Daniel Abraham is a very busy writer. Under the pen name M.L.N. Hanover, he is writing a series of excellent urban fantasies about Jayné Heller, a young woman who has inherited a dubious way of life from her uncle. As James S.A. Corey, he and Ty Franck are writing a space opera series. Under his own name, Abraham broke into publishing in 2006 with the Long Price Quartet, a refreshingly nontraditional fantasy series set in a world with an Asian flavor. Now Abraham has embarked on a more traditional series entitled The Dagger and the Coin, the first book of which is The Dragon’s Path.
The Dragon’s Path is set in a vaguely western European milieu, complete with kings and castles and squabbling nobles. It also partakes of the ruthlessness of the viewpoint characters in the work of writers like Joe Abercrombie and Richard K. Morgan. Yet The Dragon’s Path is its own creature, resonating with the fantasy genre but playing its own chord. So, for instance, one of the principal characters is a dreamy intellectual, a feckless soldier, and a brutal ruler, and somehow Abraham makes them all blend seamlessly into a single complicated man, one the reader will simultaneously love and hate. Abraham makes this character’s motivations completely understandable, even while reprehensible. It’s a terrific job of characterization.
The frame for the tale is about an apostate from the religion of a spider god, but for the bulk of the book the introduction seems to belong to a different novel. Instead, we are first introduced to Captain Marcus Wester, an honorable military man who was once a hero but now takes on work as hired security. He has a problem: he’s been hired to guard a caravan, but doesn’t have sufficient men to do the job. He finds a solution in a traveling troupe of actors, who can act as security personnel as well as they can act as kings, queens, lovers and enemies.
Next we meet Sir Geder Palliako, Heir of the Viscount of Rivenhalm, who is the complicated man discussed above. He is such a dreamy intellectual when we meet him that he is easily pranked by his fellow soldiers, who decide he needs some toughening up — and particularly, therefore, needs his books taken away from him. You can goad a man only so far, though, and we get the first big hints of Geder’s resentment, which leads to his cruelty, in these first few pages with him.
Cithrin Bel Sarcour, Ward of the Medean Bank, is one of the few female characters with an active role in this novel. She is young and untested, but about to be subject to very difficult times — and rise to the occasion, at that. Her introduction is followed by a chapter about Dawson Kalliam, Baron of Osterling Fells, who is at least as complicated as Palliako. He is written in many ways as a petty man of petty jealousies, but also as a king’s confidant with only the king’s interests at heart. He is ruthless but fair, loves his lands, his son and his wife (who is one of the smart, strong women who populate this book, though mostly in the background), and plays politics with a relish that seems designed more to create havoc than to fix problems.
These characters come together and break apart again in many ways throughout the course of the novel, like a tapestry being partially unraveled and rewoven, making new patterns appear that weren’t obvious from the start. Geder is used and uses; Cithrin takes advantage of an opportunity; Dawson manipulates the king, but only for the king’s own good. Each character acts in his or her own self-interest, and none seems to understand what he or she is creating out of the other individuals that slip in and out of their lives. These characters grow and change in the course of this book. Most chillingly, the spiders we read about in the introduction start to play a huge, though still partially hidden, role as the novel goes on. Will the kingdom survive, or fall to the squabbles of petty nobles? Will the Medean Bank be destroyed, and Cithrin along with it? Will Geder outgrow his naivete and use his brains for something practical, or will he be mired in his dreams and resentments? What are the interests of the spider god? These questions are unresolved at the close of this first book in Abraham’s series, but the concerns of all the characters seem poised to grow larger and ready to deal with a more cataclysmic threat in the forthcoming second book, The King’s Blood. The Dragon’s Path is a promising beginning to a promising series, with characters written to be far more real than the usual archetype. You’ll turn the last page looking forward to more.