The Dragon’s Path comes with a recommendation from George R.R. Martin on the front cover, and after the first few chapters I could see why the publishers wanted to play up that comparison (aside, of course, from Martin’s newfound superstardom with the success of the television adaptation of his books). The Dragon’s Path depicts a world that isn’t exactly similar to Westeros but certainly shops at the same trope boutique. It’s an epic fantasy heavily steeped in politics and concerned with warring families vying for power. Magic exists, but as in A Song of Ice and Fire it’s very understated and little-acknowledged. Overall, I think Abraham does a very good job with this kind of story, although I do feel that he could have given a bit more time to certain elements for a richer experience.
The plot is for the most part divided between four narrators, all of whom are conspicuously morally gray except for Marcus Wester, the noble but emotionally damaged soldier and closest thing the book has to a “traditional” hero figure. The others are Geder Palliako, a bullied and bookish knight who swings between petty mean-spiritedness and boyish naivete; Cithrin bel Sarcour, a young banker-in-training with more than enough ambition; and Dawson Kalliam, a patriot and principled lord with somewhat uncomfortable (but historically accurate) views on the superiority of the aristocracy over the faceless hoi poloi. Characterization is a real strength for Abraham. Each of his protagonists has a distinct voice and tone, and their opinions and actions are believable. Abraham delights in toying with the reader’s perception of a given protagonist, experimenting with what he can have them do while remaining relatable. While his success in that quarter is down to individual opinion, I personally found the balancing act well-managed.
The plot is straightforward and occasionally a touch predictable, but in this as in other arenas Abraham is more or less imitating reality: some outcomes simply are predictable, making the twists only more surprising when they appear out of nowhere, as they do just often enough. It’s a clever bit of work. The prose style is matter-of-fact and streamlined but works well here, reflecting what seems to be Abraham’s broader goal of a fantasy world somewhat demystified.
The world-building, unfortunately, does not quite live up to the complexity of the cast or the craft of the plot. We get a kind of vague history involving dragons having at one point ruled the land and crafted twelve new races out of the regular humans (here called Firstbloods), but I can only assume that these elements are being saved for importance in another installment. Despite what is otherwise a tight and well-managed book, Abraham really seems to have no reason in The Dragon’s Path for a total of thirteen races to exist (most of the text deals with Firstblood characters), and their presence leads to some confused moments as one tries frantically to recall what exactly was the difference between a Dartinae and a Cinnae. Similarly, if less immediately problematic, the history of this world is never really explained to a satisfactory extent. I get a feeling there might have been more of it that met a premature demise before Abraham’s red pen at some point, and if so I wish he’d shown it a bit more mercy — the world would feel much richer with a few legends and tales of yore to round things out.
Exacerbating these problems somewhat is Abraham’s ongoing love affair with realism as a concept. I can’t really call it a flaw in the novel — it certainly brings about some consequences that I think work very well for Abraham’s style — but its influence is ponderous. About the only times Abraham indulges in preachiness are those occasions where he allows a character to wax poetic about some recognizable but more romanticized epic fantasy trope he is keen to disassociate himself from. As regards the world-building, he seems concerned that his characters will be unrealistic if they start reflecting too much on things they should already take for granted, and is forced to work in the descriptions of his races and his countries in little incidental asides. It’s a noble effort on the part of what is (as I said before) generally sterling characterization, but at times I did wish he’d just broken down and given us a bit more to work with.
Overall, though, The Dragon’s Path is a brisk, well-crafted novel with fascinating characters and a lot of potential moving forward into the next installment. I hope to see Abraham deepen his world with succeeding texts, and if that proves to be the case then this first novel in his series may be the beginning of something truly remarkable.