From Paul Di Filippo's "THE SPECULATOR" column on The Barnes & Noble Review
Fans of Daniel Abraham's formidable opus, The Long Price Quartet series, will find much to admire in his newest, The Dragon's Path, which constitutes the opening salvo of The Dagger and the Coin. But the considerable charms of the new work lie at the opposite end of the spectrum from Long Price. That first series was, overall, an undeniable tragedy: somber, weighty, full of remorse, loss and realpolitik. This new venture is decidedly a comedy, albeit one with violent mortal corollaries always lurking at the edges of the pratfalls (and I do mean pratfalls: our introduction to one of the main characters involves him falling into a latrine).
The reader will note from the frontispiece map that Abraham's fantasy world mirrors almost exactly the geography of our Europe and the British Isles. A telling clue, that. We are in a transitionary scenario where the "mundane" world we experience is becoming dominant, a riff that might be best characterized by the title of a Larry Niven novel: The Magic Goes Away. With the uncanny standards dissipating, how does mankind learn to go about its new business?
In Abraham's vision, the titular dragons that once ruled an empire are long gone, leaving little more than crumbling statues and their superior roads, abandoning the stage to the squabbling of thirteen races of men (not counting hybrids such as our main heroine). The emphasis here is on swordplay, military campaigns, and politicking, and the main "cunning man" magician is literally an actor playing a role.
But when I say "mundane," it's all relative, for this is what students of mimetic literature call "High Romance," of the Sir Walter Scott/Alexander Dumas variety. (There we are again, in the early nineteenth-century pre-dawn of the Age of Storytellers!) We have a bold and weary mercenary, Captain Marcus Wester (think of any number of bad-ass Hollywood leading men, from Errol Flynn to Robert Mitchum); his dour sidekick, Yardem Hane (Willem Dafoe); a waifishly attractive orphan girl, Cithrin (Veronica Lake or Kirsten Dunst); and Sir Geder Palliako, a "strange little pudgy man with the enthusiasm for maps and comic rhyme" (Jack Black or Akim Tamiroff). Put them all on the road, mix well, and let the farce begin. "I think the world is often like that," our faux mage opines at one point. "Comic, but only at the right distance."
Abraham exhibits a fine talent for droll dialogue, one of the prime requisites for this type of tale. Here's Marcus and Yardem -- both unsentimental ex-military types -- when the men realize that Marcus is falling for Cithrin:
"This girl's not my daughter," Marcus said.
"She's not, sir."
"She doesn't deserve my protection more than any other man or woman in this 'van."
"She doesn't, sir."
Marcus squinted up into the clouds.
"I'm in trouble here," he said.
"Yes, sir," Yardem said. "You are."
The MacGuffin at the heart of the Marcus-Cithrin thread -- a cart full of misappropriated treasure -- develops quickly into something approaching a heist novel by Westlake. The subplot involving Geder is darker, and the occasion for the remaining traces of magic to surface, as we witness the innocuous scribbler transformed into a punitive avenger. By novel's end, we sense that Geder's revengeful schemes will eventually impact the private doings of the mercenary and his female client. And as for that "fake" cunning man, his secret past will undoubtedly come into play.
Abraham's superb balancing act between farce and disaster, folly and fear, has barely begun to unfold.
Abraham (the Seasons of War quartet) starts this rich, exciting, and fresh epic fantasy series opener in a fairly standard fashion: an orphaned girl and a once great general escape from a city under siege with the help of a traveling theater troupe. But that's where the clichés end, for Marcus Wester would far rather guard humble caravans than cruel kings, and Cithrin bel Sarcour's loyalty is not to her long-dead noble parents but to the Medean Bank that took her in. Cithrin and Marcus must smuggle the treasury of the lost city of Vanai through a war zone in which every army seeks new sources of funds and every king wants them dead. With a deft and light hand, Abraham questions and explores the fantasy-world assumptions that most authors take for granted, telling an enjoyable and genuinely innovative adventure story along the way. (Apr.)
Soldier-turned-mercenary Marcus wants no part of the war looming between the Free Cities and the Severed Throne, so he enlists a group of traveling players to act the part of guards in a caravan leaving a city in the danger zone. Cithrin, heir to a banking house, joins the caravan to move the bank's holdings to a safe place. They cross paths with Geder, a scholar-soldier whose interest in philosophy and disinterest in the ways of war mark him as expendable in the political and military game of nations. This complex and carefully orchestrated tale by the author of "The Long Price Quartet" (A Shadow in Summer; A Betrayal in Winter; An Autumn War; The Price of Spring) never takes the easy path of good versus evil; the characters embody both moral strengths and weaknesses, and this gives them depth and solid grounding in their world. VERDICT Readers who enjoy intricate plots and true-to-life characters will appreciate this fantasy series opener.
Finally, the bankers get a fantasy that doesn't involve our pension funds.
Inaugurating a new series, prolific fantasy novelist Abraham (A Shadow in Summer, 2006, etc.) draws deeply from the treasure vault of genre conventions and tosses some aside. Almost all fantasy, Abraham has observed, derives from J.R.R. Tolkien and the faux-medieval-European worlds he created. This effort is something different, even approaching science fiction in its imaginative geography, and with a strange sort of anthropology to boot—one of the first people we meet, for instance, is an exemplar of "the thirteen races of humanity"and she has fearsome tusks to match her gigantic fingers, a sort of Tolkienesque dwarf in reverse. This ain't your grandpa's Tolkien, either, to judge by some of the dialogue: "Who the fuck are you?" asks a sailor, to which Strider—beg pardon, Marcus, his figurative cousin—replies, "The man telling you that's enough."It's as if Clint Eastwood went to Narnia, which, come to think of it, isn't a bad Hollywood pitch. But the setup isn't quite as macho as all that, for in the gathering storm of Forces of Evil versus good guys, it's a young girl, Cithrin the half-Cinnae, who's entrusted with the secrets of the bank—and we're not talking just any old double-entry bookkeeping either. But even the fattest wallet doesn't stand up to a double-edged broadsword, and there things get interesting. All the makings of a standard fantasy are there: an improbable band battles seemingly insurmountable odds to save humankind and restore someone's birthright, evil comes close to triumphing, the darkness descends and then... But Abraham avoids the excesses of formula, and if the back-and-forth is sometimes a little flat ("My Lord Issandrian forgets that this is not the first violence that your disagreements with House Kalliam have spawned"), the story moves along at a nice clip.
Will truth and justice prevail? Stay tuned. A pleasure for Abraham's legion of fans.