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The Dragon’s Path by Daniel Abraham

There are two questions at the heart of The Dragon’s Path, a fascinating novel in a new series called The Dagger and the Coin by Daniel Abraham. What makes someone into a monster? Or, perhaps, that’s not the right question. Perhaps the better way to ask it is what may make someone do something monstrous? The difference between the two questions is significant. Any person may lead what, to outsiders, is a perfectly ordinary life. But on one significant occasion, this person may do something that, objectively, crosses the line between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. At the extreme, this may be the line between behaviour that is literally saintly and diabolical. As an example, let’s take someone with an academic frame of mind who, through the force of circumstances, is pressed into a position of leadership. After initial confusion, he realises his incompetence has been recognised. He’s been set up to fail. In the militaristic culture, he’s always been mocked and bullied but, as a student of history, he understands something about power. Within the moment of his authority, he can take decisions. No matter what others may say later, he’s in the right when he gives the orders. So how will history judge him? Will he be a hero or forever be known as the Butcher of Vanai?

The second question came to the fore some years ago when the idea of applying techniques of subliminal advertising to film and television was first suggested. What might be an interesting phenomenon to investigate in academic psychological circles suddenly became a feast for the paranoid in the late 1950s. I remember we were suddenly convinced politicians might manipulate us into accepting their more radical policies. Worse, there was the risk manufacturers might instruct us to buy their products at high prices even though we had no practical need for them. This was a major cross-over event from the pages of science fiction and thrillers to the headlines. Even the respectable broadsheets ran editorials exaggerating the scientific risks and stoking the public demand for laws to protect us all from “evil influences” — no-one is immune from yellow journalism when cold war paranoia stalks the land.

The Dragon’s Path leads to war unless societies can somehow stop themselves walking down it. What can trigger such a journey? Think of a cartwheel. All those beautifully turned spokes fit so securely into the hub and keep the wheel turning. But if anything should weaken the central point, the wheel will collapse. To see parallels, we have to go back in European history where kingdoms combined disparate elements into successful units only to find new forces pulling them apart again as allegiances shifted. In most cases, the dynamic was between the nobility who always believe they rule by variations in the notion of divine right, and the emergent merchant classes who control trade and banking. The tension in the relationship comes when funding the lifestyle of the elite crimps the profitability of the business community. If there’s one tax too many, the merchants may change their business practices and wreck the local economy. Better still, they may even fund military adventures to kill off the offending kings and nobility, and instal themselves or their puppets as rulers. After all, power is all about being able to tell other people what to do, isn’t it?

Daniel Abraham from an early time when he needed a wall to keep him vertical

In a country where the king has grown indecisive, Daniel Abraham offers us three different sources of power. We have the people with the appropriate status, with valued abilities, and with relevant knowledge and understanding. As Michel Foucault would approve, the successful are those who most effectively combine knowledge and power. Dawson Kalliam is a nobleman who remains loyal to King Simeon. He sees two threats to the natural order within the kingdom. The first comes from fellow nobles plotting to overthrow the king, probably at the behest of the neighbouring kingdom, Asterilhold, and the second comes from early signs of new political structures offering representation to the agricultural community. It’s bad enough that individual banks and trading organisations have grown large enough to influence policy without there also being movement towards democratisation. What makes Dawson so interesting is that he not only has physical power, but he can also shape and direct the discourse, reframing the narrative of events to suit his political needs.

Marcus Wester is an expert in military tactics and a natural leader. At his peak, he was courted by all the major power factions to lead their troops. Unfortunately, when such a man usually wins the battles he fights, the political elite will stop at nothing to get him on their side or throw him off his game. Tragedies are inevitable and leave such men dead or trying to lead a quiet life in obscurity. Faced with the need to replace six lost caravan guards, he finds Kitap rol Keshmet. Master Kit leads a small group of six actors who literally fit the bill. They all find themselves in Vanai, a free city about to be attacked by the King’s forces. This will be the last major caravan leaving the city and acting the part of guards will not be too demanding a role.

By coincidence, Cithrin Bel Sarcour is driving a special cart. As a ward of the Medean Bank, she’s been by the side of Magister Imaniel since childhood, learning everything there is to know about how to make deals to profit the kingdom’s leading bank. Now that Vanai is threatened, Magister is taking the precautionary step of moving all his branch’s gold and treasure out of the city. When the man expected to drive the cart in this last caravan is killed, Cithrin has to learn the part of being a boy to get the job done. In time, she’s able to show how much she learned and, potentially, how formidable she may become.

Finally, we have Sir Geder Palliako. This is the son of a lowly noble family who would rather have his head in a book. He’s fascinated by the early history of the world and devotes time and money to buying not only the supposedly factual histories, but also those that engage in some degree of speculation and analysis of past events. In spirit, he’s an archaeologist. When the military adventure against Vanai is announced, he’s called up and finds himself in literally the wrong place at the wrong time. His unworldly incompetence makes him a convenient pawn to be played by Dawson, so Geder finds himself promoted to take charge in Vanai. Later, he will be free to pursue his researches on the road as he follows odd hints and clues to the end of the world.

The Dragon’s Path is a mature and sophisticated fantasy, rooted in the political and economic realities of pre-industrialised societies. For once, we do have a credible infrastructure for the state to rest on. Too often, fantasy writers focus on political intrigue divorced from everyday life. They see infighting between groups of nobles as somehow more interesting than demonstrating how this relates to running the country they are supposed to rule. The Dragon’s Path is a masterclass from Daniel Abraham on how to build a world, explain its rules, and then watch the drama play out on its stage. Read it or miss out on one of the best fantasy novels of 2011, so far.

For reviews of other books by Daniel Abraham, see:
Abaddon’s Gate written under the pseudonym James S. A. Corey with Ty Franck
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 Incident of the Harrowmoor Dogs
The King’s Blood
Leviathan Wakes written under the pseudonym James S. A. Corey with Ty Franck
Leviathan Wept
The Price of Spring
A Shadow in Summer
The Tyrant’s Law.

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