Villains both in history and in good fiction often do not think of themselves as villains. This could not be truer for Geder Palliako, the Lord Regent of Antea until Prince Aster comes of age and can assume the throne. Geder’s cause is backed, and one might even say pushed ahead, by those who worship the Spider Goddess—particularly Basrahip, the minister of the Spider Goddess, who works as Geder’s chief advisor.
In The Widow’s House, the fourth installment of The Dagger and the Coin sequence, author Daniel Abraham continues to deftly explore positions of power, and how perception lends credence to reality. Abraham tells the story through the same points of view as in the previous volume, though these characters have evolved quite a bit since we first met them. Clara Kalliam, widow, mother, plotter against the Lord Regent; Cithrin bel Sarcour, ‘rogue’ banker, former lover and scorner of the Lord Regent; the aforementioned Geder, Lord Regent and emotional basket case; and Captain Marcus Wester, a hardened man of war. Abraham bookends the novel with two additional points of view: a prologue from the POV of the last Dragon Inys, and an epilogue from a soldier’s point of view.
Abraham picks up in book four just where he left readers in The Tyrant’s Law, with the awakened dragon. This is a creature of great power, age, and presence. Inys is none-too-pleased to be the last dragon and since Marcus is the one to awaken him, our Captain is anointed by Inys as “my voice and my servant, my creature in this new, most glorious conquest.” That conquest, at least in part, is the destruction of the Spider Goddess and her minions, ancient rivals/enemies of the dragons who birthed the races of the world. Much of Marcus’s plot involves traveling with, or on Inys in their goal to return to Cithrin to provide her with as much assistance as possible. The monstrous conflict between Dragons and Spider Goddess takes a bit of a step back for most of the novel, though when the spiders do rear their eight-legged heads, it leaves those who see their powers physically and mentally shaken.
Meanwhile, the war rages on with Geder at its head while the mother of his Master of War, Jorey Kalliam, plots against Geder behind the scenes through subterfuge and letters with Geder’s former lover, Cithrin. At the conclusion of The Tyrant’s Law, Cithrin rejected Geder who proclaimed his love to her. She was using him prior to that and shortly thereafter realized how much she was put off by him. She led him on quite a bit and as a result, he was devastated by the rejection and spends a majority of The Widow’s House recovering from the emotional blow and plotting ways to bring her back, make her realize how wrong she was to reject him. His fantasies alternate between a reunion with her and hatred towards her. Geder also has some genuinely caring moments when it involves the prince or Jorey’s child. In short, Abraham provides a fascinating look into a tortured soul who evokes sympathy, pity, and anger in equal amounts.
If Geder is the head of the charges of war, then Cithrin is leading an intellectual, political, and financial attack on all he is attempting to cement with his backing of the Spider Goddess. Cithrin continually eschews what her superiors consider good judgment. It takes Cithrin a while to realize what it is she’s driving towards, but she continues to forge ahead believing her knowledge of finances and ability to manipulate people’s perceptions of finance will lead her to a solution.
What is most fascinating about this novel, and the story as a whole as Abraham has allowed it to unfold, is how he is playing with archetypes, both propping them up and shattering them. War is most often fought in Epic Fantasy with the standard machinations of war—men with weapons. What if the solution to winning a war is to not fight the war; to pull the proverbial rug out from under the war and completely change the rules? It is an intriguing concept that has been simmering throughout the series as Abraham set Cithrin and Geder, as seeming allies at first, and now characters at ideological cross purposes. I recall reading in interviews with Abraham when he was launching this series how crucial banking would be to the story (and how often such a critical element of civilization is often overlooked in most fantasy) and those words are bearing plentiful fruit here in The Widow’s House.
Clara’s plot to undermine Geder while also putting a smiling face in front of him would seem quite duplicitous were we not aligned with her as a heroic character. She goes behind his back, betrays him and her own children to push towards his downfall. Clara takes to such means for the greater good as she sees it. Throughout the novel, she is playing, much like an actor in a troupe of players accompanying Marcus and Master Kit, different aspects of her character to survive. At times, she plays up on the fact that she’s an older woman and perhaps easily confused, other times playing the loyal mother to her son, all the while drawing strength from her steadfast belief that Geder is the evil overlord who needs to be toppled from his perch of power.
If Abraham does indeed wrap up the story of The Dagger and the Coin in one more volume as he’s hinted, then it could prove to be a defining Epic Fantasy of the post-Jordan/post-Martin era. The Widow’s House is a novel that while paced quite well, is one that grows in my estimation with distance; Abraham does a lot of things on the surface and even more below the surface to ensure the novel appears as a meal that is “plated beautifully” as well as delicious and savory once you take a bite (and can’t stop eating).
The Widow’s House publishes on August 5 from Orbit.
Rob Bedford lives in NJ with his wife and dog. He reviews books and moderates forums at SFFWorld, has a blog about stuff, and writes for SF Signal as well as here at Tor.com. If you want to read random thoughts about books, TV, his dog, and beer you can follow him on Twitter: @RobHBedford.