Monday, June 20, 2016

Microreview [book]: The Spider's War by Daniel Abraham

The final stretch less traveled. 

Finishing a series that you've really enjoyed is often a bittersweet experience. On the one hand, you get some closure. On the other, it's like you're saying goodbye to an old friend. But the end of Daniel Abraham's fantasy series, The Dagger & the Coin, left me with very different feelings. In fact I'm not sure I've quite processed it yet, and that's why I've been sitting on this review for over a month now. Allow me to explain...

Epic fantasy series tend to have a common structure:

Hero(es) live pleasant or at least predictable life. Pleasant/predictable life disrupted by evil forces. Evil forces necessitate action, but evil forces strong! Hero(es) travel long distances to escape evil forces. Along the way, hero(es) build coalition against evil forces. Things look bad for hero(es) until the last minute, when hero(es) obtain item or allies that promise to turn the tide against evil forces. Climactic battle leads to defeat of evil forces and restoration of pleasant/predictable life.

Across the first four volumes of the series, Abraham stuck pretty closely to this formula. Sure there were some innovations--the dragon-made races of humankind, the central role of bankers in the drama--but The Dagger & The Coin was good, principally, because it was an unusually smart and likeable iteration of traditional epic fantasy. Then along comes the The Spider's War and the formula gets thrown out the window. Here's how...

WARNING: heavy spoilers after this point.

By the end of The Widow's House, things are finally starting to look up for Cithrin, Marcus and company. Antea and its spider priest overlords are bereft by factionalism, their near inexorable march toward world domination halted--at least for the moment. Meanwhile, Inys the dragon is alive and aiding our heroes, who have also begun to make inroads against Antea from the safety of neighboring Northcoast. Most importantly, Cithrin has discovered a weapon that may, potentially, be even more powerful than the spider priests' magic of persuasion: credit.

Everything is thus set up for the de riguer climactic battle. Only it never comes. Rather, Antea's defeat is pretty much guaranteed after the first few chapters of the book. Instead, drama revolves around the need to absolutely wipe out the spider priests and their "taint" (which we are told will infect the world, if left in any form), and their desire to stave off the sack of Camnipol (a near inevitability, given Antea's imperialistic, racist and even genocidal campaign). They do so because, in their view, the killing needs to end somewhere, because Antea had been under the spell of the spider priests' magic (and so can not really be held responsible for what they've done) and because the world needs to prepare for the next conflict, with Inys.

In other words, this is a book about using targeted violence where there are no other options (the elimination of the spider priests) and ending the cycle of violence where possible (saving Camnipol from sack).

Does this derivation from the classic epic fantasy formula work? It certainly is creative, for starters.  And I'd argue that for this most conservative of imaginative genres, innovation is undoubtedly healthy. As for this particular series, well, I think it's a bit more complicated--which isn't to say bad. Far from it. But there is a cost. We never really get that closure, for one. And the whole thing feels kind of anticlimactic.

On top of that I'm not sure how I felt about Abraham's treatment of Geder, which has always toed a fine line between presenting him as a ragey monster and a relatable outsider. Here he is given a chance to redeem himself, even though he has ethnically cleansed the Timzinae from their cities, enslaved those he did not kill and massacred their defenseless children; even though his genocidal tendencies first emerged before his discovery of the spider god's temple; and even though this genocide was committed in Cithrin's home city. Though it is interesting to see a fantasy author present an alternate path to squaring the circle of revenge, admittedly complex questions of justice are not explored, but rather shrugged off in the name of expediency. That seems like a missed opportunity to me.

On the other hand, it's a fantasy series that doesn't end like all the other ones do. And even with those critiques in mind, the fact is that Abraham has gotten deeper into questions of morality in war than nearly any other fantasy author that springs to mind, the bulk of which simply present war as an assumed condition of life in the worlds they present. The Spider's War gets huge props for that.

Plus, as it ended--on a cliffhanger--I basically threw down the book and said "goddamn it." Not out of frustration, mind you, but because I'll have to wait another year or two for the start of the follow up series. And if that's not an endorsement, I don't know what is.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10.

Bonuses: +1 for ending a fantasy series in an unusual and creative way; +1 for anticipating the follow-up series.

Penalties: -1 for being a bit too anticlimactic; -1 for sidestepping the more interesting questions about Geder's culpability and the meaning of justice.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10. "Well worth your time and consideration."


POSTED BY: The G--purveyor of nerdliness, genre fanatic and Nerds of aFeather founder/administrator, since 2012.