Recurring readers of Weighing A Pig won’t be surprised that I hold Daniel Abraham’s exceptional debut series, The Long Price quartet in very high regard. It was the most emotional story I’ve read last year. The series is secondary world fantasy, but it’s very much its own thing, with a subdued use of a highly original and poetic idea for a magic system.
That’s tough to beat. I was underwhelmed by Leviathan Wakes, the first entry in a space opera series Abraham co-wrote with Ty Franck as James S.A. Corey. And I’m sad to report that I’m also a bit underwhelmed by this first book in the epic high fantasy series The Dagger And The Coin, albeit less so: I don’t think I will continue The Expanse SF-series, but I’ll probably give the second book of TDATC, The King’s Blood, a real chance.
The Dragon’s Path is the first of 5 books, and it suffers from having to set things up. That’s a much read remark in reviews of fantasy series. Still, a first book doesn’t have to suffer from having to set-up things at all, as Abraham proved himself with the stunning A Shadow In Summer.
Of note is this part of an interesting interview with Abraham:
Epic fantasy is, I think, a genre about war and – in the best ones – an ambivalence about war. There are plenty of fantasies that are triumphalist, but the ones that really last are frankly melancholy. (…) The aspect that I’ve taken in The Dagger and the Coin is the way that the story of a war, be it propaganda or history, outstrips the war itself. That’s at the large scale. The thing that I find myself going back to in books that I love are the characters. So I’ve peopled these books with characters I like spending time with.
I can see the outlines of that “large scale” in this book, and they are indeed interesting. The characters on the other hand didn’t feel that interesting to me. There’s nothing of Otah Machi’s epic complexity that instantly became clear in the 36-page prologue of A Shadow In Summer. The characters of The Dragon’s Path feel a bit gray and dull. The veteran captain Wester is okay, but unremarkable and, ouch, generic – he fought some legendary battles once, keeps a low profile now, grieves over his dead wife & daughter. The young nobleman Geder maybe is a bit atypical since he has a bit of a paunch, but the back story for his unpredictable viciousness (him being bullied) feels easy and cheap. I liked the young orphan Chitrin, but her transformation from helpless smuggler to powerhouse banker doesn’t really feel natural. Baron Dawson seems like a good guy, but actually is an elitist prick. On top of that the king is a flat, scared weakling. So, that makes only one character I really rooted for (Chitrin), and pretty much indifference to all others. Mind you, indifference isn’t bad – nothing irritated me, so that’s that.
What also lacked in this book was Abraham’s ability to write beautifully. Not that the prose is not good, it’s smooth and goes down easily, but there were only three images that struck me in the 555 pages. 3 good images in a lengthy book is not enough, and I know from The Long Price that Abraham can do better. I’ll quote two of those 3, the best. I really think these are great. If you don’t, don’t expect much else.
Once the prince entered exile, the dead would be gathered up and burned. They had been men once. Now they were political sculpture.
The color had gone from Phelia Maas’s face. Her breath was fast and shallow, like a hand-caught sparrow about to die from fright.
What speaks for this book are the promises that the excellent, mysterious prologue holds. It introduces 13 races, lethal dragon swords, psychic lie detection, spiders emerging out of blood, inhuman priests and the threat of a spider goddess eating the world. Yet none of these promises is delivered on: in this book the 13 races for all practicalities only really differ qua looks, and the rest of the book features no magic whatsoever, aside from some truth saying in the final fifth. As such, most of The Dragon’s Path feels like regular historical fiction. I guess we’ll have to wait for book 2 to 5 for all the good stuff.
The pacing is also truly fantastic. The book never drags, Abraham doesn’t lose himself in details and uses a lot of ellipses to move the story forward. I’ve read authors who would have made a 800-page book from this very same plot.
The Dragon’s Path also introduces a possibly interesting theme: it deals with emerging democratization and social mobility. I’m not sure if Abraham will do something interesting with it, since, again, it’s barely touched on in this book.
Ultimately, this book was too simple: it didn’t have complexity. The title of the series is a good representation of that simplicity: Abraham talks explicitly about there being two kinds of people: people of war & violence (the dagger), and people of trade & money (the coin). This dichotomy is so, so uninteresting, unproductive and simplistic that it doesn’t even begin to compare to the ambition and emotional complexity of the Long Price quartet’s title. I hope Abraham hasn’t debuted with his best possible effort: maybe he poured every valuable insight into humanity he had into that, and is left holding an empty bucket.
All and all, I’m likely trying book 2, but if it doesn’t improve, I’m out. My best advice would be to judge for yourself. It’s fun enough, plus it’s a fast and easy read. Nothing truly bothered me, but it’s a bit painting-by-numbers too. That, and more magic please! (Also, do not miss out on The Long Price if you already tried and didn’t like this.)