The King’s Blood by Daniel Abraham
For the second time this month, I’ve come to a book that positively demands I read it slowly. This time, my close attention has been focused on The King’s Blood by Daniel Abraham The Dagger and the Coin Book 2 (Orbit, 2012), a book that’s showing great promise as an epic fantasy. To understand why it’s so good, we need to get back to the basics of storytelling. Although I find the level of extraneous detail excessive, one of the best early attempts at a fantasy trilogy was The Lord of the Rings by J R R Tolkien. The problem for any author when an individual or group threaten the well-being of a world is how to keep the narrative manageable. By definition, even an omniscient author cannot be everywhere showing us the detail of how everyone reacts to the danger. There has to be a careful selection of the points of view. Hence, we see the Fellowship form and watch its initial progress as a group. When the group breaks up, we necessarily follow different arcs but they are all co-ordinated and, of course, all concentrated on defeating the same evil. Conveniently, the source of this evil remains at the same geographical location, so the interested parties can complete the circle and all turn up at the right place for the climactic ending. Although it’s immensely popular, A Song of Ice and Fire by G R R Martin (notice the odd coincidence of the rolling Rs), currently standing at five books, seems to be an increasing structural failure because the different story arcs have separated too widely. When the story was primarily about the fight for the Iron Throne, there was some cohesion. But as the claimants in Westeros have developed separate campaigns, the threat from beyond the Wall has become more pressing and life goes on with the dragons in Essos, the fragmentation seems to be insuperable. Even if Daenerys crosses the Narrow Sea, that will still leave the the situation north of the Wall. This is not to say the new-commer R R cannot produce a reasonable way of bringing it all back together, but I’ve already started to lose interest.
In the first of this series, The Dragon’s Path, we have the basic scene setting and a cast of characters introduced. We also get to see a hint of the form the threat to the world will take. In The King’s Blood, we get real and significant character development and, more importantly, a clear sign as to the nature of the contagion. For now, the problem is contained in a single geographical location, so this episode has been about drawing up the potential battle lines and deciding which side everyone is going to be on. Even though people are moving around the landscape, there’s still only one cause and multiple effects. As and when all the different groups realise what they face, we can reach the final battles (probably drawing on what the two brave wanderers bring back from their quest) and deal with the aftermath which will require considerable mopping up. However, we’ve already been told something along these lines happened long ago. Curiously, one feature of dealing with the problem survives into “modern” times. All the key players for the defence have to recognise is how to apply it more widely to the current situation and then add one further, rather obvious element. I’m reminded of the wonderful moments in The Puppet Masters by Robert A Heinlein when the government orders everyone to walk around more or less naked — and women can’t carry big handbags.
In addition to the masterful handling of the narrative, the characters are also developing in fascinating ways. Cithrin Bel Sarcour not only has a different way of viewing the economics of the surrounding culture, but she also sees through to the essence of the people around her. The assessment she makes of Geder Palliako towards the end of this book is particularly pleasing. An equally interesting assessment of the man and those around him is made by Dawson Kalliam but, unfortunately, he fails to understand the full extent of what he faces. However, because of the semantic and emotional responses other people make when questioned, individuals like Clara Kalliam are able to move into more active modes. It’s going to be interesting to see whether they can grasp the common denominator that allows them this freedom. Finally, Marcus Wester has the most painful path to follow. He was so desperately wanting to rebuild his peace of mind around Cithrin but forgot she is her own woman and likely to make her own decisions in life. It’s always hard to give up dreams.
For once, I’m not going to say any more about the plot. This is something you should read and enjoy but, as with anything really good. . . If you have not already done so, read The Dragon’s Path first. The King’s Blood is not the right starting point. The maximum enjoyment comes from understanding how everything fits together and watching the characters struggle to survive — of course, not all do make it to the end of this book, but you should follow the roller coaster on your own, and see how and why they fall. All this leads me to a fairly startling conclusion. By my standards, Daniel Abraham is now in the top three of authors working in the fantasy field. If he continues in this vein, he should overtake George R R Martin. All he needs is for HBO to buy the rights and give his work the high exposure granted to Game of Thrones.
For reviews of other books by Daniel Abraham, see:
An Autumn War
A Betrayal in Winter
Caliban’s War written under the pseudonym James S. A. Corey with Ty Franck
The Dragon’s Path
The King’s Blood
Leviathan Wakes written under the pseudonym James S. A. Corey with Ty Franck
The Price of Spring
A Shadow in Summer.