Majority rules in this new sprawling venture into Epic Fantasy by Daniel Abraham. Imagine some of the worst traits of humanity—arrogance and violence. Give those to the ruling class and watch them tear each other apart under years of unrest and masked civility. The minority, non-human underclasses suffer against prejudice, but the citizens of Vanai have become desensitized to years of alternating rulership and don’t blink twice when rumors of another invading force spread throughout the city.
To illustrate the scope of what Abraham plans to do with this fresh new fantasy world, Vanai is merely the canary of catastrophe. What happens there will reverberate throughout a landscape that is notably more within the traditional realms of the genre than his previous series, The Long Price Quartet. Despite moving within certain well-known conventions, The Dragon’s Path was surprisingly satisfactory. This is due in large part to strong, contradictory characters that defy expectations, if the book itself doesn’t necessarily strive for the same. An orphaned child of nobility must flee a dying city with the help of a traveling troupe masquerading as a company of guards. With a formerly distinguished general at its head, the group poses no great surprises. What comes next is a solid introduction to what at first appears to be a fairly standard fantasy story.
The first of the Dagger and Coin series sets a bleak tone for characters already on the brink of their own personal disasters. Captain Marcus Wester nurses a rocky past with savage kings and would rather claim humble duties than curry favor by reporting directly under a new commander. Cithrin bel Secour bears the ethnic legacy of her long dead parents, more loyal to the Medean Bank that took her in than the family who scorns their half blood relative. Geder Palliako is an avid historian, awkward and out of place in a company of men more keen on bullying him than integrating him into their ranks. The other point of view is Dawson, acting nobility and source of much political scheming.
Of the group, the most interesting were Cithrin and Geder who follow paths that are both complimentary and drastically opposed. As a female, Cithrin carries the subtle gender bias of the novel (a discussion I’m still unsure is merely incidental or intentional, as with that of race) almost entirely on her shoulders. In this more medievalesque setting, women are seen as smaller and weaker than men; the highest position a woman seems to have gained is wife to a lord at court. Even Opal, one of the women in Master Kit’s traveling troupe, feels the approaching obscurity of her age and reacts desperately against these constraints. But Cithrin has a rich mathematical and accounting background to draw from and much like Dawson’s wife, recognizes and then relies on her strongest skills to cultivate a working business against all odds to the contrary. With characters like Dawson arrested by ideas of class and societal roles, Cithrin is up against a ruling society paralyzed by what she represents: the radical loss of order in a state that has become accustomed to the disillusioned order of war. Enter Geder Palliako. Geder shares his father’s love of history and disinterest in politics or war. These inclinations and his lack of physical prowess in a group of men groomed to the task make Geder a target for their cruelty. The well he draws from is much darker and far more terrible than Cithrin’s. While both rise above expectations from relative obscurity or ridicule, one does something far worse with humiliation and pride than the other. I found their journeys fascinating and at times, tragic and disappointing.
I’m expecting to be let down by some of these characters (I am, after all, especially invested particularly in these two), but with a world ruled by evil it would seem kindness and goodness would be all the more enchanting—and it is. Poignant, terrible, and prophetic: The Dragon’s Path hints at a long-gone era with vague illusions to once grand creatures reverberating in the ghostly paths these legendary beasts once trod as the characters find themselves traveling routes that have survived the age of dragons and stand firm in the age of thirteen distinct new races. Abraham moves beyond Fantasy clichés in this rich mixture of alien creatures reminiscent of something out of a Science Fiction novel than the typical Fantasy go-to races of folklore or fairy tales.
Additionally, there is something to the tiredness of Marcus and the blasé attitude of the citizens of Vanai toward war that reaches beyond the confines of Abraham’s fantastical structure and touches upon a cultural reflection of the subject of war itself. The lengthy nature of this savage back and forth has created the illusion of order for an idea that by its very nature is utterly chaotic. The degree of exposure and disillusionment echoes hauntingly beyond wicked kings and expansive plains through Abraham’s deft prose and minimalistic, but effective dialogue.
There is, of course, the hints at something much larger, something I wish were more than just tantalizing clues. The novel is framed by an apostate’s point of view, unnamed until the end although identifiable as the story moves along, which reveals an undercurrent of doom predicated by the disillusionment of religious fervor. Spider goddesses, truth seekers, blood spiders—the strangeness of this world is part of its charm and mystery. Partly because I do not know what the future holds, partly because there is hope in Cithrin, in the levity of Master Kit’s group, in the redemptive value of unforgivable acts, I am not completely turned away from the devastating wrongness that makes The Dragon’s Path so frustratingly good. I am, in fact, quite looking forward to the sequel.
Release Date: April 7, 2011
Reviewed Format: Advance Reading Copy provided by Orbit Books