Friday, August 17, 2012

Review of the Week: The Dragon's Path by Daniel Abraham

I want to love Daniel Abraham's books. Really, I do. I discovered Abraham through his good friend and genre legend, George R. R. Martin. Martin's sterling recommendation sent me directly to the book store to pick up the first book in The Long Price Quartet and immediately dove into its pages. Abraham's epic fantasy debut was intriguing with a world unlike anything I'd read in the genre, and with nary a trope in sight, full of unique characters and a deeply personal story arc.  It was like an exotic dish from a culture I knew absolutely nothing about; I savored and enjoyed every bite. I read the rest of the series as they were released. While I enjoyed them just as much I realized that Abraham's novels, like exotic food, would never replace my love for an old fashioned cheeseburger. I like these novels, but I wanted to love them. So when Abraham's next novel, The Dragon's Path debuted I was excited. Maybe I'd love this one.


 The Dragon's Path is definitely a departure from The Long Price Quartet, introducing readers to a world that is infinitely more recognizable. Tropes of the genre are very obviously present this time around. Abraham has filled this world with dragons, strange new races, political upheaval, ancient tomes that promise to reveal mysterious secrets, and even some swordplay. The magic is minimal, at least thus far, which could be the influence of Abraham's good friend and eloquent pitchman, Martin. Abraham is setting the table for a familiar feast early on, and I found myself ready to settle down for a meal. However, Abraham's choice of utensils led to a little fumbling.

The characters of The Dragon's Path are a quartet of seemingly easily recognizable archetypes. A troubled, yet capable soldier, Marcus, is charged with guarding Cithrin, a young apprentice of the Madean bank, as she attempts to smuggle its treasures out of the Free City of Vanai before enemy troops can occupy the city. In addition, we are introduced to two noblemen who are embroiled in a political conflict that is poised to shake the halls of power throughout the realm. Dawson, the childhood friend of King Simeon, is a man of vast influence and power who stands at the head of a faction desperate to protect the rights of the privileged noble class against a growing cry for substantial political change. Geder is the awkard bookish minor lordling who finds he must take drastic measures to stay afloat in the shark infested waters of his birthright or be drowned under the weight of their machinations.

But rather than tell a comfortable if predictable story, Abraham delves into these characters with an eye for the intensely personal and through that unflinching lens we find that while all of these characters seem poised for heroics, none of them are entirely likable. Even the most likeable of the four, Marcus and Cithrin, display traits that make it difficult to see them in a wholly favorable light. When these stories are viewed as a study in character, Abraham shows a genius for uncovering what really motivates and impacts these characters. Even when they make foolish or questionable decisions readers can easily understand why. But without a standout character that readers want to cheer for the novel's lack of a true hero is keenly felt.

Another of Abraham's numerous strengths is his ability to make elements that might seem boring at first glance very compelling. The exploration of commerce and the inter-workings of banking are explored through Cithrin's character arc. Abraham does this with a deft hand that manages to fascinate with its depth of detail while always moving the plot along. The political maneuverings of Dawson and Geder get similar treatment though the political angle is not so unique and startling as the economical one. Sadly, Abraham's strengths plays a part in the novels weakness once again. The Dragon's Path, while always entertaining, lacks any real sense of action. That is not meant as a criticism for a lack of sword waving or epic battles, though both are glaringly absent. It's more pervasive than that. There are few places where the story has a real sense of momentum. I waited desperately for a tipping point where the narrative picks up speed and feels in danger of running away with our characters, but it never came.

With that said, it seems that The Dragon's Path is more about declaring the combatants and defining the field of battle than anything else, which in a projected quintet of novels is no small feat. I have every hope that the newly released The King's Blood will up the ante on the action, while still delving deep into what makes these so wonderfully drawn characters fit to be the heroes of this epic tale. And given the growth in Abraham's writing since The Long Price Quartet, I'm confident that I'll eventually find the story I'm meant to fall in love with. I'll definitely keep reading until I do.

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