Frivolous Waste of Time

Sci-fi, fantasy and video games

Archive for the month “January, 2016”

Walking on Glass by Iain Banks

Well…this is a strange one. Iain Banks’ second novel, Walking on Glass, is not quite as well regarded as some of his others, but I really liked it. Banks had a rare talent for vastly varying styles; he was capable of big, imaginative ideas but also rreveled in the dirty and the grotty, the sordid and the nasty. Published before his first sci-fi novel as Iain M. Banks, Consider Phlebas, we see Banks begin to flirt with the big imaginative ideas in a novel which feels like a crossover between the Banks’ with and without the M.  
 
Walking on Glass follows three storylines. First is Graham Park, a young man who is hopelessly in love with the enigmatic Sara Ffitch. Second we have Steven Grout, who is beset by paranoid delusions that he is an alien General of an intergalactic war banished to Earth by his enemies. The final and most interesting storyline follows Quiss who, along with Ajayi, has been banished into a mysterious ramshackle castle, forced to play obscure and impossible games until he can solve the riddle ‘what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?’ The three seemingly disparate stories eventually tie together in a bewitching and unpredictable fashion.  
 
I’ll mention the weakness of Walking on Glass first; if this novel has any kind of meaningful message, and it does feel as if there is one straining to get out, it’s not particularly well conveyed. The slight hollowness to the book may be the cause of its less than rapturous reception, but if you just relax and enjoy the story Walking on Glass becomes much more palatable. Although the Quiss storyline is the most immediately interesting, with more than a little Mervyn Peake thrown in, all three hold interest. The connections between them are slight and insubstantial, but taken as three separate novellas I enjoyed all of them. In earlier moments this book seemed tame by Banks’ standards, but it isn’t too long until the grim edge of cheerful horror creeps in.  
 
All three are well written, but it’s the description of the Gormenghast-esque castle that will stick in my mind. Banks wears his influences on his sleeve and makes no effort to hide them, but he also creates something which feels unique enough to make its own impact. Banks suffuses his setting with a palpable sense of despair and ennui and following Quiss as he prowls around the castle was, for me, the chief pleasure of this novel. 
 
Although the characters themselves aren’t among his most memorable, Banks does a wonderful job at articulating the neuroses and darkness which lure in the back of the human mind, particularly when in a state of shock. More than once I was left feeling deeply uncomfortable by the articulation of mental processes than I recognise in myself. I’m normally not a fan of lengthy descriptions of characters’ mental states, preferring a showing not telling approach, but Banks does it just so damn well!  
 
Walking on Glass is far from my favourite Banks novel, but it’s definitely not my least either. I’m rationing Banks, reading a couple a year because when they’re done they’re done. I’m looking forward to seeing whatever strange and twisted world Banks transfers me to next. 

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Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde

Can you imagine what was going through the mind of Jasper Fforde’s publisher when 50 Shades of Grey became huge? I could never read it in public, but I really enjoyed Shades of Grey, which is an overall denser and heavier experience than the light and breezy Thursday Next novels. It may contain no whips, spanking and only a tiny dash of sado-masochism, but I guarantee that Jasper Fforde’s Shades of Grey is the best novel containing those words in the title out there.

Shades of Grey takes place in a distant future society, many years after an unknown apocalypse known as the ‘Something That Happened.’ Something changes in humanity’s eyesight and now society is divided by what colours they are able to perceive, with Purples at the top and the lowly colourblind Greys at the bottom. This society is known as the Chromatacia and is governed by The Rules, a series of bizarre edicts which seek to control even minute details in behaviour and to thoroughly stamp out any possibility of rebellion. Colour is everything in this society, to the point that particular shades can be used as medicine or even, in the case of certain shades of lime green, as recreational drugs.

Eddie Russet is a Red, the second lowest caste to the Greys, who seeks to marry upwards into the Oxblood family, raising his social status considerably. However, a minor rebellion in suggesting a more efficient queuing system sees him sent to the Outer Fringes of the Chromotacia to learn humility. He winds up in the town of East Carmine and meets Jane, a Grey with a fiery temper and an irreverence for the established order which Eddie has never seen before. Eddie becomes embroiled in the shady local politics of East Carmine and begins to uncover the lies and horror that underpin the entirety of Chromotacian society.

Typically of Fforde, Shades of Grey is aggressively high concept. The world can be difficult to wrap your head around at first, but I think this is intentional because it highlights how utterly unquestioning the characters are about the bizarre strangeness that surrounds them. Shades of Grey is a focused book, set almost entirely in one village, exploring the Chromotacia in microcosm rather than the big picture. This is a wise move, especially with a sequel due this year which seems set to deliver on a greater scale. At times the focus on petty village life got a bit draining and I wonder if this novel is just a little too long, but I was never pulled out of it enough to think about stopping.

This wouldn’t be Jasper Fforde if it wasn’t also very funny; I love people dealing with ridiculous situations in an extremely straightforward manner and this is something of a Fforde speciality. He did this to great effect in the Thursday Next books and does it possibly even better here. He’s rather good at straightforward, unpretentious worldbuilding, giving us enough to keep us interested without drowning the reader in jargon and details to remember.

Eddie is a straightforward character, much as Thursday Next is I suppose. The more lively characters are those which surround him, with the complex and entertainingly aggressive Jane standing as the clear highlight. The characters overall aren’t quite as strong as in his other books however and I hope we either get to see existing characters given greater development or new characters introduced in the sequels.

Shades of Grey is a typically strange book and slightly harder work than Fforde’s other stuff. When the trilogy is completed I think it may ultimately be more rewarding and I’m looking forward to getting back into the Chromotacia before too long.

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Lego Dimensions: Doctor Who Level Pack for PS4, PS3, Wii U, Xbox One and Xbox 360

This is the second and possibly final Lego Dimension pack that I can be bothered to get so thankfully it’s a good one. Lego and Doctor Who feel like a natural mix and this has whetted my appetite for a full Lego Doctor Who game somewhere down the line.

As with the Portal pack, there isn’t much story. The Daleks, under the command of Davros, are invading Earth and the Doctor fights to stop them. The story may be lacking, but Capaldi’s more lighthearted turn than usual as the Doctor just about makes up for it.

The Lego pack contains a 12th Doctor figurine, a TARDIS and a K9 robotic dog. Unlike the Portal pack where the figures aren’t actually that fun in practice, the TARDIS and K9 are pretty fun to use. K9 works like a vehicle, which is fun to zip around in and blast people in an extremely un-Doctor like manner. The TARDIS is a flying vehicle and floating around is quite fun, particularly in the open Adventure Worlds. During the level you can travel through time, which is fun with some very simple puzzles. There’s also a hacking minigame which involves hopping around a little maze, which is enjoyable enough. The short level is a lot of fun, but it’s the Adventure World which is the stronger element of the pack.

The Adventure World covers several different areas and times which you can mash together, namely 21st Century and 19th Century versions of London, Mars, Telos, Skaro and Trenzalore. The variety of scenery allows a a wide range of Doctor Who fan service, with voice acted appearances from characters like Missy, Madame Vastra and Captain Jack Harkness. I’m not convinced that I’m thrilled that John Barrowman’s first appearance in Doctor Who in over five years is in a Lego game, but I guess I’ll take it. Overall though, it’s less impressive than the Portal 2 world. A big issue is the quality of missions, with about three involving fighting off thirty enemies. Considering that combat is comfortably the worst thing about the Lego games, fighting a total of ninety enemies isn’t particularly edifying.

There are some lovely touches, with the best being the appearances of all 12 Doctors, plus the John Hurt War Doctor. When you die in the Adventure World you regenerate into the next Doctor, starting with William Hartnell and winding back to Peter Capaldi. The voice acting is provided from archive footage, but each Doctor is brimming with their unique personality, moving and fighting in ways true to their characters. They even all have their own TARDIS from their time, including the ridiculously elaborate Paul McGann TARDIS from the TV movie. As a final lovely touch, when piloting the TARDIS whatever version of the theme tune was around during their run plays. The actual content of this pack isn’t amazing, but the attention to detail and clear love of the source material really elevates the experience.

Although not quite as good as the Portal 2 pack, Doctor Who wins in the sheer fan service department. I have no problem being bent over a table and fan serviced as long as I know what’s happening, so I’ll take it.

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Lego Dimensions: Portal 2 Level Pack for PS4, PS3, Wii U, Xbox One and Xbox 360

I don’t really understand why Traveller’s Tales put Portal inside Lego Dimensions. It doesn’t really gel with the target audience and there’s no history of connection between the franchises. Miraculously, it works incredibly well.

The Portal level positions itself as a sort of sequel to Portal 2, with Chell returning to Aperture Science for another round against GLaDOS, with a very contrite Wheatley along for the ride. There’s really not much actual story, but the writing is just as good as in the main games. GLaDOS, Wheatley and Cave Johnson all get some great lines with the general tone of Portal converting surprisingly well over to Lego form. The voice acting and general design of the Portal 2 Level Pack are really what sets it apart.

In this pack you get a minifigure Chell, a Lego Companion Cube and a Turret. This pack plays quite differently to anything in the Starter Pack, being entirely puzzle based with no combat. Chell is armed with a Portal gun meaning that you are completing very simplified Portal puzzles, with the gels from Portal 2 thrown in for good measure. The Companion Cube isn’t very interesting, just being there for putting on switches and the turret works like a vehicle. Neither objects are used especially well, but the simple puzzling was enough. None of it was difficult, but it does require a level of thought that you never need in the main game.

When you complete the roughly hour long mission included you’re thrown into the open Adventure world. It’s more vertically oriented than those in the Starter pack, covering the old Aperture at the bottom working all the way up to the surface at the top. It is significantly more enjoyable to explore than the Adventure Worlds included in the Starter Pack and much more can be achieved just by Chell and her Portal gun. There are still things I couldn’t do without characters I don’t have, but I was able to do all the fun stuff.
I’m not convinced that the venn diagram convergence between Lego and Portal fans is particularly big, but if you are there this one is a no brainer. Hell, it’s probably the closest we’ll ever get to a Portal 3!

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Lego Dimensions for PS4, PS3, Wii U, Xbox One and Xbox 360

Enjoyment of the Lego games generally seems driven by how much you like the franchise in question. The actual mechanics are so simple that it’s the trapping of the series which provides the real entertainment value and so in that regard Lego Dimensions is possibly the most entertaining Lego game ever. It’s also the most expensive. During the story of Lego Dimensions you’ll encounter the worlds and characters of DC Comics, Lord of the Rings, The Lego Movie, The Simpsons, The Wizard of Oz, Scooby Doo, Ghostbusters, Back to the Future, Doctor Who and, strangest of all, Portal.

Lego Dimensions is a mash up of over a dozen different franchises in a simplistic but enjoyable storyline. The evil Gary Oldman voiced Lord Vortech seeks to combine all dimensions into one under his control and part of his plan sees the kidnapping of Robin, Frodo Baggins and Metalbeard from their respective DC, Lord of the Rings and Lego Movie dimensions. Batman, Gandalf and Wyldstyle leap into action to rescue their friends and protect the multiverse from Vortech’s machinations.

It’s kind of impossible to work out whether the writing for Lego Dimensions is actually good or if the fan service-y crossover stuff is making me so gloriously happy that I’ve lost my critical faculties. At the beginning each level is fairly self contained; for example, the first level is set in Oz and is played relatively straight, although with the obvious twist that the Wicked Witch of the West is encountering Batman. As the game goes on things begin to cross over and merge to a greater extent with a glorious sense of unpredictability. Lego Dimensions makes brilliant use of most of its properties, particularly DC, Doctor Who and Portal which come out best of all. There are dozens of gloriously funny and charming moments, but I won’t mention any of them because they’re frankly the main thing that makes this game worth playing.

The first thing you’re asked to do when you boot up Lego Dimensions is to build the ‘portal’ out of real life Lego. The toys-to-life experience is fundamentally an illusion; you’re buying physical DLC which unlocks things on disk. Lego Dimensions does a pretty fantastic job of masking this, making the actual construction of the component parts immerse you into the experience and boost the illusion of the toys coming to life inside your TV. The Dimensional Portal and Lego builds look amazing, with the portal itself being a wonder. It’s split into three parts and can hold up to seven different builds, with the three parts being able to light up independently. This functionality is actually integral to the gameplay, which I’ll come to later.

The core mechanics of Lego Dimensions are pretty much the same as they were back in the original Lego Star Wars. If that’s a deal breaker you may as well stop right here and I wouldn’t necessarily blame you. They’re solid, but unspectacular with simple puzzles. That said, I do find a certain satisfaction in putting all the pieces into place and watching things unfold. I would compare the feeling of playing these games to following Lego kit instructions. Sure, using the blocks to create something unique is more pure, but there is an undeniable satisfaction in following the instructions and watching things come together. In some ways Lego Dimensions is more limited than the regular games as there are only three characters in the starter pack, with all other characters only available by purchasing the minifigures. This means that the variety of a game like Lego Marvel Super Heroes is missing as we only ever get to use Batman, Gandalf and Wyldstyle’s abilities. The biggest flaw lies in the vehicle controls; the starter pack comes with the Batmobile and it plays horribly, meaning that I only used it when the game demanded it of me.

The most interesting new mechanic lies in the nifty use of the portal itself. Throughout the game you gain five different portal abilities and the interplay between them can get quite complicated, at least by Lego game standards. The first sees a series of blue, yellow and pink coloured wormholes open up on the screen. On the physical portal in front of you, the three sections light up in those colours and you teleport the characters around the screen by physically moving their minifigure onto the necessary colour. There are loads of other nifty applications which I won’t get into so you can discover them yourself. Once again, your enjoyment of this comes from your ability to suspend your disbelief and immerse yourself in the illusion. The fun you’re experiencing is literally just moving a Lego minifigure from one space to another, which doesn’t sound fun. In practice though, it really is and I massively appreciate that Lego didn’t go the lazy route and mindlessly imitate Skylanders or Disney Infinity.

The main story of Lego Dimensions is actually pretty lengthy by the standards of the series, with the franchise hopping creating a natural sense of variety as you go through. A lot of the value comes from the ‘adventure worlds’ which are accessed separately from the main campaign. These are small open worlds set within each franchise, where you can gather collectibles, rebuild the world using studs and complete missions. You access these by placing a character from that franchise on the Dimensional Portal, so with the Starter Pack you have access to the DC, Lord of the Rings and Lego Movie worlds. These are simple but fun little additions, although exploring them is a bit frustrating as over half of each world’s puzzles require characters I don’t own and never intend to own. It would have been nice if each adventure world was self contained for powers from the characters from that franchise as ultimately I was only able to scratch the surface. Although I’ll review it separately, at time I writing I have played the Portal Expansion and found this to be less of a problem here, so maybe this is primarily an issue with the Starter Pack.

I don’t really know how Lego were able to acquire all of these rights, with voice actors and music intact, but they did. The fact that it’s actually Peter Capaldi playing the Doctor, or Christopher Lloyd as Emmet Brown or Elizabeth Banks as Wyldstyle really helps to build the epic crossover feel that this game is going for. For me though, the Portal cast steal the show, with Ellen McClain and Stephen Merchant back on fine form as GLaDOS and Wheatley. I forgot how much I love these characters and Lego Dimensions captures them perfectly. The use of franchise music is good too, from the lovely Lord of the Rings Shire tune to Ray Parker Jr’s Ghostbusters to the iconic Back to the Future theme when the DeLorean shows up. It’s all capped of with a new Jonathan Coulton GLaDOS song. The only franchise that really let me down was The Simpsons, which had no new voice recordings or even the rights to the theme music. I love The Simpsons and this was pretty disappointing; there’s pretty much zero chance I’ll ever buy any of The Simpson’s expansions now.

The question of Lego Dimensions is one of value. Can I confidently claim that there is £70 worth of game here? I’m not so sure; I got this game as a very generous Christmas present so I’m not sure how I’d feel if I’d plonked down that much money myself for this experience. All I can say is that I had a lovely time with it. At present, I only plan on playing the Portal and Doctor Who expansions, although I may go for Ghostbusters too if reviews are good.

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Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey

So, to keep things interesting I try not to have two series by the same author on the go at once. I like the variety that comes from reading a range of different voices. I kind of messed that up when I picked up Leviathan Wakes, a novel I’ve heard very good things about, which it turns out was co-written by Daniel Abraham, author of The Dragon’s Path, the book I’d read immediately preceding this one. James S. A. Corey is the pseudonym for the writing team of Abraham and Ty Franck. I can’t get too upset however; I loved Leviathan Wakes. 

Leviathan Wakes takes place in a future where humanity conquered the Solar System, colonising Mars, the Asteroid Belt and the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, but not beyond. The people of the Asteroid have adapted to low gravity, becoming taller and more spindly and now known as Belters. Tensions between the high gravity inner planets and the Belters has led to the formation of the OPA (Outer Planets Alliance), which seeks independence from Earth control. James Holden is the second in command of a vessel carrying ice from Jupiter to the Belt when his ship, The Canterbury, come across the abandoned ship Scopuli. In the process, Holden and his crew are thrown into a conspiracy which stretches the system and threatens to plunge it into war. Meanwhile, on the Belt dwarf planet of Ceres, Detective Miller is given a new case, to find the missing Julie Mao, the daughter of a wealthy inner planet family who fled her life of luxury to rough it in the Belt. His search soon connects him to Holden’s conspiracy as the two slowly uncover what is really going on.

Leviathan Wakes pulls off that tricky balance between being exciting and interesting. The actual setting is more original than it first seems, focusing on that awkward middle point between vast galactic empire and Earth bound near future stuff. It’s plausible, but not too focused on scientific rigour. This is a book intended to be fun; the ‘fiction’ is much more important than the ‘science’, as all good sci-fi should be. Leviathan Wakes is genre hopping, with strong element of horror thrown in. All of it is done well. The action scenes are particularly well done, particularly towards the end with an utterly relentless pace. One sequences towards the middle goes on rather too long and begins to lose tension, but otherwise this is a masterfully paced work which makes it compulsively readable from beginning to end. Leviathan Wakes is just plain fun.

Now, that isn’t intended to sound dismissive; this kind of tone isn’t easy! The story alternates between Holden and Miller; I don’t know how Abrahams and Franck wrote this together and whether they alternated chapters. Either way, the whole thing feels seamless. They do a great job of creating a strong world and characters quickly and efficiently, without a single world wasted. The writing style isn’t flashy and is very much there to serve the story, which is fine, because it’s a damn good story.

The characterisation is generally strong, but not perfect. Holden and Miller are likable protagonists, but not quite different enough. We’re told about their personality traits rather than really experiencing them and I wonder if this book would have benefited from a wider gap between the two. Don’t get me wrong, they’re good characters and the supporting cast is great, but we get a bit too much telling rather than showing.

All said and done however, Leviathan Wakes is a hugely entertaining read which sets up an interesting universe I can’t wait to wallow in during future books. It isn’t perfect, but it’s just so damn enjoyable that I don’t care. I can’t wait to read the next one.

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Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam Bros for Nintendo 3DS

The Mario RPG spin offs have long been some of my favourite JRPGs. Games like Super Mario RPG, Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga and Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door took classic Mario elements and spun them on their head, giving us a unique, fun and frequently hilarious twist on the classic Mario formula. Recent Mario RPGs such as Mario & Luigi: Dream Team Bros and Paper Mario: Sticker Star have abandoned this charm and imagination in favour of a rigid adherence to classic Mario tropes and unfortunately Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam Bros does not reverse that trend.

One day in Peach’s castle, Luigi stumbles across a strange book which acts as a portal between the regular Mario universe and the Paper Mario universe. Hordes of paper Toads as well as Paper Princess Peach come flying out, as do Paper Bowser and Bowser Jr, along with his army. It isn’t long before Bowser and Paper Bowser team up and capture their respective Peachs, leaving Mario and Luigi to save the day. Along the way, they are joined by Paper Mario himself.

Once again, Nintendo have made the baffling decision to add no new elements to their Mario RPG story. Early Mario RPGs added new characters and places mixed with the old; I adored exploring Rogueport in The Thousand Year Door and Fawful is one of the most memorable Nintendo villains in recent memory. When existing characters were brought in it was with an interesting twist; who could help but love the pathetic Bowser of Superstar Saga, or the sassy and brave Peach of The Thousand Year Door? All these are gone, with Paper Jam Bros keeping these characters firmly in place in their established dull characterisations. Paper Jam Bros is a Frankenstein’s monster cobbled together from existing Mario elements, but this series is thirty years old now, there’s not much left to do with them. This is fine for a mostly story free platformer, but I don’t think it is unreasonable to expect better in the RPG. The worst part is that there still is story, we still have to sit through it as the same boring beats play out again and again. The only element I liked was the first appearance of the Koopalings in a Mario RPG, but nothing much is really done with them. It seems strange to be complaining about the story of the Mario game, but I know Nintendo can do better because they have in the past!

For anyone hoping that the injection of Paper Mario into the Mario & Luigi world would carry with it some interesting gameplay twists, lower those hopes quickly. Inside and outside of combat, the core mechanics are basically the same as elsewhere. There is a slight twist in the ability for Paper Mario to make clones of himself and boost attack power, but nothing really comes of it mechanically. Special attacks involving the three characters are fun enough the first few times, but begin to get a bit dull. Recent Mario & Luigi games have relied on a gimmick to set them apart from the others and these have genuinely been successful, particularly in the excellent Bowser’s Inside Story and to a lesser extent in Dream Team Bros. The addition of Paper Mario doesn’t even come close to offering the gameplay variety offered by playing as Bowser or manipulating Luigi’s dreams; essentially, he’s a new combat character with some different moves but that’s it. He offers some powers outside of battle, but in practice these aren’t really much different from those in the old games. The core mechanics of this series are still pretty solid, but five games in now something else is needed to keep me coming back.

Paper Jam Bros makes a couple of attempts at new mechanics, but none are entirely successful. There are semi-regular missions to rescue Paper Toads; some of these are interesting but a lot of them are basic treasure hunts as you trawl the environments pixel hunting. There are some cool different ones, like one based around FallBlox-esque er…falling blocks, but the majority are quite dull. Replacing the extremely enjoyable giant battles of Bowser’s Inside Story and Dream Team Bros are giant paper craft battles. These see you taking part in real time tank battles against a group of enemies, ramming them over and then jumping on them to finish them off. There aren’t many of these in the game and they’re really not that interesting. I do appreciate that Nintendo were trying to do something different, but different is only good if it’s better or at least as good as what came before. The papercraft battles are not only boring in themselves but also replaced a much more enjoyable feature.

Paper Jam Bros looks and sounds very similar to Dream Team, with the addition of the Paper Mario world being jarring and off putting rather than visually interesting. Mario and Luigi are bursting with personality with plenty of funny and charming animations; Paper Mario can’t help but come off as a bit (wait for it) flat. The environments are as generic as they come; field, forest, desert, lava, tropical island, snow. Considering the weirdness of the Mario universe you’d think it wouldn’t be too hard to come up with something a bit more interesting. The music is forgettable plinky-plonky nonsense. The game is presented well enough, but most of that work was done for Dream Team so it’s difficult to give this game too much credit.

Paper Jam Bros is probably decent enough if it’s your first Mario RPG. As someone who has played every Mario RPG, it just isn’t good enough for me. The mechanics may be solid but Nintendo has continued its bizarre move to strip the soul from the Mario RPGs. This series was one an automatic purchase, but not anymore. I really hope that Nintendo wins me back because I desperately want to love another Mario RPG, but it doesn’t seem likely.

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The Dragon’s Path by Daniel Abraham

I haven’t embarked on a brand new epic fantasy series for a while but the time felt right for another. The Dragon’s Path isn’t the most original or distinctive fantasy book around, but makes up for it with a compelling overall narrative and very strong characterisation.

The Dragon’s Path takes place in a continent split into several different nations, populated by the ‘Thirteen Races’ of humanity, which have taken hold after the collapse of the mysterious Dragon Empire thousands of years before. In the present day, the Free City of Vanai is threatened by war with the powerful nation of Antea. The book primarily follows four characters. Marcus Wester is a former general who suffered a personal tragedy, now reduced to leading a crew of caravan guards. When his crew are pressed into military service by the Prince  of Vanai, he hires a group of actors to pose as guards. Cithrin is an orphan raised by the Medean Bank in Vanai; with the specter of war hanging over them, she is sent on a mission to smuggle  the bank’s wealth out of the city to their headquarters hundreds of miles away. Geder Palliako is the weak but clever son of a minor Antean noble house and has been sent with the army marching on Vanai, the victim of bullying and a patsy in larger schemes. Dawson Kalliam is the Lord of a much more major Antean house and close friend of the King Simeon, who seeks to limit the increase in power for the common folk and preserve the traditional leading role of the aristocracy.

The storylines for the four are all closely connected, with the actions of one rippling over into the lives of the other, even if not all of them ever meet. For a story which concerns itself significantly with banking and finance, The Dragon’s Path pops along at a nice little clip. It does remarkably well at undermining where you expect it to go. Storylines and journeys which other authors might squeeze entire books out of are dealt with in just as much detail as necessary. In one case I was wearily settling down for a storyline to go to place I’d seen a thousand time before when a character makes a bizarre, bold and terrifying decision which both makes them fascinating and puts the entire story on a path I never saw coming. The internal Antean politics isn’t particularly convincing or interesting, making Kalliam’s storyline the weakest, even if he is nonetheless an interesting character.

The biggest weakness of The Dragon’s Path lies in the worldbuilding. The idea of thirteen different varieties of humans living alongside each other is interesting, but barely explored. The descriptions can be vague; if by the end you’re able to tell me the difference between a ‘Tralgu’ and a ‘Kurtadam’ then you’re a more attentive reader than I. This isn’t helped by the fact that our protagonists are almost entirely Firstbloods, Abraham’s names for plain old humans. Cithrin is half Cinnae, a sort of elfish race, but little is done with this plotwise. I can only hope that Abaraham comes back to this in the sequels, as I’d love to know more about it. As it stands, this is a standard fantasy narrative where a handful of characters happen to be weird creatures. The actual setting isn’t amazing either, with our main three settings of Vanai, the Free City of Port Olivia and the Antean capital of Camnipol not being particularly memorable. The actual plot within this world and the characters that occupy it are good, but The Dragon’s Path doesn’t quite instill that sense of wonder and curiosity which is so integral to the fantasy genre.

It took me a while to warm to this book, but it was the characters that won me over. Geder Palliako in particular goes on a pretty spectacular journey, but all four core protagonists are strong. Abrahams does a good job undermining who you normally expect to be a protagonist in these kind of stories. We would normally expect the reforming, liberal man of the people to be the protagonist, but instead we have Dawson Kalliam, a reactionary conservative with a hearty dose of disdain and snobbery for the common folk. Since these characters are quite likeable, I felt torn between a natural desire for the protagonist to succeed and a pretty thorough opposition to their worldview. All four protagonists end the book is very changed positions from where they start and I look forward to seeing them change and grow in future books.

The Dragon’s Path doesn’t do much new and if I were being honest it hasn’t quite bitten me yet. I’m interested enough to get the second book as there’s certainly enough here to keep me going, but I can’t quite see ‘The Dagger and Coin’ series becoming an obsession. It is a solid read however and one which I certainly enjoyed.

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