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.