Two Views: The Dragon's Path by Daniel Abraham
Reviewed by Nathaniel Katz and Maria Velazquez
27 July 2011
Daniel Abraham earned lavish praise from many a fan and reviewer for his Long Price quartet (reviewed on Strange Horizons here and here), but the books never took off when it came to sales, and Tor even went so far as to back away from publishing the final volume in paperback. The Dragon's Path, the first of a series, is a more traditional affair. As the author put it, The Long Price was his tragedy, and The Dragon's Path is his adventure. The differences are immediately obvious. The Dragon's Path is thicker, the chapters are titled only with character names in the style of George R. R. Martin, the subtle intrigue of The Long Price seems to have been swapped for a more dramatic and action packed tale, and its somber tone for bright and thoughtless adventure. As one continues to read, however, many of these differences turn out to be mostly illusory.
In an interview with Aidan Moher, Abraham said that he wanted the characters in The Dragon's Path to be accessible. Each of the characters seems simple when we first come across them, and it's only when we proceed that their subtleties begin to emerge. Unfortunately, many of the plotlines end before those subtleties can truly come into play.
In the king's court, the nation has been divided into two quarrelling factions that are on the verge of civil war. One, led by Issandrian, is fighting to create a farmer's council and secure rights for the lower classes. The other, led by Dawson, is vile and elitist. On the subject of rights, Dawson says: "Already we have restrictions on slavery, on bed servants, on land service. All of that within our lifetimes. And all from men like Issandrian, courting favor from laborers and merchants and whores" (p. 160). When a huntsman in his employ annoys him, Dawson reacts like a Star Wars villain and dismisses the man on the spot, barely refraining from having him whipped. When the people on the street don't give their lives to stop an armed assassin, he assumes it's because they're "making way for one of their own . . . Cowardice and safety of the herd was the nature of the lowborn. He could as well blame sheep for bleating" (p. 168). In short, Dawson's every utterance is reprehensible.
So far, so standard, right? Clearly, Issandrian will be triumphant, proto-democracy shall come to Abraham-land, and we'll all learn a lesson about tolerance along the way. Well, except that our viewpoint character is Dawson. Abraham does not want us to sympathize with Dawson—but he does want us to understand him. Dawson's viewpoint is written with enough conviction that, loathsome as his views might be, the reader becomes involved in his struggle. That being said, Dawson's arc never diverges from that of a straight antagonist. In a conversation with Neth, Abraham said that he modeled Dawson's character off of a WWII-era German who opposed the Nazis, but only because they were of the lower classes. It's an interesting comparison, and an interesting exercise, but Abraham seems to have left out the part where his reprehensible character has equally reprehensible foes. While some of Issandrian's cohorts are far from lovable, it's rather difficult to equate a battle for civil rights with death camps. As things stand at the end, Dawson's arc has yet to diverge from that of a standard antagonist, albeit a rather triumphant one, and—due to his own bullheadedness—his views have yet to be seriously tested.
Like Dawson, Geder is a terrible human being, but his deficiencies are not immediately obvious. In fact, Geder is likely to gain the support of almost every reader when he first comes on stage. The opening of Geder's story, if it took place in, say, Boston, would be a story about a nerd far past the point of cliché. Geder is mocked by his (military) peers, who play practical jokes on him, and he's taunted for his love of speculative fict- sorry, speculative essays. Abraham writes the character with enough of a straight face to keep us from disengaging, but it's the next section of Geder's tale and, especially, the one beyond that that make the character interesting.
The army that Geder is part of conquers the city of Vanai, and the commander's mistreatment of Geder continues. Geder is set up as the target of all the people's hate, and he's the one forced to carry out all the unpleasant business of tyranny, to visit arrests, confiscations, and abductions upon the populace. This is where our first hints of Geder's character emerge. When he appears in front of hapless citizens with his military retinue, his actions are full of apologies. But he never apologizes for damning innocent men. No, Geder simply wants to make it very clear that he isn't the one who wanted to do this, and that they really shouldn't be mad at him. When Geder ends up taking over the commander's position, his narcissism comes to the fore. In order to save face, the not so lovable medieval nerd chooses to kill thousands.
Like Dawson, Geder seems at first to fit neatly into a fantasy archetype. He is the awkward newcomer, the man seeking to better himself. In the second half of the novel, he's the man on a quest for understanding. But all of these are just excuses. As he realizes when the attainment of his goals comes within reach, Geder does not want enlightenment. He just wants "the men who used me to suffer . . . I want them to beg my forgiveness. I want them humiliated where the world can point at them and pity them and laugh" (p. 456).
The two other primary viewpoint characters are both far more traditional. Until Geder and co. reached the good city of Vanai, Cithrin was a ward of the bank. Now that the city's fallen, she finds herself fleeing in a caravan across the country with a cart full of unimaginable wealth. Marcus Wester is the captain of that caravan's guards and is the story's least interesting character. Marcus is legendary fighter and leader, a man powerful enough to awe kings, and he's haunted by the loss of his family. He finds himself growing protective of Cithrin because she reminds him of his daughter. None of this is poorly written, but none of it is surprising either. Cithrin, thankfully, is more engaging. After playing the part of hunted fugitive for the first half of the novel, she and Marcus establish themselves in Porte Olivia, and Cithrin attempts to establish a branch of the bank there. Cithrin's story—that of the young newcomer determined to prove herself—is hardly revolutionary, but the monetary theme and several interesting characters are enough to keep events engaging.
The worldbuilding in The Long Price was one of the series's most distinctive attributes, being both well thought out and notably non-western. Unfortunately, The Dragon's Path fails to make nearly so much of an impression. While characters are described with grace and precision, Abraham conveys much of his setting through infodumps starkly set aside from the flow of the narrative. A good number of these do work. In Dawson's case, Abraham often blends the sights of the capital with memories, and Cithrin's experiences in Porte Olivia work as a contrast to the life that was taken from her. There are just as many descriptions, however, that do not work, passages where the weight of the disassociated details serves to shove the reader out of the story rather than pull them into it. As a result, the central and surrounding empires, as well as the Free Cities where we spend much of our time, are all easily demarcated on the map, but harder to separate in practice. The reader will soon learn the building materials of a city, but the flavor of its streets may or may not follow, and as for culture, we're for the most part left with nothing to go on but the vague European flavor brought on by familiar noble titles.
There are thirteen races in Abraham's world, but none of the ones we see seem to have any distinguishing characteristics beyond aesthetics, and—in the absence of a glossary—each soon becomes little more than a color scheme. On the magical front, The Dragon's Path feels more concerned with foreshadowing twists than depicting them. References to "cunning men" (p. 88) and various ancient creatures abound, but they are never seen. The prologue and closing chapter set up a supernatural conflict, but do little more than establish its existence.
The Dragon's Path ends before its most interesting elements can come to the fore. Both the personalities of the cast and the thematic ground for them to battle over seems to have been merely set up in this volume. Still, Abraham has earned enough trust and writes with enough skill to inspire confidence. One can only hope that as The Dagger and the Coin proceeds he will develop his world in unexpected ways and delve deeper into the groundwork laid in this volume.
The country of Antea is seeking to assert itself as a regional power and is planning a conquest. While the political turmoil in Antea is a danger on a national and international level for the Free Cities and Antea's neighboring countries, there is an even more dangerous power in the desert: a spider goddess whose disciples are able to immediately discern if a particular speaker believes what he or she is saying. This goddess has also given her acolytes the ability to make others believe what they say, regardless of its actual truthiness. Even the dragons, the godlike beings who created the thirteen races of this world, feared her and her believers. Antea's internal and external conflicts provide an opportunity for this goddess to escape the desert to which she was exiled.
The world of The Dragon's Path is home to thirteen races, some of which are considered "slave races" by the Firstbloods of Antea, who are the most human-like. Another seems vaguely Elvish. Still others are covered in chitinous exoskeletons, or have glowing embers for eyes. These races were supposedly created by the long-gone dragons, which split the Firstbloods into these many phenotypes. Abraham's gift for describing body language makes the differences between these races apparent in such a way that highlights the nonverbal idiosyncracies unique to each group. Teenage Timzanae boys blink their third eyelids in nervous tics, Tralgus flick their tufted ears in annoyance, and half-Jasuru men like nibbling a little on their lovers with their sharp teeth. These different bodies are the physical evidence of the dragons' machinations, their legacy and a reminder of what it means to walk the dragons' path politically—to split apart, to court civil war and internal division, to squabble and create cracks in the norm.
Vanai is one such crack. This Free City, where the thirteen races mingle and where fortunes have been made, is in danger. Antea is on the move, and seeking to acquire more wealth. However, the Medean bank's branch in Vanai has other plans. Immediately before the Antean army's arrival in Vanai, the city's largest bank smuggles out its treasures. Cithrin, the bank's ward, is responsible for bringing these treasures to Carse, the city where the bank's holding company is located. With her is a troupe of actors pretending to be caravan guards and the famed mercenary, Captain Marcus Wester. Cithrin pretends to be a boy in order to avoid detection. Captain Wester pretends he's not still mourning the deaths of his wife and daughter even as he protects Cithrin, who reminds him of what he’s lost. These sometimes heavy-handed themes of personal truths and artifice sets up one of the larger questions of the series as a whole: what does it mean to tell one's personal, political, and emotion truth? Is one lying when that truth changes?
Cithrin, who is an orphan, a bank-approved smuggler, and half-Cinnae/half-Firstblood, is the most interesting of Abraham's characters. Her journey is especially satisfying as she grows from a frightened child mourning her lost city to a coltish young woman seizing her destiny, using her cleverness and willingness to take risks as her most potent tool.
While Cithrin's rise to prominence is fascinating and one of the stronger threads in this novel, she sadly shares her journey with Wester, a mercenary captain whose leadership in an earlier war has garnered him a bittersweet kind of fame. Wester's cynicism and anger highlights Cithrin's youthfulness, fear, and inexperience, but I found him a bit one-note as a character. His wife and daughter were "fridged" before the start of the narrative, a banal genre convention often used to make male characters appear interesting and gritty. There were moments where I felt like his character arc could have been further developed. For example, there are implications that his wife was Cinnae, and that his half-Cinnae/half-Firstblood daughter would strongly resemble Cithrin, since she is also mixed. Cithrin does not know a lot about her Cinnae heritage; her mother's marriage outside of her race effectively cut Cithrin and her mother out of that support network. This would have been interesting to explore from Wester's perspective as the adult in an interracial relationship that, like Cithrin's family’s story, ends in tragedy. That his character arc centers on his family's death not only weakens him as a character but also ignores an opportunity to explore racialized interactions in a world where race and national identity are central, and part of the legacy of the absent dragons.
The Dragon's Path does not only focus on the victims of Antea's military aggression. Geder Palliako is an Antean nobleman serving with the army itself. Like Cithrin, he's pretending to be someone he's not: the kind of gentleman able to interact with other peers of the realm with something resembling graciousness and political savvy. As part of this, he has also become fascinated by definitions of truth, authenticity, and power. Unfortunately, he's too bookish to seem truly manly in Antean society and only gradually realizes that he hungers for more power than he's been given. The other Antean characters include Dawson Kalliam, another Antean nobleman, and his wife Clara. Dawson immerses himself in a kind of courtly intrigue. He wants to preserve the Antean way, including the institution of slavery, the squashing of workers' rights, and a particular kind of militant masculinity. He plans on using Geder as a kind of cat's paw to further Dawson's own political machinations. The campaign in Vanai was not meant to be entirely successful, and Dawson has positioned Geder to take the blame. When Geder accidentally becomes Antea's hero, Dawson prepares to continue using him as a tool. Geder has other plans. At the novel's end, he become one of the major players in the upcoming series, as well as a devotee of the spider goddess of the desert. While he lacks social acumen, Geder has a taste for power.
I mentioned earlier that the Abraham's writing is at times heavy-handed in relation to its themes of truth and ambiguity. This same heavy-handedness is also felt in the repeated stressing of Dawson's status as a member of the Antean conservative old guard. The chapters told from Dawson's point of view consistently position Clara, his wife, in relation to Dawson's dogs; both the woman and the dogs appear to symbolize a kind of landed gentry lifestyle associated with privilege, loyalty, and gendered, racial hierarchies, and are often also associated with mention of Dawson's brown-skinned Tralgu slave. While Clara does have two short point of view chapters, these serve to augment plotlines more associated with both Dawson and Geder, rather than fleshing out her character or introducing plotlines centered on her experiences as a married noblewoman with social connections in a politically tense court. Even in the structure of the novel, Clara's story is subsumed into her husband's.
The Dragon's Path is strong on characterization and distressingly weak on worldbuilding, gender, and race issues. It's also long, and, perhaps worse, feels long. The payoff for character and plot arcs is slow, interminably delayed by Abraham’s swapping of point of view characters. As in George R. R. Martin's work, with whom Abraham has collaborated, this gives the reader a variety of perspectives on national and international events. At the same time, this tactic reveals some of the chinks in the world's construction regarding the definition of race and the significance of class and gender identities. In this world, race has a biological reality that translates into character traits like a propensity towards violence, something Abraham comments on and defends in his blog. This authorial insistence on the biological reality of race in this world is especially noticeable when so few characters in-text are mixed, despite Antea's histories of conquest and slavery and Vanai's history of racial intermingling. There are also in-text references to "mules"—mixed race people who are infertile because of their mingled ethnic backgrounds, because the different races are also apparently different species. Mulatto/mule is a pretty common racist term for mixed race people; it associates mixed race people with animals and livestock, a particularly awkward comparison when the character being called a mule is Quahar Em, who is a half-Jasaru, a scaled draconic humanoid race, and half-Firstblood. Elsewhere, Abraham has written that "high fantasy has the capacity . . . to sit with racism defanged" and that he wants to rescue "the attraction—of a world outside the familiar. And by familiar, I mean familiar to the audience for whom the works are intended" from the "pathological." This is difficult to do when treating racist tropes as real within the context of the work. I'm not certain he is entirely successful, particularly because some plot elements, like the fanaticism of the spider-goddess's acolytes seem disturbingly reminiscent of Western anxieties about Islam and the Oriental Other.
Despite these issues, there are moments where the writing shines and where the characterizations are astute and poignant, moments where Abraham's prose lounges about, luxuriating in nuanced body language, minute details, and elegant turns of phrase. These moments are what make The Dragon's Path an intriguing beginning to an epic fantasy series. I’m hopeful that the next installment in this series features more female characters who are more developed, and narrators from both the different in-world races and real-world races. I'm also excited about the role of banking in the upcoming conflicts facing Antea, particularly because Cithrin has emerged as an economic force to be reckoned with, and because the bank with which she's affiliated has been influencing international affairs. I have not read a fantasy novel where so much attention was paid to economics and their role in international conflict—themes that Abraham has also explored in his Long Price quartet—since Raymond E. Fiest's Rise of a Merchant Prince (1995), one of the Serpentwar novels where imperialism and banking take center-stage. I'm cautious because the imagery surrounding the fanatic acolytes of the spider goddess in the desert seems deeply Orientalist, and because Abraham’s blog posts suggest an unwillingness to complicate this kind of storytelling. Hopefully, the rest of this series moves away from nightmares of the spider goddess of the Far East and away from race as a biological reality, and towards the kind of nuanced character development that makes Abraham so exciting to read.