The Spider’s War (Dagger and Coin #5)

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***SPOILERS***

The Spider’s War ends the series on an oddly satisfying note, but in ways that don’t quite jive with the direction that the previous books were pointing.

Five books is a good length for a long-running fantasy series. With a series like Dagger and Coin, with the various protagonists defined very strongly by their respective narrative arcs, the danger is that after a while, their inner struggles start to get repetitive. With a writer like Abraham, whose style veers strongly into the introspective, the characters start to sound like broken records after a while. There’s only so much we can read about Marcus trying to escape being defined by his tragic past, or about characters discussing how much Cithrin has grown, or Cithrin herself and her endless ruminations about the role of finance in world affairs.

Endings are difficult things to pull off, but The Spider’s War somehow pulls it off in a way that is both surprising and affecting. The tendency of much genre fiction is to fall into the temptation of writing the story into a rut that it cannot come out of without some sort of deus ex machina or plot macguffin. For the most part, The Spider’s War avoids that problem by following the contours of its narrative to their logical conclusion.

Antea’s overreach and inevitable retreat set the stage for the real antagonists – the spider priests and their peculiar brand of persuasive madness – to serve as a lightning rod to bring together the protagonists to end it once and for all. Another writer might have chosen to make Antea’s might seemingly infallible, making things hard for the protagonists until the end, where a desperate plan succeeds against all odds, driving the plot off the cliff of tension into an inexplicably soft landing. Abraham’s plotting, on the other hand, is more like a slowly sloping conical volcano – a slow and methodical march towards a logical conclusion.

The way there, however, winds in some unexpected directions. Over the past four books the conflict had seemed to be shaping up into some sort of showdown between dagger and coin, war and peace, the violence of the sword versus the violence imposed by fiat. The fifth book veers in an unexpected but not entirely implausible direction in its bid to end on a reasonable note – emotional blackmail, co-option and an unexpected self-sacrifice of one whose actions in all the books were driven by the reflexive rage of his fragile ego. Geder’s thematic arc is surprising because there was no hint of any build-up to sacrifice.

But Geder has always been an interesting character, balanced on a knife edge between warm-heartedness and monstrous disregard for life. Geder never repented for his own sins, which were merely magnified by the poison of the spiders. But he did, to an extent, redeem himself in some small way in a tiny action that wrought far-reaching consequences, even if the action itself was to allow for the draconic incineration of a few hundred over-credulous spider-infested wretches.

The ending of the book satisfies; it inspires no desires for a follow-up or sequel. Whether that means Abraham has solidly tied off the plot strands or that the characters aren’t interesting enough to warrant continuations, is something I can’t really decide. But for the most part, I found the ends of most of the protagonists’ stories satisfying – the departure of the troupe (plus maestro) to Far Syramys, Clara’s courageous refusal to compromise between love and the strictures of court life, Cithrin’s newfound place in the halls of financial power, Marcus and Yardem tying up loose ends. Not much need more be said about their paths.

There are a few dangling threads, notably with the dragon Inys, whose appearance in the story has been somewhat of a disappointment for me – he’s a pouting, depressed specimen of a decadent species who volunteers almost nothing about the nature of the high-tech draconic society that preceded this one. Inys is last seen embarking on a quest to remake the dragons – quixotic dream or opener for a sequel series? Either way, one of the more dissatisfying strands in an otherwise neatly tied bow of completeness.

In the end, the series makes sense because it is not a Manichaean fight against an implacable and inhuman evil, but because the seeds of conflict lie in human fallibility – the upsetting tendency to blind faith, and the priests of the Spider Goddess are in this as much victims of that human fallibility as the cities their thrall armies sacked. There is no mastermind here, only mortals tricked by their own voices. It’s an oddly sad, but also cathartic, conceit.

I give this book: 4 out of 5 poisonous swords

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