I have to hand it to Daniel Abraham; the guy takes some risks. In his first series, the absolutely masterful LONG PRICE QUARTET (read it if you haven’t), he had metaphor as the central conceit — a bit subtle and certainly less flashy than what most probably expect in a fantasy series. In his current series, THE DAGGER AND THE COIN, he makes banking one of the core action threads. Yes, I said banking. And yes, I said action. In fact, in the latest book, The Widow’s House, banking is perhaps THE pivot point of the story. I don’t how he does it, but not many authors, perhaps none, can, as he has done, have one banker explain to another banker what is basically the creation of a paper monetary system and have the reader thrill at the possibility of what that means to the plot. Yes, I said thrill.
Of course, Abraham doesn’t rely solely on banking. The man’s not an idiot. He knows blurbs have to be written. So he also has a dragon. An embittered yet uber-competent veteran of war. A siege. An evil cult. A Very Special Sword. War and Ruin. But still, as much as that dragon and Very Special Sword would seem to be the sort of things you’d want handy when it comes to defending yourself against a villainous world-threatening despot, in Abraham’s world, lines like this might give you better hope:
I would ask that you permit me to write letters of transfer based on the gold I have given you . . . Should I wish to purchase a bolt of cloth or supplies for a brewery, I will write a letter transferring part of your debt to me to the seller . . . So if I were to purchase seven tenthweights of gold worth of barley, I would be able to write a letter transferring seven tenthweights of your debt to the merchant . . . you let it be known that the crown guaranteed the debt.
(OK, maybe it works better in context. But trust me, you want this banker on your side in a war.)
I’ll send you on to my reviews of the earlier books to get caught up on plot details. But basically, by the start of The Widow’s House, the country of Antea, led by Regent Geder Palliako and under the inimical influence of the Spider Goddess cult, has conquered much of the neighboring territory. Now, having been spurned at the end of the last book by Cithrin, the woman he loves (or thinks he does — he’s a tad immature and inexperienced, not to mention unbalanced), he turns the war toward the goal of getting her into his hands by attacking the cities she shelters in. Leading his army are the two sons of the traitor he’d earlier executed while their mother continues to plot against him. Meanwhile, having awoken the last living dragon, Captain Marcus and Kit (a former Spider priest not turned against his cult) discover that this war is really the continuation of one begun untold ages ago in the time of dragons.
This series has been consistently excellent since its start, and the same strengths are evident in this newest novel. One is the literary nature of the prose, which carries the reader effortlessly through 500 pages (I happily read it in a single sitting) filled with smooth transitions from one POV to the other, realistic dialogue, a good smattering of wit and humor, and vivid imagery. As well some lyrical, thoughtful moments, as when an actor muses on the loss of a friend:
We’ve lost players before, Marcus. I’ve found that’s part of the richness of the world. And the sorrow. I think the magic of my trade is that a part can be played by many people. The wise man. The lover. The curious voice in the wild. Even the enemy. Part of our work has been to step into those roles, find who we are within them, play them, and then put them aside for another to pick up and remake . . . Tragedy is something we are familiar with. Sudden loss or slow, deserved or the world’s caprice. We will ache and we will mourn and we will also play at the next stop with the parts rearranged . . . The roles remain the same. Unless we change them.
Characterization is, as always, rich and engaging. The POV characters are Geder, Cithrin, Marcus, and Clara (the traitor’s plotting widow) and each is multi-faceted and deeply layered. Geder is the “villain” of the novel, the tyrant of Antea, and there are certainly scenes showing why this is. But it is an unusual sort of villainy for epic fantasy — no Dark Lord desire for world domination, no obsessive desire for vengeance. It’s a smaller-bore kind of villainy — petty, immature, oblivious, at times almost child-like in its “evil.” Add in the fact that Geder is in many ways a tool, and is also shown in other roles beyond villain: being a caring, gentle mentor to the young prince he is Regent for, acting in his best friend’s stead to save his friend the ultimate in pain and sorrow, and so forth, and the reader’s response to him becomes much more complicated. For example, after he has used all the power of his status to do what he can for an ailing mother-to-be, including calling in all the royal physicians (“Yea, Geder!!”), he’s told by a midwife it might come down to saving the mother or the baby. And here is his response: “When they come out, it will be . . . mother and child both. Both. If there is anything else, I will whip you all to death myself! Do you understand?” She does understand, because this is no idle threat. So much for “Yea, Geder!”
On the other side of the spectrum (though it isn’t really a spectrum — that’s the point), Abraham isn’t afraid to show Cithrin in a less than pleasant light at times, as when she turns to drinking too much, or becomes passive and apathetic in the face of loss. Clara is simply a fantastic creation as a character. You just don’t see many older female characters playing such active, admirable roles. And I don’t mean just in fantasy — in fiction in general, or in film. She’s the sort of role you imagine a slew of Hollywood actresses over 40 would die (or kill) for. Marcus is also a great role, his familiar taciturn aspect covering up a much more intelligent and complex inner life than most such common fantasy figures. He also offers up most of the welcome (usually dry) humor in the novel, especially in his interaction with his second in command, Yardem. In fact, nearly every time Yardem spoke, I heard it in the same tone as Zoe speaking to Mal in Firefly.
The plot moves along at a good pace, nicely balanced between action and introspection, between forwarding of the story and deepening of the characters. Several twists occur and the story itself becomes more complicated as much by what is revealed about the past as by what happens in the present. Pieces are being moved into place, convergences of characters occur, and it’s clear we’re heading toward the conclusion of the series, even if we still have some hundreds of pages remaining. The Widow’s House is exactly what I’ve come to expect from Abraham: a high-quality read filled with rich characters, sophisticated plotting and language that I zip through in one sitting and then bemoan having to wait so long for the next. (Of course, I do have Cibola Burn, his new books under the James Corey name to tide me over another day or two). Highly recommended.