The Widow’s House continues the series in characteristic Abraham style, but in a less interesting way than I’d hoped after the cliffhanger that was the end of Tyrant’s Law.
House, I think, is where Abraham’s thematic preoccupations are really starting to coalesce into narrative payoffs. The series is shaping up to be a clash of opposing structures of power – power sustained by violence, and power propped up by fiat – i.e. the dagger and the coin. Geder and Antea represent the former, Cithrin and her compatriots and her financial acumen represent the latter.
Then there’s also the added layer of religious fanaticism disguised as a bunch of spider priests whose powers rob them of their ability to distinguish between truth and certainty. That fundamentalism drives violence, glamorizes force as a means to establish truth. More circumspect minds understand that the world is not black and white and can never be, especially when much of the world transacts using deception – whether benign white lies or criminal knavery.
Abraham is methodically layering these themes into the ongoing story, seeking at every turn opportunities for characters to talk about them, or to witness the consequences of the actions of the great impact them in ways that solidify their respective philosophies.
In doing so, Abraham sometimes loses that kind of naturalistic feeling in the earlier books, where the world was presented as-is without an added layer of authorial messaging. In Widow’s House, plot developments don’t naturally follow the contours of the world and plot but sometimes feel a bit wedged in to make a point.
Case in point: Cithrin’s invention of a representative currency – war gold – essentially a form of paper money backed by the treasure of the bank she works for, in order to generate enough funds to pay for the war effort against Geder, is a thematic example of the power of fiat and gold combating the power of the sword. But I find it a little hard to believe the speed and alacrity at which her idea is taken up, especially because it is indeed based on fiat. Abraham tries to describe the initial skepticism towards the idea, but my sense is that this particular plot development was a little bit contrived in order to push the themes.
Another case – while I find the struggle between different interpretations of truth and certainty interesting, especially when presented in the compelling way that it is in the books, I also find it hard to believe that having spiders in your blood automatically makes you a slavish devotee to the doctrines of the people around you. Not only does it seem a bit deterministic and binary – spider priests are evil by dint of thing in their blood – it feels, again, contrived in a way that is meant to forward the thematic point in a way that doesn’t quite gel with the contours of the plot and world. Especially because there are spider priests, like Kit, who understands that certainty is not truth – but why is he the only one?
The last observation that I wanted to make is that The Widow’s House didn’t quite match the wild hopes I had had for the series after reading the third book. I’d mentioned that I was a fan of fantasy with deep history, and I thought that the signs were pointing to a completely off the rails development when they – spoiler! – woke the last dragon and intimated that the dragons had been a highly technological (if not very good at the individual liberty thing w.r.t. their human slaves) species. But Iny’s involvement has been kept minimal and the series has pretty much just stayed on the rails that Abraham has built for it over the course of the fourth book, leading up to what will probably be a well-crafted, thematically relevant, but ultimately as-expected denouement.
I give this book: 4 out of 5 anti-dragon ballistas