Orbit, 2011, 555 pages
All paths lead to war...
Marcus' hero days are behind him. He knows too well that even the smallest war still means somebody's death. When his men are impressed into a doomed army, staying out of a battle he wants no part of requires some unorthodox steps.
Cithrin is an orphan, ward of a banking house. Her job is to smuggle a nation's wealth across a war zone, hiding the gold from both sides. She knows the secret life of commerce like a second language, but the strategies of trade will not defend her from swords.
Geder, sole scion of a noble house, has more interest in philosophy than in swordplay. A poor excuse for a soldier, he is a pawn in these games. No one can predict what he will become.
Falling pebbles can start a landslide. A spat between the Free Cities and the Severed Throne is spiraling out of control. A new player rises from the depths of history, fanning the flames that will sweep the entire region onto The Dragon's Path-the path to war.
The go-to comparison for this series is George R. R. Martin's Game of Thrones. Daniel Abraham is a friend of Martin's; they hang out in the same writers' circles and the influence is obvious, and I've seen this series described as GoT-lite. That's not really a fair description, but the similarities are there, and Abraham's series is definitely lighter in tone — there's sex and violence, but it's not graphic, and it's not the climax of every scene.
The world Abraham creates in The Dragon's Path is one of those ancient gods-once-walked-the-earth pseudo-medieval post-Tolkien riffs, where the thirteen races of man have now built kingdoms in the remains of an empire once ruled by dragons.
The thirteen races, created by the dragons, have distinct physical characteristics but so far appear to be alike in psychology. The main characters are all Firstbloods, the original human race, who seem to dominate all the countries seen in the first book. The other races — bronze-scaled Jasuru, dog-eared Tralgu, tusked Yemmu, chitinous Timzinae, fey Cinnae, furry Kurtadam, etc. — all seem to have been designed by the dragons for specific purposes though it's not clear yet what those purposes were or why Firstbloods are still the ruling class everywhere.
This is an interesting variation on elves, dwarves, and orcs, but it's still quite reminiscent of those sorts of worlds, where humans are the dominant race and the others exist largely as NPC friends or foes.
Like GoT, each chapter in The Dragon's Path is told from the POV of one of several major characters, and the reader will likely find some more interesting than others.
For me, the character whose chapters I tended to read more quickly to get to the more interesting ones was Marcus Wester, the stock grizzled veteran whose name is legend —he's led armies, killed a king, and can command any price he likes, but now he's war-weary and forever pretending he's too jaded to care because his wife and daughter died... except of course when he crosses path with a young girl who reminds him of his daughter, we know he's going to tag along with her for the rest of their respective story arcs.
The girl flushed, her cheeks like rose petals on snow. She half bowed, turned, and walked away, footsteps crunching in the snow. Marcus watched her go, shook his head, and spat. Yardem, still at his side, cleared his throat.
"This girl's not my daughter," Marcus said.
"She's not, sir."
"She doesn't deserve my protection more than any other man or woman in this 'van."
"She doesn't, sir."
Marcus squinted up into the clouds.
"I'm in trouble here," he said.
"Yes, sir," Yardem said. "You are."
Cithrin, the pretty teenager who's sent off by her mentor with a king's fortune, literally, hidden in her cart, is the one who falls under Marcus's protection. The ward of a banking empire that spans multiple kingdoms, Cithrin has been drilled in the art of trade and accounting since she was old enough to read, and when she and Marcus are forced to settle down in a small port town, Cithrin embarks on an audacious plan to set up her own banking branch — something her parent bank, whose money she is supposedly safeguarding, will have something to say about.
Marcus and Cithrin go through a series of adventures involving an acting troupe recruited to pretend to be guards when they can't hire real mercenaries, then trying to outmaneuver rival bankers and merchants in what turns out to be a fairly interesting and convincing depiction of medieval trade. Cithrin is the more interesting character, being a prodigy at haggling and business schemes, but still somewhat naive and inexperienced and also occasionally letting her adolescent pants-feelings lead her astray.
Their storyline, however, is clearly the B-plot of the book, even if it seems to be setting up something more important down the line. The other main characters are members of the Antean nobility, Antea being a nation currently ruled by a rather weak-willed king beset on all sides by scheming rival nations, greedy banking houses, and in-fighting nobles.
It's the two nobles Abraham uses as his main POV characters who drew me in, because one of them should be an unlikable bastard and the other immediately engages the sympathies of your typical fantasy reader before turning into a monster.
Baron Dawson Kalliam represents the conservative faction at court. He's a stubborn traditionalist who'd rather die than see commoners taking a seat at the table with nobility, while his rivals are reformers who are pushing for a Farmer's Council and a greater voice for the tradesmen and merchants. Dawson could have been the villain of the story, but while the reader is unlikely to share his politics, he's depicted as an honorable man with a quick temper but unswerving loyalty, who loves and respects his wife and sons and is trying to do the right thing for the empire. The reader ends up rooting for him even if it's his enemies who seem to be on the winning side of history.
Finally, there is Sir Geder Palliako. Clearly the author's favorite characters, and mine too. Geder is a nerd. Abraham goes out of his way to portray him as the fat kid who collects comic books and gets picked on in gym class. Geder has to go on a campaign to pacify a rebellious city because of his feudal duties, but he's really just a low-ranking saddle-warmer who doesn't expect to accrue any honors or glory. The other knights make him the butt of their jokes, he gets dumped in a latrine, they set fire to his
By the end of the book, Geder is rosy-cheeked Anakin on his way to becoming Darth Vader.
"You're a good man, Geder Palliako," Issandrian said, speaking just loudly enough to be overheard. "Antea is fortunate to have you."
"Thank you, Lord Issandrian," Geder said, matching him. "It is a strong man who can admit he was misguided. I respect you for it."
They dropped hands, and Alan Klin came forward, his own hand extended. Geder grinned and took it, pulling the man close.
"Sir Klin!" he said, grinning. "It's been too long."
"It has. It truly has."
"Do you remember that night on the march to Vanai when I got drunk and burned that essay I showed you?"
"Yes. Yes, I do," Klin said, laughing as if they were sharing a nostalgic moment.
Geder laughed too, and then let the amusement drain from his face.
"So do I."
He dropped Klin's hand, turned, and walked away feeling like the ground itself was rising to meet his footsteps.
Besides the main POV characters, there are a number of secondary characters who are equally interesting and are likely to become more prominent in future volumes, from the leader of the acting troupe hired by Marcus, who has a deep, dark secret not revealed until the final chapter, to Baron Kalliam's clever wife, master of social repartee and female politics, to huntsman Vincen Coe, bodyguard to Lady Kalliam, and totally crushing on her (which makes me think that poor Baron Dawson may not survive the author's future intentions).
While The Dragon's Path isn't blazingly original, it's a solid and entertaining epic fantasy novel, with characters who are easy to like and become invested in, and (so far) without a tendency to get abruptly killed off by authorial caprice. The plot makes sense, the multiple characters all do tie into a single story, however loosely, with evidence that future interactions are forthcoming, and the world is just different enough not to be another Tolkien/AD&D knockoff. I liked this book a lot, and the last few chapters really hooked me, enough that I'm actually now, against my predisposition to avoid getting dragged into another big epic fantasy series, eager to read the next book - in fact, I'm more interested in this series than in the next book in the space opera series the author writes as James S.A. Corey.
Verdict: Good, solid writing, engaging characters (some more than others, but every multiple-POV novel will produce some characters who are more interesting than others), and a plot that takes a while to build up, but when it does, takes off with a bang. The Dragon's Path is a slowly developing epic in which the author seems to be taking his time laying the groundwork, but if a relatively slow-paced 550-page first volume can make me want to read book two, it's doing something right. The only reason I'm not giving it a highly recommended tag is that it is clearly a derivative genre work that doesn't really do anything different per se — it's just really good at being what it is. 9/10.
Also by Daniel Abraham (writing as James S.A. Corey): My review of Leviathan Wakes.
My complete list of book reviews.