Firstly, The Dragon’s Path is the first in a five book epic fantasy series. It’s a multiple POV novel, in the style of GRRM, although with only four POV characters instead of who knows how many at this point. The four characters are Dawson Kalliam (a noble who gets embroiled in political intrigue of the court), Cithrin Belsarcour (a young orphan raised as a ward of a bank, who finds herself without a home and in possession of a great fortune), Marcus Wester (an infamous general who lost his wife and son more than a decade before, who now works as a merceneary), and Geder Palliako (a man whom nobody really likes, and who spends all his time reading ‘speculative essays’ about the history of his world–he’s basically the fantasy equivalent of a D&D geek (she says with love in her heart for all you D&D geeks)).
I’ve had multiple positive (even very positive) experiences with Daniel Abraham’s writing. The Expanse series (space opera co-written with Ty Franck), for one. Started out liking it, now a huge fan. Very much enjoyed his graphic novel adaptations of GRRM’s A Game of Thrones. His story even merited one of my rather rare four-star ratings in the Rogues anthology I read earlier this year. But looking back, it sort of makes sense. Everyone says his first fantasy series (The Long Price Quartet) is a very different sort of fantasy, more thinky and less focused on adventure and knights and princesses and stuff, and all those other examples I listed above, were either very short, or collaborations/adaptions with other authors. Because overall, my experience with this book was that its premise sounded exciting, even some of the events that happened in it when examined out of context were pretty mind-blowing. But for me, there was always this emotional disconnect to everything that was going on.
I think part of this is that Daniel Abraham is a very cerebral writer. What I mean by that is that he’s meticulous with structure, very focused on details and making sure every beat of a story fits in its own place and makes sense for each character. He’s also very into ideas, and taking the least-beaten path in order to examine them. This series is called The Dagger and the Coin, after all. It’s his sort of experimental take on epic fantasy, examined through the lens of money and war. Unfortunately, something about the way he does this just falls flat for me. It’s like he’s too focused on the details and ideas, and not focused enough on the characters. They have arcs, even ostensibly compelling ones (more on this later), but none of them were fulfilled to my satisfaction, even as intellectually I acknowledged that all of them had ended and began in the right places, and they’d hit all the right beats, even some very surprising ones. I just didn’t care. At all.
The frustrating part of this is I can’t really point to any thing specifically that made me feel this way. It’s more just his . . . everything. I mean, I guess I could say I don’t think he spends enough time on any of the individual parts of his story, or at least the parts I would normally care about. He’s got this really awesome world to play around in–one in which dragons used to exist and ruled the world, but are now extinct, most likely due to killing themselves in endless wars, and also one in which dragons created humanity. I mean, that’s really cool. All of humanity is an offset of what Abraham calls the First Bloods (normal humans), who were slaves for the dragons. But the dragons also experimented in creating other races of humanity before they died out, and there are now thirteen races of ‘humanity.’ It’s actually a bit much to take in because Abraham doesn’t bother going into great detail about all the differences between the races, and sometimes its hard to keep them straight, unless a main character is part-Yemu (large, tusk-horns coming out of face), or Cinnae (very pale, slender) or whatever. He focuses instead on stuff that was so mundane. I don’t know how else to describe it. I guess I admire him for trying to get his worldbuilding out in a more organic fashion (death to infodumps?), but it sure was way less satisfying for me.
Normally in split-POV books I do have favorite characters, but I’m at least still interested in the other characters. My main problem in this book, besides a general reading malaise, is that Dawson’s story was just mind-numbing for me. And I mean that quite literally. I had to force myself to pay attention, and I can’t tell you how many times I had to rewind things on my audiobook because my brain had stopped listening out of self-preservation. It’s like he was going for all the court intrigue and politics GRRM juggles so well in A Song of Ice and Fire, but he forgot to write it so that you would care about it, at all. Towards the end I just plain stopped trying to care about those sections, because it was exhausting rewinding and having to relisten to something I just wasn’t interested in. Really, that just reinforced my opinion that most of the writing there was take-it or leave-it, because when I tuned back in, I was still perfectly able to understand what was going on.
The other three characters were much, much more interesting. Cithrin was the one I related to the most, perhaps simply because she’s a young girl, and I used to be one of those. Also, because I like stories about smart people doing scheming sort of things. Her journey from young and naive orphan to where she ends up was pretty satisfying, all considering. It was certainly the most satisfying part of the book, even though the climax of that particular story (which also acts as the main climax of the book) was a blink or you miss it sort of moment. At least it’s better than other main climax, in Dawson’s section. You get to that part and you’re just like, okay? I guess that happened? It’s super disappointing. Geder’s story was the one I was most intellectually interested in, and the one that seems to have the most connection to the main arc of the series. He goes from loser-noble-nerd-nobody guy, to accidental one thing after another, and he actually does some pretty horrifying things the more importance he gains. But you understand why he does them. Really the only thing to say about Marcus is that his affection for Cithrin, who reminds him of his dead daughter, is heartbreaking. But they don’t actually speak to each other about it ever, so that part is also unfulfilling as well.
Not to be entirely negative, but there were things about this book I did enjoy. It’s just frustrating to see so much potential wasted. I feel like Abraham and I are at odds about what is actually interesting in his story, and he gave me just enough cool things to keep me there, while forcing me to sit through things I would rather not have. (I should probably put forcing in airquotes . . . or you know, actual quotes . . . because nobody was making me listen, but I just can’t start a story and not finish it. It hurts me inside.) Anyway, the good stuff! Like I said, from what we see of the worldbuilding, it was really cool, and hopefully there’s much, much more of it in the next four books. I really like that dragons created humanity, and that “humanity” has such a broad definition. The audiobook narrator was pretty great, if audiobooks are your thing. I also really liked Cithrin and her banking shenanigans, how she was smart but not so smart that it was uneblieveable. How she failed, and how heartbroken it made her. I also like reading about a world where dragons used to exist, where a whole bunch of scary things used to exist, actually. Which leads me to my next thing . . . the main arc. So the prologue has this priest guy running away from his priest cult, which involves having blood that dissolves into spiders, and also means anyone in that cult can tell when someone is lying. He’s running away from the cult because he fears what’s coming, which it is heavily implied that his spider goddess is coming back, and she is going to, and I quote “eat the world.” What. The epilogue brings this full circle, and that along with Geder’s adventures means that the spider goddess and her priests are probably going to be a larger part of the next books, which is a very good thing.
Hopefully, this will be one of those times where I look back on a book and say, okay, I see why he did it that way. Hopefully I enjoy the sequels more than I enjoyed this one. But for now, I remain disappointed.