The Tyrant’s Law by Daniel Abraham
I suppose when it comes to awarding the mantle of the top fantasy writer, i.e. recognising the one who writes the epicest of the sprawling, rooting-tooting garden variety, many people would instinctively point to the R R Martin guy who’s been doing this really ace job of promoting his fantasy books on the small screen. But this rock star popularity muddies the waters and prevents readers from seeing how many other writers might deserve the mantle more. For example Brandon Sanderson has been building some very interesting worlds in which magic works and then letting people loose in them. If we were talking about classical high fantasy, I suspect he would get my vote. The problem with GRRM’s continuing saga is that it’s grown increasingly diffuse with multiple points of view drawing our interest hither and thither. This may work for a very narrowly defined narrative but creates too many distractions when you try to line up timelines in different parts of the world. That’s what makes Daniel Abraham the man to watch. He’s very ambitious in the story he wants to tell but very disciplined in the way he tells it. There’s a real epic quality in all his work but it’s rooted in the everyday lives of people. You can’t have a functioning society unless the people in cities can get food from the land. You can’t have trade to accumulate wealth unless you have a medium of exchange and an economy. You can’t have a state unless it has the power to levy taxes to pay for the necessary infrastructure and the defence of the land under its control.
The Tyrant’s Law by Daniel Abraham (Orbit, 2013) The Dagger and the Coin Book 3 features the four most important point of view characters. As the current head of state, we have Lord Regent of Antea Geder Palliako who’s standing in for Prince Aster until he reaches his majority. Clara Kalliam is the widow of the man who led an unsuccessful coup against Geder and now more quietly continues the resistance. Cithrin bel Sarcour is the banker who tries to keep the economy on track even though there’s a major war going on around her. And then there’s Captain Marcus Wester who’s off trying to find the way of saving the world from the mess it’s getting into. Looking at the technical side of the narrative, it’s difficult to get the timelines to match because Geder moves around to make himself appear a real leader, but his travels are nothing to the quest undertaken by Wester. In partnership with Kit, this duo see more of the world than anyone else doing jungle jaunting, back to city dwelling, and then off to ass-freezing on seashores. The two women, however, are residents of different cities for most of the book. So weeks or months pass as we drop in and out of everyone’s lives except Wester makes a fleeting visit to Cithrin who then has to decide whether to meet up with Geder. Meanwhile Clara stays on her own, hiding in plain sight while Wester passes through her city. That’s the strength of anonymity. When no-one knows you’re a spy, you can get a lot more done. For the most part, this all does fit together as the the politicking slowly percolates, the war progresses, and the searching for salvation tracks across the land.
In a way, this book is simply moving us forward. Daniel Abraham announced this as a five-volume epic so we need to be collecting all the pieces, moving them to the right places, and priming everything for the big climax at the end of book five. All this would be mechanical and boring were it not for the fascinating level of detail in the world and the increasing depth of the characters. In a way, each of the four POV characters has been seriously damaged. Cithrin was orphaned and forced to live on her wits from an early age. This book shows her finally managing to learn something about the true meaning of friendship and love. There’s still a long way to go but at least a start has been made. Wester is still trying to adjust to the loss of his family. He’s found some comfort in the support of people in his mercenary group, from the protectiveness he feels for Cithrin, and from the revelations made by Kit which give him a reason for embarking on his quest. Clara had a relatively quiet life until her husband was declared a traitor. He’d had the temerity to attempt the murder of Geder. Failure led inevitably to his execution. As a widow, she has to find a way of surviving and then decide what to do with her life. Which leaves us with Geder whose flaws have placed him in the role of tyrant. This is all a magnificent irony because he’s completely the wrong person to be in this position but, once he inadvertently satisfies the terms of the prophesy, the priests are going to push him into a position of power so they can spread across the land (again). Watching him is faintly disturbing. He often has the best of intentions for doing entirely the wrong things.
It’s useful we now have a hint as to the nature of the spiders. That was a most pleasing surprise. Yet the precise way the mechanism of infection works remains unclear (as perhaps it should). It seems there have always been apostates so, if the priesthood has to expand its numbers among a potentially sceptical population, perhaps there will be more who use the “power” for good rather than oppression. It also seems some of the races were created to be resistant to the influence of the spiders. Quite how this will play out given the awakening in the last chapter remains to be seen. But what we seem to have is a radical cult who literally are the thought police and, to ensure world domination, they have to eradicate one or more of the races. Whether we take our historical precedents as racial or ideological purity, this is another genocidal pogrom in action.
So things are nicely poised for the fourth volume which leaves me with just one further issue. I’m not against five-book series per se, but this volume has some elements of repetition about it. Cithrin is yet again apprenticed so she can learn some more about “banking”. Geder shows increasingly naive and immature responses to situations (again). Questing is always the same in fantasy books, particularly when the early part feels like one of the game-playing scenarios where the hero has to find the magic McGuffin to be able to move up to the next level. So I have the sense this story is slightly padded out. Everyone’s character is developing nicely but there’s a slight drop in the pace and the slightest hint of unoriginality about some of the situations. I think it would have been better if everything had been crammed into four books. Don’t get me wrong. As a book, The Tyrant’s Law is very good, i.e. distinctly better than average. But I’m slightly less convinced this series is going to turn out as good as the earlier Long Price Quartet which was wonderful. As always, you should not read this as a standalone. To get the best result, you should have read the first two, i.e. The Dragon Path and The King’s Blood.
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
The Price of Spring
A Shadow in Summer
The Tyrant’s Law.