The Dragon's Path

by Daniel Abraham

Cover image

Series: Dagger and the Coin #1
Publisher: Orbit
Copyright: June 2011
ISBN: 0-316-13467-8
Format: Kindle
Pages: 579

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I read this book as a free bonus included in a Kindle edition of Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey (a pen name for Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck). The ISBN information is for that book.

Cithrin bel Sarcour is a ward of the Medean Bank branch in Vanai and has been since she was four years old. She's a teenager, half-Firstblood and half-Cinnae and therefore not entirely welcome in either group, secretly in love with Besel, and being trained in economics by Magister Immaniel. War is coming to Vanai and with it demands from the prince of Vanai for the bank's money. When Besel is murdered, Cithrin is the only one left to secretly smuggle the bank's riches and account books out of the city.

Captain Marcus Wester is working as a caravan guard. Some would consider this a huge step down from his past as a military leader and a killer of kings, but after the death of his wife and daughter, he has no interest in war. He particularly has no interest in being drafted by the prince of Vanai into fighting for the city, even though he can't hire men to fill out his company. That's how he ends up guarding, with only his long-time lieutenant and a hired troop of actors, the same caravan that secretly includes Cithrin.

The war between the Severed Throne of Antea and Vanai is just part of larger political maneuvering between several adjacent kingdoms and the Free Cities (which seem modeled after Italian cities). The reader sees that part of the story through the eyes of Dawson, a member of the royal court, and the hapless Geder, a minor noble who is an officer in the Antean army but who would much rather be searching out and translating speculative essays. These separate strands do cross eventually, but they don't merge, at least in this book.

The reviews I saw of this book were somewhat mixed, but I decided to read it anyway because I was promised fantasy based on medieval banking. And, indeed, the portions with Cithrin are often satisfyingly different than normal fantasy fare and are the best part of the book. Unfortunately, the reviews were right in another respect: The Dragon's Path is very slow. There are pages and pages of setup, pages more of Cithrin being scared and uncertain, lots of Dawson's political maneuvering and Geder's ineptness, and not a tremendous amount of plot for the first half of the book. Things do eventually start happening, but Abraham is clearly not interested in hurrying the story along.

The Dragon's Path is what I'll call George R.R. Martin fantasy, since The Song of Ice and Fire is probably the most famous example of the style. There's a large, multi-threaded story with multiple viewpoint characters, each told in tight third person. Chapters cycle between viewpoint characters and are long enough to be a substantial chunk of story. And, with relatively little narrative signaling, several of the viewpoint characters turn out to be awful, horrible people. Unlike Martin, though, Abraham doesn't pull off sudden reversals of perspective where the reader starts to like characters they previously hated. Rather the contrary: the more I learned about Dawson and Geder, the more I disliked them, albeit for far different reasons.

I'm not sure what to make of this book. The finance parts, and the times when Cithrin was able to show how much she learned from spending her formative years in a bank, were fun and refreshingly different from typical epic fantasy. But then Abraham sharply undermined Cithrin's expertise in a way that is understandable and probably realistic, but which wasn't at all pleasant to read about. I enjoyed the world backstory, with its dragon wars and strangely permanent dragon jade, apparently magical draconic genetic engineering that created multiple variations of humanity, and sense of hinted-at history. I'd like to learn more about it, but the details are so slow in coming. The writing is solid, the details believable, and the world vivid and complex, but Abraham keeps pulling the rug out from under my plot expectations, and not in the good way. Characters showing unexpectedly successful expertise is an old trope but one that I enjoy; characters unexpectedly turning out to be self-centered asses isn't as fun. Abraham repeatedly promises catharsis and then undermines it.

Dawson and Geder are excellent examples of my mixed feelings. Abraham writes Dawson as a rather likable, principled person at first, a close friend and defender of the king. His later actions, and the details of his political positions shown over the course of this book, slowly paint a far different picture without changing the narrative tone. I'm fairly sure Abraham is doing this on purpose and the reader is intended to slowly change their mind about Dawson; indeed, I suspect it's subtle commentary on the sort of monarchy-supporting characters show up in traditional fantasy. But it's still disconcerting. I wanted to like Dawson, and particularly his wife, despite disagreeing with everything they stand for. That can be an enjoyable and challenging reading experience, but it wasn't for me in this book.

Geder is a more abrupt case. It's hard not to be sympathetic to him at the beginning of the book: he just wants to read and translate histories and speculation, and is bullied by other nobles and miserable on campaign. I thought Abraham was setting up a coming-of-age story or an opportunity for Geder to unexpectedly turn out to be more competent than he expected. I won't spoil what actually happens but it's... not that, not at all, and leaves Geder as another character who is deeply disturbing to read about.

The Dragon's Path is well-written, deep, realistic in feel, and caught my interest with its world-building. I'm invested in the story and do want to know what happens next. I'm also rooting for Cithrin (and for Wester's lieutenant, who's probably my favorite character). But it took me a long time to read this book, and I'm not sure it was worth the investment. I'm even less sure that the investment of reading another four books in this world will be worth the payoff. If I had more confidence that good people would rise to the occasion and there would be a satisfactory conclusion for all the horrible things that happen in this book, I'd be more tempted, but the tone of this first volume doesn't make me optimistic.

I still want to read a series about banking and finance set against an epic fantasy background. I want to learn more about the dragons and the jade and the wars Abraham hints at. But I suspect this will be one of those series that I occasionally think about but never get around to reading.

Followed by The King's Blood.

Rating: 5 out of 10

Reviewed: 2018-12-31

Last modified and spun 2019-01-01