Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Daniel Abraham - The King's Blood

The King's Blood is the second volume in Daniel Abraham's Epic Fantasy series, The Dagger and the Coin. As fans of Abraham's diverse bibliography have no doubt come to expect, this is a novel filled with gripping characters and momentum, and it is a supremely gripping Epic Fantasy novel. The flaws that it does have come as a result of the series' size and scope, which can threaten to leave a single plotline's potential unexplored or shoved aside.

In my review of the first volume, The Dragon's Path, I said that it "ended before its most interesting elements could come to the fore." Does that still hold? Well, yes and no. Like A Song of Ice and Fire, The Dagger and the Coin has a series of political plots and struggles against a far larger mythic background. Like (the first three novels of) A Song of Ice and Fire¸ that political plot charges forward, twisting and turning about, while the larger arc contents itself with hints and crawls. The spread of the Spider Goddess' priests is certainly an important event of the book, mind you. Their growing presence inspires a fair bit of foreboding in forward thinking characters and readers alike and the actions they inspire from others are certainly dramatic. But that last part's the key. The priests are important so far primarily in how other characters react to them, whether that reaction's gullible (inevitable?) following or violent (doomed?) resistance. The priests themselves, however, have yet to become central; the earthshaking threat that they pose is still nothing more than vague whispering on the horizon.

That slowness of pace might have, after two volumes, grown obnoxious if not for the gripping nature and fast pace of the political plotline. Abraham uses short chapters and a multiplicity of viewpoints to progress quickly through momentous events without short changing them. He is adept at showing less to imply far, far more; by giving us the key scenes in a war, and making discussion of it play into the chapters and lives of the characters not directly involved, Abraham is able to get across the scale, importance, and impact of a massive conflict without trudging through its every escalade. By using each point of view to reinforce the others, Abraham is able to create a far wider tapestry than he would be able to otherwise and to make every stroke far more convincing.

Furthermore, Daniel Abraham is a master of making his characters likable. Now, mind you, likable is very, very different from blandly good. This is not a cast without depth or variation. But Abraham removes moral ease by a seemingly infinite ability to show us what is most dear to the characters and feel it alongside them. We may be horrified by what they do, but we understand why. When we are in their heads, we know their joys and their terrors. Their most despicable acts seem wholly justified, until we free ourselves from their perspective and realize the horrors we have watched unleashed. The main example of this is no doubt Geder, the noble propelled through the ranks by his allegiance with the priests and surfeit of blind luck. Geder is prickly skin personified, but his small wishes, his love of reading, and his desire to avoid humiliation humanize him. His nigh limitless power then makes him terrifying. Always, Geder's perspective dances on the razor's edge between endearing and sickening. No matter how much the reader tries to disconnect from him and focus on his crimes, it tips back.

As in the first book, Dawson is an unyielding conservative, a man who believes change is always wrong and that order and etiquette are all that hold us back from the abyss. He is the kind of man who will die before surrendering what he believes. He comes to view the priests as an abomination polluting his beloved Antea, and he will die to expunge them. He is an elitist, a man who believes that: we [nobles] have been born better (p. 274) and who says: When a low man crosses me, I execute him. (ibid) Abraham's said that he based the character on the German author of Diary of a Man in Despair, who hated the Nazi's lower class origins. The idea of evil pitted against a greater evil is certainly a strong one, and one that's been made to work innumerable times in the past, and Abraham imbues Dawson with an incredible force of character and personality. 

But while Dawson faces incredible worldly challenges, he faces no real ideological ones. In my review of The Dragon's Path, I said that "Abraham seems to have left out the part where his reprehensible character has equally reprehensible foes." Here, the problem is rather the opposite. Outside of a very few utterances like the one I quoted above, Dawson's prejudices are never put to the test or even brought to the fore. He never interacts with characters of a lower class, never has to either disregard the merit of an inferior man or overcome his beliefs. His idea of natural superiority is, here, a background part of his character. Outside of a few such observances, he could simply play the part of the purely loyal white knight; he's a Ned Stark burdened with blemishes, but whose blemishes never come into play.

Cithrin and Marcus both begin the story struggling to keep control of the bank branch that Cithrin established in The Dragon's Path. By the book's end, both have wandered rather far afield, called from that local struggle to larger things. For Cithrin, the change happens quickly. In order to defeat the notary that's strangling her local bank, she goes to the headquarters of the Medean bank, which leads to some of the novel's wittiest lines, such as when she tells Komme Medea that his notary has the soul of a field mouse and the tact of a landslide. (p. 193) From there, Cithrin finds herself involved in great happenings around the map, including the turmoil in Antea.

The biting dialogue is not the only successful part of her plotline. As in the seminal Long Price quartet, Abraham weaves economics into a larger narrative to the great benefit of it all. Money, as well as swords, presents a route to power in Abraham's world. Cithrin says of her childhood dreams that: The dragon turned out to be money. […] Coin and contract and lending at interest were what let me fly. (p. 362) Of course, as Marcus' stint as a bank enforcer goes, coin and blade are not wholly divorced; the former, in fact, might be as hollow without the latter as the latter would be insignificant without the former.

Despite its excellent use of money and the bank's structure, however, Cithrin's story suffers from being divorced from the bank she worked so hard for in the prior volume. Here, she ventures damn far afield, and it can be difficult at times to relate each step on the way to her larger purpose. Immersed in the politics of Camnipol in particular, the unique aspects of Cithrin's story are endangered by the weight of the more intricately tied together narratives around it. The threatening feeling of aimlessness is certainly not aided by her justification of a major decision as a whim, a moment's madness. (p. 285) Abraham is too gifted a writer of character to allow things to totally devolve, but one coincidence in her storyline in particular does verge on making the whole affair feel less like a plot than an artificially guided wander.

Though he stays put for most of it, Marcus Wester's plotline suffers worse than Cithrin's for their splitting up. When she departs, his role as her protector is made rather difficult, and he's more than aware of the problem. The solution seems to be Master Kit, a character from the first novel and an apostate member of the priesthood. Kit tries to enlist Marcus in a grand quest to defeat the Goddess, and, though Marcus refuses at first, it's clear that he'll eventually acquiesce. That certainty, and his continuing fixation with a plotline that Cithrin has already moved past, serve to make most of his scenes until near the end feel like treading water, no matter how enjoyable the small parts of each of them might be. As for Master Kit, it does make the reader wonder than his urgent quest, established in the prologue, had ample time to wait about in one place until Marcus finally got around to changing his mind.

Much of the criticism, my own no exception, of The Dragon's Path seemed to center on its worldbuilding. The King's Blood does add a great deal to what we know, it does not fill in every detail of its world in the way that some other fantasy novels (The Wheel of Time, The Way of Kings, etc) do. That being said, the nature of the world, and of its impact, becomes far clearer here. Every character is driven by the recent past, by the shape of the nations on the map and by the history formed character of the men that inhabit them. As one character says, the nature of history defines us. (p. 204) But what is known about history is not the entirety of it. The Dagger and the Coin is as driven by the limits of historical knowledge (p. 43) as it is by the history that is known. Almost everyone knows that: Anything could be buried below Camnipol, and no one would ever find it. It was a city of lost things. (p. 337) This is the story of those lost things coming to the surface, the causes and events buried beneath the causes and events that seem to shape the characters and present world, and this deeper history threatens to throw everything that built up after off its back as it rises.

As for the magic system, we may not have gotten to understand all of its origins or consequences yet, but what we do see of it is fascinating and filled with unsettling promise. The priests' power lies on the barrier between the truth and the lie. They can always tell when you are lying. And they can always make you believe that they are telling the truth.  The priests say that words are the armor and swords of souls, (p. 210) and their claim seems true; with their power, they can remake any man they meet. This ties into the line between being and being thought of, the difference between truth and certainty, and the difference between pretending to be something and being it, all of which are chief themes in much of Abraham's work (such as in the story The Curandero and the Swede from Leviathan Wept). As one character says, We are the stories people tell about us. (p. 441)

Having reached the end of its second volume, I can say that The Dagger and the Coin has so far still not awed me to the same extent that The Long Price quartet did. That being said, it is intriguing, fresh, fast, and fun, and its every ominous motion is on a canvas that threatens to be torn through in the next few pages. The Dagger and the Coin is so far one of the most entertaining fantasies I've read in a while, and its next volumes promise to be far better still.

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