on 12 January 2014
The King's Blood is the second book in Abraham's Dagger and Coin series, and it follows on nicely from the events of The Dragon's Path. Our favourite characters - Marcus, Cithrin, Dawson, Clara, Geder - return to carry on the story, which takes a somewhat darker turn here than in the first book. I have to say, I'm really enjoying what I've read of this series so far.
The blurb is a little misleading: the `young woman' it mentions (Cithrin the banker) is still an important character in The King's Blood, but, aside from in one particular instance, she isn't a hugely pivotal part of the story. Instead, the central plot follows a city's gradual descent into civil war, which we see from two main PoVs, each on a different side of the conflict. These two characters (who will remain unnamed for spoiler purposes) are really well-written: in The Dragon's Path they were both likeable for different reasons, whereas now we're presented with a different side to them. Both have their reasons for doing what they do, but it's difficult to decide which is right and which is wrong. A much darker tone is layered over the story by the ambiguity of the characters and the fallout from their decisions, and I think it sets up the rest of the series brilliantly.
The other main plotline, of course, is that of Marcus (the `jaded mercenary) and Kit (the `renegade priest'), who have just embarked on a quest to find a magic sword and kill an evil goddess. Agreed, this sounds like the clichéd plot of an old role-playing game: but somehow, we don't mind, probably because we want to see these two cool characters paired up on a wild adventure. The fact that Abraham acknowledges the cliché with a few dry remarks from Marcus just makes us wonder how he's going to mess around with our expectations, and personally I can't wait to see if/how he does it.
Imperial Antea, the greatest nation in the world, is on the rise. Thanks to the hitherto-unexpected skills of Geder Palliako, a young nobleman, a conspiracy to murder the heir to the Antean throne has been exposed and defeated. Now the Anteans are pursuing the roots of the conspiracy into neighbouring Asterilhold, an investigation which threatens to explode into full-scale war. Baron Dawson Kalliam is summoned to serve his country, but as he works with Geder he discovers the shadowy roots of Geder's new political skills and is left with a critical decision to make.
Across the continent, Cithrin Bel Sarcour's position as the face of the new Medean Bank in Porte Olivia is undermined by the arrival of a new notary determined to stop Cithring doing her job. Furious, Cithrin undertakes a journey to Carse to convince the leaders of the bank that she can do the job. This fateful decision will lead her into the heart of the growing storm that threatens to plunge the known world into chaos and war.
The King's Blood is the second novel in The Dagger and the Coin and the sequel to last year's promising opening volume in the sequence, The Dragon's Path. With this series Daniel Abraham has moved away from the Asian-tinged fantasy of his debut Long Price Quartet in favour of tackling a more traditional, Western European-based fantasy. Whilst he's moved the date to one later than normal (Renaissance Europe rather than the traditional medieval period, with a banking institution modelled on the Medici), he's still swimming in more familiar waters.
However, this move has not dented his enthusiasm or writing skills. The Dragon's Path was a very solid opening novel, but The King's Blood eclipses it on almost every level. The writing is more confident and assured. The characterisation is richer, both of the established cast (Cithrin develops into a more layered character than before; Marcus Wester's psychological state becomes clearer; Geder becomes a lot more disturbing) and of relative newcomers. Clara Kalliam had a subplot in The Dragon's Path but in this novel develops into a key protagonist as she deals with a minor scandal in her family and then has to engage with the developing political crisis. There is more action, including a skirmish with pirates and several sieges and battles, but also more introspection as the characters evolve into more fully-realised figures. Particularly fascinating are Yardem and Marcus, a fine fantasy double-act who provide a great deal of the book's humour but are also potentially storing up tragedy between them.
The worldbuilding is also improved upon from The Dragon's Path, where the differences between the various kingdoms and the thirteen distinct races of mankind were not very well-established. This is immensely improved upon in The King's Blood (and not just by the addition of a glossary), with the world becoming more convincing and the distinctions between the races better-established. An area that requires more work, however, is the political landscape in Antea, which still feels somewhat under-developed. This wasn't so much a problem in the first novel, but risks becoming an issue in The King's Blood, particularly in the concluding section of the novel which suffers a little from a lack of scope due to the very narrow focus.
The book unfolds at a fairly swift pace, which results in the pages flying by so fast that the book's end, and the resulting year-long wait for Book 3, comes upon the reader unexpectedly. The book's excellence overcomes the occasional resorting to epic fantasy contrivance (journeys are either major undertakings or are completely skipped over depending on plot needs) or its inspirations being worn a little too openly on the sleeve (the Geder plotline's parallels to the Londo Mollari storyline in Babylon 5 risk it becoming predictable until it starts to swerve away from that structure late in the novel).
The King's Blood (*****) has a few minor flaws but overall is a very fine epic fantasy novel, a huge improvement over the already-fine Dragon's Path, and notable for its focus on finely-judged characterisation as much as the more traditional furniture of the genre. It's also a fast, addictive read that elevates The Dagger and the Coin into the position of one of the finest in-progress fantasy series around at the moment. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.
on 10 May 2012
Daniel Abraham is one of my must-read authors. I reckon his Long Price Quartet to be the finest work of modern fantasy I've yet read, and his current sci-fi and urban fantasy series are coming along nicely too. Yes, he's prolific, and, even better, he writes fast - a new book a year for each series. No long waits. This book is the second in the Dagger And Coin Quintet, his first attempt at a more traditional form of fantasy, and as such is still settling in. The first book was promising, if a bit uneven. This one follows the same four characters, Cithrin, Geder, Dawson and Marcus, plus one extra, Dawson's wife Clara. Cithrin is the figurehead for her bank, but kept on a short leash by the bank's notary, Pyk, who has an unimaginative risk-averse strategy and a strong personal dislike of Cithrin. Marcus is still a guard with a history. Geder has accidentally reversed into a position of great influence. Dawson is still a traditionalist nobleman and friend of the king. Clara is still the smart woman behind the public figure of her husband. These last three are involved in the political machinations surrounding Aster, the king's son and heir, in Camnipol. Meanwhile, Master Kit, an apparently minor character in the previous book, is following his own agenda against the spider goddess.
Like most fantasy, this one takes a while to get going. The early chapters are reflective, and work well to set the scene as well as gently reminding the reader of the events of the previous book. I never felt at a loss, wondering who a character was or what was being referred to. The writing style is elegantly spare, with some nicely lyrical flourishes that never seem overblown. This is a writer at the very top of his game (did I mention I'm a big fan?). Even so, the slow pace early on is a bit of a turn-off. I'm not mad keen on the current fad for named point of view chapters; it's all too easy to turn the page and think: hmm, another chapter about X, and put the book down. But after the initial settling in phase, things begin to get going and the pace picks up nicely, and somewhere around the midpoint, the proverbial hits the whatsit and all hell breaks loose.
The world-building is a little less perfunctory in this book. For the first time, there seems to be some real depth and structure to the various nations, so that the few cities which have a role seem less like islands in the midst of vast expanses of nothing very much. There is some attempt, too, to expand on the various races (the original First Bloods, and the twelve races created by the dragons long ago to fulfil various roles). I still get them mixed up, mind you, but it doesn't seem to matter much, and it was nice to see the Drowned close up (I have a suspicion they're going to be important). There are some hints about the dragons themselves, too, and what happened to them. There is also plenty of description of places and little snippets of history, which work very well to illuminate the author's created world without becoming too heavy on the info-dump scale. We also get to see a little more of the religion (or cult, maybe?) of the spider goddess, and there are some moments here that are truly chilling.
I feel the slightest tinge of disappointment that Abraham, a man of infinitely fertile imagination, has plonked his characters into such a conventional world. Even though he set out from the start to create a more traditional form, this is very much the off-the-shelf fantasy world - a patriarchal society where men rule and plot and fight as kings and dukes and soldiers, women stay home and raise families and broker marriage deals, slaves do a lot of the work, and virginity is prized in a bride. Beyond the nobility and wealthy, fortunately, there is more variety, and the economic element (the coin of the series title) introduces a different perspective. Within the banking world, for instance, women can and do take an equal part in affairs (as Cithrin demonstrates). And it has to be said that so far the author has done a very good job of pointing out the deficiencies of a hereditary patriarchal system, which throws up a fair number of idiots and incompetents, thrusts unsuitable people into roles of great power, sometimes entirely by accident, and wastes fifty percent of its resources by leaving them sitting at home with their embroidery. It's also a system which doesn't seem to leave many options apart from war or not-war. There are three more books in the series for him to make his point (or not) on this, so I'll reserve judgment until it's done.
The characters always felt like real, rounded personalities, and that is even more true now. Geder, in particular, is one to ponder. I've no doubt readers will be arguing for years about his peculiar mix of naivité, insecurity and sudden bursts of vicious cruelty, but Cithrin and Marcus also have abrupt swings between common sense and reckless stupidity. Dawson I still find dull, and although Clara has her moments, she has too little to do here to really shine. Even the minor roles have great depth, and you really feel that they have lives outside the confines of the story, where they just get on with things until their arcs intersect with the main plotlines once more. Abraham has an amazing ability to show both the good and bad in people, so that even someone like Pyk, the notary, or the pirate, either of whom could have been made into a caricature mini-villain, are given complex motivation which brings them perilously close to being sympathetic. All the characters behave in believable ways, and if occasionally you feel the author's hand nudging them along so that they meet up at convenient times, that's acceptable, I think.
I found the politics of the first book quite confusing - so many odd names and titles and nations and shifting allegiances, and the difficulty of not knowing quite who's important and who is just passing through for a chapter or two. This one is much easier to follow, although whether this is the author's surer hand or just comes from greater familiarity with the story I can't say. But Abraham has an uncanny ability to toss up the difficult questions. Is a decision right just because it seems logical? Where exactly does (or should) loyalty lie? Who can you ever trust? Which is the greater power, military might or money (the fundamental question of the series)? The hazy boundaries between truth and faith and certainty. And then there's the matter of unintended consequences - in the last book, it was the events at Vanai that changed everything, this time it's Dawson's conscience that spirals out of control. And as always Abraham shows us both sides of every equation, so that there is no black or white, no good or evil, only people doing the best they can with whatever they have to work with, and trying to do what seems right at the time. Sometimes it turns out well, and sometimes it doesn't, and sometimes it's impossible to tell, and sometimes you just wonder, what on earth were they thinking? (Cithrin, I'm looking at you here.) And yet in all sorts of ways it makes sense.
Abraham is often compared with George R R Martin, which is probably unfair to both authors, and I suspect arises largely because they are personal friends. In reality, they are very different writers. Martin has larger than life characters, a cast of thousands, a depressing hyper-medieval setting and a sprawling mess of tangled plotlines spilling over two continents and numerous doorstopper volumes. Abraham populates his books with believably realistic characters, a tightly woven plot and a deeply intelligent sub-text. If Martin were a painter, he would be hurling great sweeps of colour over the entire gallery wall; Abraham would be more of an oil on canvas man, painstakingly building the layers, every brushstroke placed with considered precision. I love them both in their different ways.
A better comparison for this series is with The Long Price Quartet, Abraham's much admired debut work, and no, this doesn't quite reach those heights of awesomeness. The Dragon's Path was a good, promising start to the series, and The King's Blood is better, an excellent next step, but not quite extraordinary. For me, fantasy is about the otherness of a world that is alien, not like ours, and where the differences emerge - the spider priests, the cunning men, the lost dragons, that tantalising glimpse of the Drowned - the book is spine-tinglingly good. There are moments, too, when the characters step outside the boundaries and do something quite unexpected (well, unexpected to me, anyway, although always within the parameters of their natures), and these too raise the book to a different level.
However, the conventional nature of the setting is too commonplace to be interesting; there's nothing surprising about men waving swords around while women stitch, and I do like to be surprised. Nor do the characters draw me in. Geder, of course, is fascinating, in a horrifying way, and Cithrin and Marcus are interesting too; Dawson and Clara not so much (I hope Clara has more to do in later books, since she has potential). But none of them really resonate with me (by which I mean, do I care what happens to them? and the answer is no, not a great deal, not yet). More worryingly, the book never pulled me into that desperate got-to-know-what-happens-next state; even at the height of the Camnipol mayhem, it was just too easy to put the book down (partly those pesky chapters named after characters, I suppose - it just breaks the tension). So no staying up till 3am to finish it. The final few chapters were a bit choppy, too, because of the need to tie up loose ends and set the pieces in place for the next book.
Having said all that, these are trivial complaints and this is still way better than the vast majority of fantasy around these days. It's not high on action, but what there is makes sense and has consequences that have to be dealt with. Abraham's elegant prose is a pleasure to read, the tight plotting is masterful, and the characters have a very human mixture of intelligence and idiocy, common sense and irrational impulse, completely believable. As always, there is a raft of thought-provoking ideas here for those who want them, particularly in the latter half of the book. I have every confidence that (as with The Long Price) each individual book in the series will be even better than the one before. A good four stars. Highly recommended.
on 21 May 2012
Troubled times lay ahead in the Kingdoms.
In Anthea, Geder Pallaiko, protector of the crown prince is elevated to regent when the king dies.
From noble but lowly beginnings, Pallaiko wasn't raised to be a ruler, and finds himself in his elevated role almost by accident. Relying heavily on Basrahip, High Priest of the Spider Goddess and able to both tell truth from lie and to influence people's actions, the Regent finds himself on a path to war while allowing petty grievances from the past to influence his present decisions.
Also in Anthea, Dawson Kalliam, a Baron, loses a close childhood friend when the old king dies. Unimpressed by Pallaiko and suspicious of the influence the High Priest has over the Regent, Dawson is looking for ways to save Anthea for Aster, the crown prince. When he's promoted to the head of Anthea's army when the country goes to war he has no choice but to follow orders. But will a war fought for a regent he doesn't believe him change his mind about man?
Cithrin bel Sarcour finds herself deeply frustrated. After having saved a branch of the Medean Bank from destruction and rebuilding it in a new location, she now finds herself supervised by a rigid and unimaginative actuary. Rumours about an upcoming war give Cithrin an opportunity to spread her wings and advance her position.
Captain Marcus Wester, former king-killer and present day protector of and enforcer for Cithrin is in the unusual position where he's not in the middle of a violent conflict. Still haunted by past nightmares he has dedicated his life to protecting the young banker. But when Cithrin goes away without him and his friend betrays him, he finds himself recruited to a quest he doesn't really believe in.
Master Kit, former apostate of the Spider Goddess can feel the danger the world is in and abandons his acting troupe to go on a quest to kill a Goddess and save the world from a desperate fate. A quest he isn't sure he can complete or survive.
All are people caught up in events they can't really control, brought on by a past too ancient to be remembered. They stand on the brink of an age of madness and death and seem too weak and divided to prevent disaster.
This is turning into a fascinating and powerful fantasy saga. Building on the events in "The Dragon's Path", the story slowly and almost imperceptively moves towards darkness, death and destruction. And while the reader, with inside into all parts of the story, can see the danger with ever greater clarity, the characters in the story, with one exception, have no idea what is lying ahead of them or the depth of the danger they are facing.
Daniel Abraham has done a wonderful job building a world the reader can easily believe in. While the thirteen races described in the book are mostly completely unlike any we know in our own world, the separation and discrimination between them is all too familiar.
And that is what makes this series of books so interesting.
This is not an action packed story. It is a tale of intrigue, politics, undercurrents and subterfuge. It is a fascinating read because, although the setting and characters are completely fictional and firmly set in a fantasy world, the ideas behind the story are real and easy to translate into the world we know so well. Both are worlds in which money and political games rule. Both are worlds in which the right thing to do isn't always clear or possible to achieve.
There are hardly any clear-cut black or white characters in this book. Everyone acts first and foremost in their own best interest, with the concerns of and for others coming second at best. And while this could, in the hands of a lesser author, have resulted in a book filled with uninspiring characters, Abrahams has succeeded in delivering a novel filled with realistic people who the reader will end up caring about. It is impossible not to hope that even those characters who are making all the wrong decisions will come to their senses before it is too late.
This is the second book in a series, and while it can easily be read without reading the prequel first, I would advise anyone tempted to try this book to start with "The Dragon's Path". Reading the books in the order in which they were published will, without a doubt, increase the reading enjoyment experienced.
This is a great read, and my only regret is that it will probably be another year before I can get my hands on the next instalment.