Monday, July 30, 2012

Microreview [book]: The Dragon's Path

The Dragon's Path by Daniel Abraham [Orbit 2011]

The Meat

Epic fantasy seems to be undergoing a renaissance these days. This can largely be attributed to two things: the phenomenal success of HBO’s GAME OF THRONES adaptation, and the way it has made fantasy cool for people who previously thought it was all elves, hobbits and 30-sided dice; and to a new generation of writers pushing the envelope of what can be done within the genre. It’s not just George R. R. Martin either, though he is undoubtedly fantasy’s biggest name and most influential living writer. Rather, despite a history of hackwork, Tolkein ripoffs and D&D tie-ins that have fueled perceptions of fantasy as among the lowest of the lowbrow, today there are a great number of authors producing well-written, serious and challenging work within the genre.With THE DRAGON’S PATH, author Daniel Abraham can take his place next to GRRM, Steven Erickson, Brandon Sanderson, KJ Parker and other luminaries of contemporary epic fantasy.

The first installment in a 5-book series, THE DRAGON’S PATH largely follows four characters--mercenary captain Marcus Wester, bank ward Cithin, bookish and unlikely war hero Geder Paliako and noble scion Dawson Kalliam--as they navigate events surrounding the invasion and occupation of the city of Vanai by the Empire of Antea.

There’s a lot to recommend in THE DRAGON’S PATH. To begin, it’s a really fun story, presented in crisp, engaging prose, and full of memorable moments. The narrative voices--perhaps the single most important ingredient to a novel--constitute a particular strong point. Geder, Dawson, Marcus and Cithrin are all fully realized, complex characters who act and speak like real human beings. You can easy relate to them and understand their general motivations, but--like real human beings--they often make key decisions in an arbitrary, ad hoc fashion that can be surprising, but feels very authentic. This leads to the conclusion that some of the narrators, at least, are not exactly “good guys.” Yet they’re not quite anti-heroes or villains you “love to hate” either. Rather, they’re people who you come to know and trust, only to find out that they value things we modern types tend to find abhorrent. It’s like an inverse of the way GRRM redeems Jaime Lannister, and is just as compelling.

 On that note, I’m generally a big fan of the way Abraham approaches issues of morality. He’s been one of the most vocal critics of fantasy’s “gritty” and “brutal” turn, at least when grittiness and brutality are mistaken for historical accuracy, so I was curious to see how he would treat the issue. Turns out THE DRAGON’S PATH is plenty gritty, featuring, among other things, one of the most horrible atrocities I’ve encountered in epic fantasy. Yet he presents the event without reveling in the blood and gore--a fact that, somehow, makes it feel more disquieting, and leads you to reevaluate a lot of the assumptions you’d made up to that point. This is a novel that makes you really think about what you believe in and how much of that you should chalk up to the context of time and place in which you are situated.

Of course, what would a discussion of epic fantasy be without some attention to the all-important dimension of world building? In this domain, THE DRAGON’S PATH sports an uneven record. Abraham presents us with a world that was once ruled by dragons (yes, that’s right--ruled, as in governed). Humans were their subjects, yet these powerful beings played god much in the same way we do with dogs, cats and horses, and from "firstblood" stock bred 12 additional “slave races” marked by prominent physical differences--the furry Kurtadam, the “chitinous” Timzinae, tusk-bearing Yemmu, and so on. The idea is really neat, and refreshing. Unfortunately, there’s a presentation problem. I'm a big believer in internalized world building over jarring info dumps, and see GRRM as the gold standard in this regard. But with a concept as complex as Abraham’s 13 races of humanity, it would have helped to either put a little more exposition early on, or perhaps introducethe various slave races gradually. I spent the first 200 pages continually trying to remember which was which, which was both distracting and annoying.

A second problem is that the book doesn’t give the reader a clear sense of geography: we get place names, but little idea of what fills the spaces between them, where they are in relation to one another, and what cultural and physical features differentiates them. For me, this is one of the most interesting aspects of epic fantasy, and a key reason why I’m attracted to the genre. The relative blankness of things was, to be frank, disappointing.

In the end, though, these issues did not put me off THE DRAGON’S PATH. And in some ways, its failings are a consequence of its strengths--the focus on characters and relationships and the book’s abiding intimacy. Despite not everything working out as well as it could have, I thoroughly enjoying myself while reading it, and strongly recommend it to anyone seeking a new fantasy series. Won't be long before I crack open the sequel...

The Math

Objective Quality: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for the subtlety and sensitivity that went into characterization; +1 for really getting under my skin and making me re-evaluate all kinds of assumptions I have about life, a rare thing to achieve in fantasy literature; +1 for the interesting and unique "13 races of humanity" concept

Penalties: -1 for the empty spaces; -1 for problems relating to the introduction of the slave races

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10 "well worth your time and attention"

[Read about our non-inflated scoring system, where anything above a 5 is more good than bad, here]