The Dragon’s Path is an understated but competent start to a fantasy saga that offers, for the genre, an unusual degree of psychological realism.
Daniel Abraham is, of course, one half of the James Corey writing duo that came up with the vaunted Expanse series. But he also wrote the acclaimed Long Price quartet, which is one of the few fantasies that made pains to distinguish itself from the Western cultural milieu that informs most fantasy of its ilk.
In comparison, The Dragon’s Path reads more like a traditional fantasy, a pseudo-feudal realm of nobles and commoners. But some elements of the fantasy setting here are quite original.
The world of Dagger and Coin is fantasy post-post-apocalyptia, built on the ruins of an advanced civilisation of dragons that ruled over humanity. These dragons built invincible roads and created great cities, and also genetically engineered twelve races of humanity from primal stock – “Firstblood” – to serve their various whims, from war to beekeeping.
The races of humanity is an interesting concept insofar as it is a much more compelling allegory for race. Unlike elves, dwarves or orcs, who are portrayed in much fantasy fiction as being of the great Other, the races, while biologically adapted for different roles, share a common humanity, and they understand this. In a lot of fantasy there has always been the undercurrent of alienness that lurks beneath depictions of non-human races, because the races are portrayed as having fundamental differences, whether cultural or genetic. This muddles any message of tolerance based on a shared sense of identity.
In Dagger and Coin, the thirteen races intermingle – and while some kingdoms may have dominant species, many are cosmopolitan watering holes for all races. The world has remade itself with an understanding of the common origin of the various races. And yet, racism and discrimination exist. This makes those thematic elements ring more true – because they are closer cognates to reality.
The Dragon’s Path is a slow opening to the series, insofar as much of it seems to serve as buildup to far more momentous happenings in subsequent books. But that slowness does not translate to lack of substance. Indeed, The King’s Blood distinguishes itself in taking its time to paint full-bodied pictures of its point of view characters. Abraham does so in a way that almost seems to transcend judgement – he has the gift of humanising them in a way that neither moralises nor panders. The characters simply tell their stories through his writing.
One character in particular illustrates my point – that of Dawson Kalliam. He’s the fantasy equivalent to a conservative Republican, a lover of tradition and a firm believer in the great chain of being, with himself near the top of the hierarchy. He’s combative, imperious and supercilious, an easy character to despise. He connives and schemes to secure influence at court, sacrificing armies on a whim. He owns house slaves and regards the common folk barely better than cattle. An easy character to despise, and yet, I can’t find it in myself to dislike him. His one redeeming feature is a great and sincere love for Clara, his wife. Abraham always has a way to humanise his characters in a way that makes them into fully-fleshed out characters, rather than parodies.
And this translates to the world that he writes about. A world rife with racism, where slavery is a common practice, where cities are burned to satisfy strategic whims. But when Abraham writes characters, he doesn’t force a contemporary moral lens on them, making them mouthpieces to proselytize modern creeds of morality – they are perfectly situated in their own cultural and historical milieus. Abraham is a master at this kind of effortless, organic worldbuilding – a place where magic is not fetishized and is seen (by a population used to their services) as just another extension of the natural world, where the remnants of the dragons have faded and become an indelible part of the landscape and culture of the world.
The biggest flaw of the first book is that it does suffer from some slightly difficult to parse leaps in logic. Some of Dawson’s machinations and plots seem somewhat far-fetched in their viability. Sometimes, the actions of some minor characters can seem like they were put there just to serve as a pretext for some character building, in ways that can seem a bit contrived.
But, while The Dragon’s Path is a slow starter to the series with some plot-related teething problems, it succeeds in its deliberate setting up of the fundamentals of what makes its characters tick, as well as in Abraham’s delicate, convincing, and original worldbuilding.
I give this book: 3.5/5 divided cities