in the genre. I wish it turns out this way. I strongly doubt it, but the text certainly implies that something of the sort is possible.
Of course, reading something with the notion that it’s not really bad, just pretending to be so is a dumb idea. The Dragon’s Path is quite bad at world building, which is a huge flaw, but it is otherwise a decent novel. The writing at the sentence level is far from spectacular, but it certainly isn’t bad and here and there Abraham throws some verbal fireworks into the mix (“The architecture of war slept in the middle of a living community like a great hunting cat torpid from the kill”). He is very deft at dramatization, this being his greatest forte, I think, and although the nature of the characters and the flimsiness of the world building lessen the effect, there is definite worth in that aspect of the book. Plus, once I had the idea that the POVs are deliberately engineered as dull and short-sighted, observing all the failures and self-deceptions of the characters became an almost pleasurable activity.
Either way, most of the issues I mentioned need to be resolved soon. What I expect from book two is to tilt the scale to one or the other side: the series is just lacking the world-building muscle to sustain my interest, or alternatively, it is devilishly clever and nothing introduced in book one is merely what is perceived on the surface. The evidence in favor of the second hypothesis doesn’t have to be a huge revelation, it might be just a sequence of hints that tension is building toward a flipping point. Which would inevitably bring in tension into the narrative structure and hence increase the stakes and the appeal of the series. If the hypothesis turns out a dud, well at least the idea of doing something similar sounds like a really great one to me. All this hypothesizing is, of course, largely pointless, as books two and three are available. So, sorry if I wasted somebody’s time, but I needed to put my thoughts into words.