Faren Miller reviews Daniel Abraham

While major publishers can be forgiven for emphasizing the familiar in blurbs, especially for the start of a new fantasy series, Orbit’s touting of The Dragon’s Path by Daniel Abraham (Book One of The Dagger and the Coin) as ‘‘the epic fantasy launch of the year,’’ with its ‘‘swords, magic, intrigue, and war,’’ may manage to distort his approach to the genre enough to drive away some potential readers unfamiliar with the Long Price Quartet.

After Prologue ‘‘The Apostate’’ introduces the weirdly nonhuman blood granted to devotees of the Spider Goddess, both the renegade and his former religion seem to vanish for the majority of the book (appearances can be deceptive). And the regional war that disrupts the lives of a substantial group of alternating viewpoint characters involves no sorcerers or dragons, and very little magic.

Instead of bold heroes, beauteous heroines, and scheming villains straight from Central Casting, we get a quirky bunch that includes an orphan girl raised by bankers to have a future in their business (though now, sent out on a perilous errand, she wonders if she can ever stop pretending to be a boy who drives a cart); a rather clumsy nobleman who’d rather have his nose in some musty old tome than fight battles; and the members of a theater troupe which an ex-general (now a mere captain at the head of a shifting band of mercenaries) hires to impersonate the little band of fighters he just lost, so he won’t miss out on their latest gig of protecting a caravan.

The Dragon’s Path takes us inside the minds of these characters and more. They’re still capable of surprises; faced with crisis, they may head off in any number of directions. Turning points in attitudes, and ultimately the plot itself, can hinge on a subtle moment like this one for the orphan:

Something in the back of Cithrin’s mind shifted…. The overwhelming sorrow was still there, the fear that she would fail, the sense of being at the mercy of a wild and violent world. None of it went away. Only with it, there was something else. Hardly brighter than a firefly in the darkness of her mind, there was a new thought: Perhaps.

Whether propelled by chance and mischance in times of war and uneasy peace or attempting to manipulate them (with schemes that range from clever to desperate or outright mad), people do manage to travel through large segments of the maps at the front of the book. History gets made, sometimes with substantial bloodshed. But the most memorable, or appalling, actions emerge from that inward muddle of worries, old sorrows, minor passions and stubborn gripes which even the characters themselves can’t fully comprehend.

How will the bookworm respond to the unexpected gift, or burden, of power over other lives? When infighting creeps into the court of the king whose army began the war, will his ruggedly conservative old friend and counselor go rogue? And what (outside of necromancy or an overly doting author) could allow an underage girl, schooled in finance and armed with that thought perhaps, to cut a swath through the business world in a town far from home? Prepare to be startled, shocked, and entertained.

There’s room for sudden acts of treachery by characters whose thoughts aren’t on display. Yet these betrayals pale beside the cumulative acts of well-intentioned folk who rest sure (or nearly so) that everything they have to do works to the ultimate good. When religion enters in, with the rediscovery of an ancient sect (now much reduced), the book comes full-circle to the Prologue and its prophecies of doom.

Magic – introduced by the mighty dragons who built the world’s first cities before they vanished, leaving behind legends, a few ruins, and a special kind of jade – would become a dangerous tool or weapon in the hands of a species as ornery, contradictory, and self-deluding as humankind; The Dragon’s Path makes that clear. Expect sequel The King’s Blood to show the dark force at work as mortal opponents (not heroes) try to stave off ultimate disaster.

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