In The King’s Blood, upheavals occur, characters come into their own (for good or ill), and the shape of the overarching conflict begins to emerge. And it is an ideological one that should be familiar to students of TOK.
The book’s a faster-paced follow up to the first, and also the stage for the setting up of the overarching conflict – which, at its heart, is a philosophical one.
The emerging antagonists of the book are a cult who worships an entity known as the Spider Goddess, and they have the power the sense truth and falsehood through the timbre of a person’s voice. They also have preternatural powers of persuasion. In that sense, they represent a classic epistemological fallacy – the conflation of certainty and truth. They can determine whether someone is saying something they believe is true, but they cannot know if something is objectively true. But what makes them so dangerous is that they can manufacture certainty in people – in essence, generating their own version of truth. Their goal is to spread a singular version of truth to envelop the entire world – one that they manufacture for their own expediency.
This is a powerful theme to explore in a fantasy setting, because it is able, like few other mediums, to explore topics of faith and epistemology in a way that steps on few toes. And Abraham is deconstructing the idea of religious faith in his own clever way – the priests of the Spider Goddess are the ur-cult, and the memetic transmission of their faith – the idea that certainty in something is a sufficient precondition for truth – is mediated in MacGuffinish fantasy terms – actual magical mechanisms of action – in order to bring out this theme in stark relief.
Abraham is also developing one of the most compelling antagonists I’ve come across in recent times – a character whose evil is mediated through a gamut of motivations – personal insecurities, revenge, faith that certainty is sufficient for truth. Geder Palliako, the man who unwittingly finds the Spider Goddess cult and brings them back to his kingdom, only to have them manipulate him into establishing a foothold for them. He was portrayed as a slightly buffoonish bookworm who happened to, through a series of serendipitous events, turn into something of a war hero.
He exemplifies a sort of banality of evil – he is awkward, affable and generous to those he considers friends, but implacable in his hatred to those whom he perceives have slighted or betrayed him. Wielding the truth-telling priesthood as his weapon, he goes on inquisitorial rampages to root out dissent in the name of protecting his young king, which is presented as a genuine sentiment, starts wars of conquest, and proposes the wholesale slaughter of the noble classes of conquered kingdoms. He thinks he does it out of love for king and country, and he derives legitimacy from the illusion of certainty that the priesthood affords him.
Although the circumstances behind his rise in the first book are a little dubious, plot wise, the sheer number of layers that undergird his motivations make him one of the most interesting antagonists I’ve encountered in a while.
Other characters are less compelling but just as delicately painted as complex weaves of motivation. Dawson Kalliam continues to provoke in terms of his mixture of (to modern liberal sensibilities) distasteful and intensely sympathetic traits. Kit, an apostate former priest of the Spider Goddess who serves as the main philosophical voice of its fallacies, exudes perfect warmth, wisdom and charm. Of all the major POV characters, I personally find Cithrin, the up-and-coming head of a branch of a bank in the world of the series, the least interesting, but that’s more a matter of taste – her motivations are a complex weave of reckless ambition and almost self-destructive excess.
With The King’s Blood, therefore, The Dagger and Coin is shaping up to be one of the most compelling character-driven, thematically complex fantasies in a while.
I give this book: 4/5 stag-piercing lances