Sep 8 2011 11:02am

Firsts in Fantasy: Ultimate evil and banking in Daniel Abraham’s The Dragon’s Path

The Dragon’s Path by Daniel AbrahamIt’s unfair to expect me to review Daniel Abraham’s The Dragon’s Path because it’s so exactly what I’ve been wanting to read. There’s no way Abraham could have known I’ve been re-reading Dunnett’s Niccolo books and wishing for fantasy like them, or that I read a pile of stuff on the Medici prior to my recent trip to Florence. Even if he had known, and had been kind enough to want to write something just for me, the timing doesn’t work. The Dragon’s Path was out already and sitting on the shelf waiting for me to have time to read it. But it’s nevertheless so exactly what I wanted right now that I distrust my enthusiasm for it. (Do normal people want fantasy novels about Renaissance banking?)

In any case, this is a subtle intelligent fantasy novel about a world with a long history and fascinating economics, with war, peril, and adventure, and great characters of both genders. It’s exactly what you’d expect from the author of the Long Price Quartet (post) if he’s been asked to produce something a bit more European, a bit more mainstream, a bit more Martinesque.

The world here is like a Renaissance Europe if the Romans had been dragons and built their roads out of jade. There are various races of intelligent humans living together in relative peace — which is to say that the lines war follows are not generally racial but political and economic. There’s a lot of war going on, and threats of worse war — going down the dragon’s path. We begin with a glimpse of evil — the spider goddess who wants to eat the world — and then focus down on four characters, Cithrin, the girl who has grown up in a bank, Marcus, the old mercenary who doesn’t fight for kings, Geder, the chubby intellectual who doesn’t enjoy being in the army, and Dawson, a traditionalist noble prepared to fight and scheme for his honour. Like Martin, Abraham cycles between these points of view and uses them to illuminate the world and what is happening in it. And there’s plenty happening!

This is the beginning of a new series, so the world and the characters are being introduced here for the first time. The dragons created a number of variant races of humanity, who can more or less interbreed — Cithrin is a half-Cinnae, and Cinnae mixes aren’t unusual, but we’re told some crossbreeds are sterile. There are tusked races and ones with glowing eyes. I expect Abraham is going to do something really interesting with these later, but so far they’re just scenery there to make things more colourful. The spider-goddess gives her worshippers spiders in their blood and the ability to know when somebody is telling the truth — and this is most of the actual magic that we see. A lot of this book feels like getting things into place for future developments. But there are burning cities and duels and honour and treachery. I’ll be buying the next volume the moment it hits the shelves.

(I have to say though, for me, the best bit really is the banking.)

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

This article is part of Barnes & Noble Bookseller’s Picks: ‹ previous | index | next ›
Becca Hollingsworth
1. bibliobeque
I don't know about normal people, but I'll read it for the banking. Anything that gets mentioned in the same paragraph with Dorothy Dunnett automatically gets pushed to the top of the list of Books I Want To Read Real Soon Now anyway. Thanks for bringing this to my attention!
Nancy Lebovitz
2. NancyLebovitz
Much as I liked the banking stuff, and especially the way that having a huge mass of money is as much a problem as a solution, I'm none too fond of the book.

Part of it is that the various races/cultures aren't in focus-- and I've read enough Jack Vance to know that even a much shorter book can sketch cultural variety very well-- but most of the problem is Geder.

He's set up to be the person that fans (ok, me) will sympathize with-- bullied and interested in living in his imagination. I will say that speculative history is a great touch-- exactly what would fit in a world where dragons have made mysterious changes.

However, he doesn't have a perceptable mean streak, or at least I didn't see it. No matter how much he was abused and how sudden a clue of how he'd been set up was dropped on him, I don't believe he would immediately become capable of dramatic effective action, and that action an exceedingly unusual atrocity.

This being said, the aftereffects-- that he's expecting to be punished, and the upperclass folks think he's finally figured out how to be a real man, and the way he puts the idea that he did something bad out of his mind-- all seem very plausible.

Still, the crime he committed seemed out of character, and shocking for me in a way that wasn't fun at all.
Fade Manley
3. fadeaccompli
I was sold at "The world here is like a Renaissance Europe if the Romans had been dragons and built their roads out of jade." I love Renaissance fantasy, I love dragons, and I love complex world-building that thinks about the economics of things.
Dave Thompson
4. DKT
NancyLeibovitz@2: I disagree that Geder's mean streak wasn't apparent from the very first chapter he was featured in. He wants to get back at everyone at the end of that chapter, wants to make them pay for ridiculing and bullying him. The thing is, we identified with him so much, we're blinded to how dangerous and mean he is pretty much from the get-go. And when he does what he does, it's shocking, and horrible, but it made total sense to me. He's an incredibly frightening character to me, because I liked him so much at the beginning.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book - can't wait for it to come out on audio so I can listen to it again. I miss the characters way more than I thought I would (especially the secondary ones - Yardem and the Players, specifically).

When is the King's Blood coming out again? :)
Nancy Lebovitz
5. NancyLebovitz
I may well reread the book when a sequel comes out. Wanting revenge on people who've hurt you seems rather different from killing a lot of third parties.

That being said, making what seems like a tiny legal decision without having any idea that it can have major ill effects is entirely plausible.
Jo Walton
6. bluejo
I really liked what Abraham did with Geder and reader expectations, but I can see that not it might be something where people could reasonably disagree.
Hello There
7. praxisproces
Oh I'm so glad you loved this Jo! I adored Long Price, obviously, it's masterful, and I was really taken aback by the opening of Dragon's Path, it felt so much more traditional and confined than Long Price, but as you say there's a great deal of very subtle richness sown throughout that I expect will flower and the genius of creating an actual believable economic system - so much more so even than the rich commercial world of Long Price! - just took my breath away. I'm eager to read Leviathan Wakes now as well to see what he's like as part of a team. Have you read his novella "The Cambist and Lord Iron"? It also is a meditation on similar themes in a very different way; he's obviously fascinated by commerce and the power of money and value in all its meanings. Anyway I'm always eager to see what you think about books I like and I'm glad you liked this one.
Chris Franklin
8. Chris Franklin
Actually, one of the aspects that I loved about the book is that there are several nobles such as Geder who are incapable of realizing how dehumanizing their class advantage is. This is the sort of story that illustrates what privilege is. What Geder does flows from his inability to care that people who are of his class are people rather than pawns on a gameboard or pages out of his history books.
Claire de Trafford
9. Booksnhorses
I loved the Long Price books and was looking forward to it, but put it off as reviews were a bit luke warm. It then appeared at the library to my delight and I enjoyed it as a library book without wanting to have it on my shelves. Some great concepts, characters and ideas but didn't quite come together somehow for me, so I'm hoping that book two really cracks on.
Marcus W
10. toryx
One of the things that I really admired about this book was how fallible the characters are. Geder seems more real to me due to the way he fumbles in his efforts to do the right thing. He's clearly a young man who doesn't know himself at all yet and that gives him a lot of room for growth, I think. The same is true for Cithrin, really.

I did have a hard time with the way so much of the world was out of focus. I think it made sense the way Abraham did it but I kept finding myself wanting to get more information about the world, its history and the races that I never really got.

For me, it was sort of like watching a movie where the camera is focused on one thing but as a viewer, I really wanted to know what was going on in the background and I just couldn't make those things out.
Chris Franklin
11. CarlosSkullsplitter
I wanted to like this more than I did. I still enjoyed it, but I picked up on Abraham's foreshadowings beforehand, and I think that removed many of the narrative pleasures he had set up -- he's almost good enough that it shouldn't matter, but not quite there yet.

I hope he's read Braudel by now! still kind of shocked about that.
Chris Franklin
12. dmg
I know I have said this before, Jo - and I am not alone in the sentiment - but I truly envy your facility to read so many books, across many genres, and at such speed. I bog down for so many reasons.

For example, I read your appreciation cum review, and nod my head, "This book will interest me (too)!" So I pick it up, begin reading, and stop dead at paragraph two of Chapter 1 (the novel's Prologue)...

"The five mules had stopped, but the priests hadn’t dismounted. Their robes were heavier, warmer. The ancient swords strapped across their backs caught the morning light and glittered a venomous green. Dragon-forged, those blades. They meant death to anyone whose skin they broke. In time, the poison would kill even the men who wielded them. All the more reason, the apostate thought, that his former brothers would kill him quickly and go home. No one wanted to carry those blades for long; they came out only in dire emergency or deadly anger."

I ask myself, what is this sentence ("Their robes were heavier, warmer.") doing in this paragraph? It seemingly connects to nothing, not to the sentences on either side of it, not to its paragraph, not even the Prologue chapter. It must have some larger meaning, no? I suppose it should be clearer after I complete the book. Okay, file it for later.

Only to stop short again 3 sentences later, ("They meant death to anyone whose skin they broke.") "Broke" I wonder? Why not pierced, or punctured, or half a dozen other word choices more appropriate? Perhaps the author tells us something, albeit obliquely. Okay, file this item too for later reference.

This sentence by sentence reading slows me down horribly. Except I learned to read critically, disccerningly; thus, find it difficult to stop the effort. Good authors use form and style, not solely plot. I have zero patience for plot-only novels.

Anyway, I gave up the quest early in Chapter 2. Me and my shortcomings, I know. But too many good books to labor over a lost cause. Nonetheless, thank you.

re your travelogue that limns your holiday in Firenze. Fantastic. Were I at your home, and you ask your guests, "Wanna see photos of my holiday in Firenze?" My reply would be immediate: "Yes!" You write so damnably personably, and make the most arcane topics meaningful. Who would not want to see the photos??

btw, I ate at Trattoria Bordino my last visit ~11 months ago. While not a great restaurant, its normally a good value for the price. And quite quaint. Good choice.
Chris Franklin
13. Susan Loyal
I love the banking, too. And I find Geder terrifyingly plausible. I read the book quite a while ago, so the details have softened a bit, but I remember thinking that Abraham did an especially good job of giving the secondary characters dimension. The prose was surprisingly rough in spots, I thought. Abraham's prose, while unornamented, is usually clean and beautiful. I'm convinced that, now the somewhat more traditional setup has occurred, the rug-pulling-out-from-under is about to commence. Looking forward to that quite a lot.
Chris Franklin
14. Danny Sichel
I bought this novel specifically at Jo's recommendation, and finished it a half-hour ago. It really is quite interesting to see the pebbles as they fall in the lead-up to the avalanche.

I'll be getting the sequel.
Simon Hemmings
15. bartokian147
I just finished this one and really liked it. I thought the characters were very well written and the world he created interesting. I can see that some people might have a problem with the world being a little out of focus, you hear about the different races, the Drowned etc and I wanted more detail but I would be surprised if that's not coming in the future novels. I'm bloody thrilled that the next one is out in May, I've grown used to waiting multiple years for Martin's and Rothfuss's novels (not that that is a criticism, they can take as long as they want).

Oh and I loved the spider goddess stuff and really enjoyed Geder's exile - temples on the edge of the world? Wonderful.
Chris Franklin
16. JoR
I just finished listening to this book at work today, and have to say that it was very enjoyable. I didn't feel that it was as intriguing as other novels in the genre, but I liked the characters, liked the plot, and liked the writing and narrator. I'm looking forward to book two. Hope they release the audio the same time as the paperback.
Chris Franklin
17. Zvi
Why am I bothering replying to a two-year old thread? Because I just read the book and I really like it, and the comments by dmg begged for a response.

I ask myself, what is this sentence ("Their robes were heavier, warmer.") doing in this paragraph? It seemingly connects to nothing

It is written from the point of view of an apostate monk with a very thin ceremonial robe on, so that is what it's contrasting with.

("They meant death to anyone whose skin they broke.") "Broke" I wonder? Why not pierced, or punctured, or half a dozen other word choices more appropriate?

Part of the fun of reading is that unusual word choices sometimes happen, for reasons the author desires... So first of all, this is a legit usage (Dictionary: To force or make a way through; puncture or penetrate: The blade barely broke the skin.). Second, the connotation is that the blades are very sharp and touching them would (easily) break the skin and release the poison; i.e., it redoubles the sense that they are not ordinary blades.

I think Abraham is quite a precise writer and the word choices that you point out make sense in their context. As I said, I just read it, and few things 'clunked' language-wise, although I do agree with the above criticisms of the shock at Geder's actions, and the sense of other races as window-dressing and not particularly well-thought-out yet.

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