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The Prince of Risk by Christopher Reich

The Prince of Risk by Christopher Reich

The Prince of Risk by Christopher Reich (Doubleday, 2013) starts us off with an emergency meeting late Sunday between Edward Astor, chief executive of the New York Stock Exchange, and his friends, Charles Hughes, chairman of the Federal Reserve, and Treasury Secretary Martin Gelman. They decide they must warn the President but, as they cross the White House compound, the limo’s software is highjacked and the Secret Service shoots the vehicle full of holes, believing it and its occupants have become terrorists (intelligence in White House security staff is not required).

 

Bobby Astor has been alienated from his father for years — he got one of these child divorce decrees from a judge to make it legal. So seconds before he dies, Bobby’s father texts the word PALANTIR to his estranged son. Like that’s a subtle form of revenge. The old man was cast aside, so he now tickles the grown man’s curiosity with a code word that’s liable to smash his financial empire and get him killed. Woo hoo! Is that ever revenge from beyond the grave or what! Better still, our hero doesn’t tell the police or FBI he got this inside information. No! He’s thinks he’s a better investigator than the police or the FBI. So what are a few dead bodies left in his wake. He’s the hero and he gets to do hero stuff even though he’s batshit crazy — like the sort of crazy that jumps off a chimney into a swimming pool for a bet crazy. Needless to say, our hero has a heroine ex-wife, Alex Forza. She’s an FBI special agent and she gets to shout at bosses who should know to let her get on with her job and are just so slow they can’t see the wood in the trees shooting up around them. And when they tell her to go home and rest for two days, this is just the provocation she needs to get no sleep for the next week and save America on her own (well, with perhaps a teensy little bit of help from her ex)! Although, when push comes to shove, she’s in there with the enemy, breaking their arms or shooting at them with extreme prejudice intended. She’s one tough cookie which is not what you want when you’re old and have a dickie set of false teeth (BTW in all the decades of my life, I have never heard a Brit actually say “toodles” meaning goodbye — sorry for such an irrelevant thought about some of the language on display in this book).

 Christopher Reich

Christopher Reich

 

So here’s the problem. On the one hand we’ve got one of these high-powered attacks on the financial heart of Western capitalism. To help us poor readers understand how fiendishly clever this diabolical plot is, the author keeps stopping to explain some of the ideas underpinning currency and stock trading, e.g. like the practice of shorting. The author never misses a chance to explain something he thinks we might not understand. The result is cumulatively pages of explanatory exposition which does nothing but slow down the pace of the book. At the other end of the scale, the special one wearing the FBI hat is in watching mode for a band of terrorists. Now get this. A neighbor sees some men unloading crates from a truck and, guess what, these guys had carefully written in cyrillic characters, “These are AK47s and we are terrorists!” on the outside (only joking). Sadly no judge would issue a search warrant based on the smartphone picture the neighbour took. So it falls to our heroine and her sidekick to ask to be invited in. Whereupon this highly-trained operative detects this is not a man from Texas but a “foreigner”. She tells this from the way he talks — pretty cool skills! When she tricks him by saying something in French, our wily terrorist makes a big mistake by replying in the same language! Realising he’s given himself away, this minor villain pulls out a gun and starts shooting — it’s easier just to admit guilt from the outset. Anyway, this killer manages to kill some FBI types before falling in a hail of righteous bullets. In the cellar are an alarming number of crates full of weapons — enough for a small army. Thank God for alert neighbors, their smartphones, and the FBI’s willingness to believe whatever they are told. But what are these bad men going to do with all these guns and an antitank weapon? Is the Mumbai scenario? Have they been listening to Leonard Cohen to plan, first, to take Manhattan and then to take Berlin?

 

Now I don’t want you to get the idea this is a completely brainless book. The central plot idea is not unintelligent. It’s just brainless most of the time as one plot cliché after another is trotted out for us to examine and admire for what it is. Indeed, what this author actually does is take formulaic ideas and elevate them to new heights of inventiveness. And to complete the process, we then have the ultimate coincidence that Bobby’s financial crisis is just a different side of the terrorist coin his ex-wife is investigating. Wow! Is that not a breath-taking turn of events, or what! This leaves our heroine to do a minor piece of globetrotting and there’s a good joke about Paris (which is based on a current real-world location), but all the main action is set in America where the combined terrorist attack is due to take place. As you would expect, the senior ranks of the law enforcement and security agencies are completely ineffective and everyone has to be saved by this husband/wife duo. In other circumstances, this can-do attitude might be inspiring. In this book it’s just absurd.

 

So there you have it. The Prince of Risk is a disaster from start to finish. You should avoid it.

 

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

 

Two Serpents Rise by Max Gladstone

November 19, 2013 Leave a comment

Two-Serpents-Rise-200130-f3c77597319bcaae3283

One of the more interesting opportunities arising from the nature of fantasy is the ability to reinvent contemporary issues as an extended parable or allegory. Of course, an author could just write about mages fighting dragons — a significant number of buying customers enjoy these books even though they are superficial narratives. Or the author could use the dragons as a metaphor for capitalists who acquire and horde gold and jewels in caves, breathing fire on anyone who trespasses into their private lives, while the mages are investigative journalists who expose the venal exploitation that allowed the accumulation and stockpiling of the wealth. If the mages’ spells go viral, the evil dragons are destroyed and their wealth is redistributed in Robin Hood style to all those who don’t have health insurance (or a similar fate visited on the poor by uncaring dragons).

So welcome to the world of Two Serpents Rise by Max Gladstone (Tor, 2013), the second book set in the world of the Craft Sequence. To understand what’s going on, we need to spend a moment thinking about our modern world and then dive into a little practical economics. One of the more spectacular achievements of capitalism has been the rise of brands as dominant forces in our culture. As cynicism has risen and the hold of religious figures on public consciousness has grown weaker, consumers worship at the shrines of the latest retail icons in all their manifestations. People give up a little bit of their soul to queue overnight in adverse weather conditions just so they can be the first people to own the latest model. Now the characters in a movie are sold as toys, appear in electronic games, promote the latest burger recipe, and are used to sell an apparently infinite range of different merchandise fitting the demographic of the movie’s audience. And that’s before we get to the novelisation of the movie and authorised sequels, the comics and graphic novel version, all the fan fiction, and the television animated series. The spirit of these characters becomes as culturally significant as minor gods in the days when pantheism was the norm.

Have you noticed how Apple and Samsung are fighting for domination of the world of smartphones and other gadgets, and how at a deeper level, Apple and Google in the form of Android are also fighting for domination of the world of operating systems within the smartphones? It’s a titanic struggle as major forces battle each other for the soul of the consumer market or to suck the spirit of currency from the consumers with ever greater efficiency.

Max Gladstone

Max Gladstone

Now the economics: in a perfect world, the basic essentials of life would be “free”. We need air to breathe, water to drink, food to eat, and so on. The public should have a right to an uninterrupted supply of these necessities. Well. . . hold on there a moment. In the days before urbanisation and the industrial revolution, the agricultural lifestyle had an abundance of free unpolluted air and running water in a nearby stream or river. But then those damn farmers upstream dumped their silage next to the stream and the downstreamers all died of cholera or typhoid or some other fatal disease. So there had to be intervention to prevent thoughtless farmers from killing off their neighbours. Now scale that up following the growth of cities. Who is to pay for building aqueducts and, later, pipes to bring water into every neighbourhood or individual households? Who builds the dams and maintains them? Who deals with the sewage and makes the water drinkable? When the water from the wells and rivers is no longer adequate, who invests to develop desalination technology? There’s a constant battle between the use of tax revenue and the pressure from capitalists to privatise the public utilities and create new business concerns like the water “industry”. As citizens we all want a plentiful supply of cheap and safe water but we resent having to pay to repair and replace the infrastructure that delivers it. So what would happen if free-market ideology was applied to the water supply and water barons emerged to gouge the public and allow all the poor to die because they could not afford to pay the charges? Would the state be strong enough to renationalise the water industry, build new pipelines and water processing plants, and restore public confidence?

At this point I should apologise. I don’t usually discuss the plot of a book at such length without spoiler warnings. But what’s done is done. I can do no more than recommend Twin Serpents Rise as a debate on the merits of free-market capitalism disguised as a fantasy with dry, fusty legal contracts cast as spells, and cohorts of lawyers and risk managers acting the parts of enforcers and soldiers in the wars between business concerns. I suppose the best way to describe Two Serpents Rise is a fictionalised version of a poison pill defence. Having grown in size and significance, the target corporation knows it cannot resist the takeover, so decides to leave an unwelcome surprise in the small print of the contract. It’s a great trick for the magicians to pull off. There’s only one downside. Millions of consumers will die as the world is remade and becomes a better place for the few who survive the cataclysm.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Crash by Guy Haley

Crash

Crash by Guy Haley (Solaris, 2013) is an interestingly dense science fiction novel. The increasing norm has been for books to build up broad brush strokes of future history, glossing over the mechanics of how humanity arrived in the given situation and the extent to which it was intentional. This novel takes a more nuts and bolts approach to the construction of the near-future start for the story in which wealth has been hijacked by a tiny percentage of the world’s population and the economy shaped to maximise growth of value for that percentage without regard to the needs or interests of anyone else. In effect, the wealthy have taken control of the production of wealth as a commodity, manipulating and controlling investment through a semi-automated Market system, i.e. the Market is theoretically run by artificial intelligence with human math wonks jacked into the system as monitors to detect abnormalities in trends. Technology has advanced along reasonably predictable lines with genetic manipulation able to produce “better” humans or artificially constructed beings of dubious legal status, cybertronics, robotics and AIs create roles for “machines” in key positions, and interstellar space travel possible using colony ships and hibernation technology.

 

At its heart, this book is about the structuring of societies. Starting from the lowest unit size, this is family that grows into kin group that becomes a community. While small, the divergences from the prevailing norms are likely to be small and manageable. But as communities link up to become broader social structures, it becomes more difficult to manage the differences. Some level of conflict is almost inevitable as the usual seven deadly sins pollute relationships. No matter how much we hope people will rub along together, “leaders” emerge and insist on establishing hierarchies. Over time, the paraphernalia of power, privilege and wealth emerges. After that, little can effect change short of a revolution. So that, in a nutshell, captures what this book is ultimately about. If Earth is already stripped of its resources and exploitation of the solar system is not going to provide sufficient resources to make habitable space available for a reasonable quality of life, the only option is to go somewhere else. This represents an opportunity to upend the status quo. Although the existing hierarchy might wish to export itself to a number of colonies where the same social structures are preserved, the interest groups slightly lower down in the hierarchy might see this as an opportunity to sabotage the old and start again. The problem, as always, is that revolution rarely comes without loss of life and hardship.

Guy Haley: a little ray of sunlight

Guy Haley: a little ray of sunlight

 

The title of the book tells it all. With colony starships being built, we watch a shadowy organisation recruit a man to be a saboteur on one ship. It’s not certain but it would be reasonable to assume the process is replicated so that each ship has at least one person who can act. We then watch the man emerge from hibernation at an intermediate point during the voyage and affect the programming of the central computer system running his ship. When people begin to wake several centuries later than they expected, they find themselves in the wrong place and about to crash. The crisis has come with the surviving officers forced to make decisions with the two sons of the family that paid for the ship. This presages the physical and social crash that will change their lives.

 

The problem with all this is that the structure of the narrative is completely unbalanced. Guy Haley spends an inordinate amount of time crashing the colony ship into the planet, but throws away the murder of Karl Njalsson. Are we supposed to think Hwang and the other Market watchers would not investigate the cause of the death, recover what work Karl was doing and see motive? Why is the family background for Dariusz not developed? The way the macro economy works is not explained. Through Karl and Dariusz, we would have had a chance to see how they were able to “buy” what they needed, what services were available, and so on. As it is we have Karl killed and see the suicide of Dariusz’s wife mentioned and forgotten in a paragraph. His son is shuffled on and off stage.

 

Buried in this book is a very good duology but nobody told our author to stop what he was doing and develop the story in a disciplined way. He has a very pleasing eye for detail and can write big set pieces. All he needed was for someone to sit him down and make him see the potential in what he had imagined. The primary driver in the first book should have been the murder and subsequent investigation. We could see the plot developed to recruit people and insert them into the colony ships. The family relationships between Yuri, Leonid and their father could have been set out more clearly, with the roles of Corrigan and the fascinating Anderson brought more clearly into focus. Working along these lines, the first book ends with the death of the police officers investigating the murder of Karl and the colony ships taking off. The second book starts with the crash and then deals with survival on the planet. I blame the editorial staff at Solaris. They knew or ought to have known Guy Haley had taken on all these different writing tasks and did nothing to keep him on track. I suspect all four of the books due this year will show the same lack of focus. Writers should not work in a vacuum. They should have editorial guidance to get the best results. Otherwise, as in Crash, we get ideas thrown out but not developed, we have technology not explained, and we have a macroeconomy introduced but no indication as to how it actually works in lives at different points in the social hierarchy. This could have been a great pair of books but Crash ends up a crash.

 

For reviews of other books by Guy Haley, see:
Omega Point
Reality 36.

 

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

 

Neptune’s Brood by Charles Stross

Neptune_comp.indd

To understand this review properly, you need to rehearse a little of what you know about the history of science fiction. There have been several people deemed one of the “greats”. Perhaps the one getting the most votes would be Robert A Heinlein (alongside Isaac Asimov, Arthur C Clarke, and others). In a way this reflects a number of features about what he wrote. Most importantly, he was a “thinker”, not particularly committed to any particular point of view and prepared to express unpopular opinions about a wide variety of different social phenomena, e.g. on racism. If anything, he was a man of evolving opinions, starting off as anti-communist, pro-military and “conservative”, and ending up more committed to the notion of freedom, in the widest sense of the word including, not uncontroversially, sexual freedom. Secondly, he wrote in a very accessible style so that, whether he was actually intending his readership to be adult or juvenile, almost everyone could grok what he was talking about. Interestingly, many of his books feature strong female characters which tended to make his books more widely read across the gender divide. In short, he popularised science fiction. Moving down the pecking order of popularity, we come to Mack Reynolds who carved out a niche for himself by exploring the economics of the future. If Heinlein was thinking about who was going to be important in the future, e.g. the heroic Johnny Rico in Starship Troopers is Filipino, Reynolds was doing the grunt work in calculating out who was going to be paying for it all. He was wonderfully sceptical about the notion of utopia with many books and stories looking at what’s most likely to go wrong and what might follow the collapse of an apparently ideal society.

 

All of which brings me to Neptune’s Brood by Charles Stross (Penguin/Berkley, 2013), a sequel to Saturn’s Children. At so many different levels, this book blends the interests of Heinlein and Reynolds, producing a particularly pleasing package. This is not the first time Stross has walked down this road. The Merchant Princes series examines the differences in culture emerging on parallel Earths. Obviously, the trading options depend on reconciling technological imbalances and political outlooks. He’s answering questions like what an essentially late mediaeval or Victorian world would have to trade with our contemporary world and vice versa. This book is exploring how any civilisation could finance slower than light colonisation. The answer is completely unexpected and absolutely captivating. Let’s just pause for a moment. If we assume the colony world accepts it is indebted to the “mother” planetary system, how would it pay off the debt if it takes a century to fly from one to the other? The answer comes in the development of slow money. The problem with cash is that it’s inherently volatile. Markets boom and bust, the values of currencies fluctuate. Such mediums of exchange are inadequate for debt that may have to span several centuries. Even adopting commodities like gold may not have the requisite quality of longevity because who’s to say the commodity we consider valuable today will retain that value in five hundred years time when the debt might fall due? So an upper tier of money for transactions between star systems is necessary and most elegantly explored in this book.

Charles Stross welcomes book critics

Charles Stross welcomes book critics

 

Of course economic development never occurs in a vacuum. There has to be a supportive cultural context and it must be resilient enough to withstand attacks from both within and without. Take the phenomenon of crime as an example. Where there’s money, there are people who covet it and seek to possess it. Some may resort to violence. Other may prefer more subtle means. As we scale up to relations between countries and, in due course, between sovereign planetary systems, we can get into the grey areas of piracy as opposed to a privateer operating under letters of marque issued by a sovereign body. Of course, in the scenario we have here, planetary systems might be indebted to banks and it would be such organisations who might assume the power to issue letters of marque, particularly if the planets were in default on their loans. Indeed, privateers might have to assume the role of accountants or auditors if they are to calculate the amounts of money owing and what value might replace it.

 

When you put all this together, you have one of the most appealing set-ups of the last decade. Our heroine is a forensic accountant and historian who’s taken a particular interest in old frauds. She’s on her slow way between planets, studying and researching as she goes, when she gets a message from her sister, alerting her to possible danger. Since they have been collaborating on trying to track down a particularly interesting old debt instrument, it’s likely one of the fraudulent parties involved may be out to stop them from making progress in the investigation. This forces her to change her flight plans and hop on a Church on its way to the next system. When the Church is hailed by “pirates”, it rapidly becomes clear our heroine is attracting trouble. Were she to be human, she would be alarmed and not a little paranoid. As a post-human robot (the humans keep dying out only to be resurrected by the robots), she takes a more phlegmatic view of the world, causality and the passage of time. Such beings can afford to take the longer view, particularly when their chips can be backed up and installed in new bodies.

 

Overall, this makes Neptune’s Brood a delightful way of exploring human obsessions about money and property through this everyday story of robot folk and their conquest of the stars. This is one of the best books by Stross for years.

 

For reviews of other books by Charles Stross, see:
The Apocalypse Codex
The Fuller Memorandum
The Revolution Business
Rule 34
The Trade of Queens
Wireless

 

The Tyrant’s Law by Daniel Abraham

The Tyrant's Law

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.

Daniel Abraham

Daniel Abraham

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
Leviathan Wept
The Price of Spring
A Shadow in Summer
The Tyrant’s Law.

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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