Heads you go into finance, tails you get burned alive.
It’s been a good while since I read any fantasy. To kick the year off I waded back into the genre with the first book in Daniel Abraham’s The Dagger and The Coin series, The Dragon’s Path.
Thankfully, this book doesn’t actually have much to do with dragons. If you’re looking for grumpy lizards then move on or prepare to go full “where are my dragons!?” The first quarter or so of the book is fairly standard – you have a series of characters running or hiding from antagonists, some battles, some duels, and so on. There seems to be a deliberate attempt to dress the book up in some of the preconceived attire of traditional high fantasy. With that in mind, I initially wondered if I had the patience to get through it, but the writing was good enough to draw me along until the point at which the narrative takes a more compelling turn.
There seems to be the usual handful of races in the setting with their various themes, some bug people, some not-orcs, some furries, some scalies, and so on. It’s handled with an appreciated level of restraint, with Abraham inserting them into the story as naturally as he can without the, almost mandatory for the genre, babblings by Exposition McLoredump. I appreciate it when writers don’t feel the absolutely necessity to vomit all of their worldbuilding at me without asking.
The Dragon’s Path characters are a mixed bunch, but generally enjoyable. Cithrin is interesting once she gets her feet under her and serves to introduce the financial mechanics underlying the plot. The details of money and trade and their role in the novel are all too welcome – it’s an aspect of the medieval world that is usually passed over in favour of yet another dragon or some kind of apocalypse, but is fundamentally more interesting and nuanced than either. Between the end of the world and the end of a character’s bank balance, I’ll take the latter any day of the week. Geder is a tragic combination of naïve and embittered, the closest thing to a lost everyman that the novel has. Master Kit serves as the mentor figure with a cliff up one sleeve. Marcus is the grizzled merc with a generic troubled past that you’ve read enough times to consider skipping his perspective chapters. He doesn’t inspire disdain, merely indifference.
Dawson Kalliam is probably the standout character in this book. If you met someone like him in the real world, you’d slit their throats with a broken bottle and piss into the sucking hole as a matter of principle. As a perspective character, however, I’m incredibly grateful for him. He’s a pathetic old-school aristocrat bleating about tradition and honour and staunchly refusing to accept a changing world. And I love the fact that we get this perspective without it being an overtly ham-fisted hate-wank. Usually, when we get the voice of the “elite” like this in fiction, we often get them as a stock antagonist and we know that they are doing what they do because they want more power and wealth at the cost of the living conditions of everyone else. This being the case, Dawson doesn’t fill in for any notional antagonist role. While power and money are the unspoken foundations of Dawson’s insistence on getting in the way of social progress, his motivations are driven by what he perceives as ‘good’ for the society he lives in, without being generically cackle happy. It builds a major aspect of the central conflict, but crucially it’s done without being self-consciously self-serving.
Perhaps I’m just reading the wrong fantasy, but even in most adult-targeted fantasy literature, the nobility point-of-view or protagonist characters often seem to fall into being featureless token odd-balls amongst the medieval-adjacent fictional aristocracy. They are simplistic and generic and exist solely to simultaneously act as the everyman and reader wish fulfilment. It’s refreshing for the point-of-view nobility character to actually act in ways that you might expect them to act, rather than a shallow wall for the reader to project onto. I suppose it’s just not the done thing to look down your nose at the majority of your readership, but I’m glad Abraham chose to write Kalliam like this even if I find his character repulsive.
And that’s where the book really shines. From the undercover and displacement character drama, the book progresses into themes of economics and political diplomacy with some light touching on class conflict. Everybody has interests, almost nobody has abstractly ‘good’ or ‘evil’ intentions, and it’s not a coin flip of ‘sometimes I’m nice, sometimes I’m nasty’, they’re mostly just looking for status and money. Even A Song of Ice and Fire doesn’t quite get there on this front, and that’s effectively the posterchild for fantastical politicking at this point. It can become a tad dense at times, with the characters following their own internal chess manoeuvres, but the book would only be made worse if they stopped to awkwardly explain themselves every five seconds and the game is largely overt if you’re paying attention.
The detail in the petty mannerisms of the nobility really shines in the novel. The jockeying for favour and position, the concerns over minor details of etiquette and form, are all focussed on in a way that they aren’t in many similar novels. It’s clear that Abraham has made an effort to consider the differences in mindset between different cultures, social groups and classes, and this attention to detail pays dividends. The handling isn’t obnoxious, either – one character calls another a ‘diplomat’ at one point and while it’s clearly a cause of significant offence, it isn’t accompanied by amateur theatrics or explanatory monologuing. These details go a long way to sell the world and little things like that make all the difference.
The book may be a little slow if you’re looking for something more traditional. The Dragon’s Path’s plot may seem relatively thin to anybody looking for some plot heavy. It’s not full-on character driven, but the emphasis is certainly towards that end of the spectrum and it’s only near the last fifth of the book that the various threads actively start to head towards each other. Some might find that frustrating. Personally, I appreciate an author who can take their time without wasting mine. I do have the fear that the series will take a nosedive into the good guys/bad guys what-have-you that is so painfully tedious, with the allusions to a mysterious spider goddess at the bookends of the novel, but I’ll reserve judgement until I cross that bridge. Given my reading list, I won’t make it to books two through five anytime soon, but the series is staying on my map.