It seems more than a coincidence that The Dragon’s Path, the first book of Daniel Abraham’s new fantasy series The Dagger And The Coin, was released mere days before the hotly anticipated debut of Game Of Thrones, HBO’s adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire. Abraham collaborated with Martin (and Gardner Dozois) on the science-fiction novel Hunter’s Run—and according to Abraham, a long conversation with Martin about fantasy trends and tropes inspired him to embark on The Dragon’s Path in the first place. Compounding the synchronicity is the fact that The Dagger And The Coin has a lot in common with A Song Of Ice And Fire. Both are set in fictional, pseudo-medieval worlds where magic has waned and dragons disappeared long ago. Both weave elaborate, crisscrossing plots full of moral ambiguity and political intrigue. And both are structured similarly, with chapters named after the protagonist featured therein. Oh, and as for those protagonists: Like Martin’s books, The Dragon’s Path has lots of them.
In all fairness, Abraham has never expressed a desire to reinvent sword-and-sorcery, even though his previous series, The Long Price Quartet, put a mildly fresh, understated spin on it. Still, it’s initially disconcerting to find that he’s stuffed The Dragon’s Path full of genre clichés—and then jumped in feet first. There’s the precocious orphan valiantly struggling to make her way in the world. There’s the military hero turned sour on life after failing to save his family from being slaughtered. There’s the hero’s sardonic comrade-in-arms. There’s the hapless, picked-on nobleman seduced by evil. The list goes on. And for the first half of the book, it seems Abraham is perfectly content to coast on such clichés. Then slowly, cumulatively, almost magically, The Dragon’s Path does something unexpected: It gets really damn good.
Part of the reason it’s easy to undervalue The Dragon’s Path is Abraham’s utter literary bluntness. While The Long Price Quartet was hardly purple, it bore occasional flourishes of lyrical beauty. Here, though, he’s hacked his prose to the bone, and that dryness often comes across as dullness. But as the story progresses, it becomes obvious what Abraham’s up to: In order to juggle so many characters, events, and races of unfamiliar humanoids (no easy elves here), he’s hoping to err on the side of clarity. Which he does, brilliantly. As the plotlines take root and braid together, his stereotypes shed their stock skins and start taking big, deep breaths. Abraham’s dialogue starts to pop, all while retaining a subtle economy that communicates far more than the words being spoken.
Seeing as how The Dragon’s Path is the first book in a series—and knowing the difficulties Martin has had in realizing his own opus—it’s hard to say what kind of follow-through Abraham will have. But the book ends on a promising reveal and a tantalizing cliffhanger, not to mention some much-needed subversion. Ultimately, the story is as concerned with the intricate details of commerce and banking—the “Coin” part of The Dagger And The Coin—as it is battles and betrayals. The book’s big climax is, of all things, an audit. It’s a testament to Abraham’s sheer storytelling skill that he renders a showdown across a counting table as thrilling and fraught with consequence as any number of massacres, romances, and throne-room power plays. Comforting yet complex, The Dragon’s Path is a textbook example of how to do meat-and-potatoes fantasy right—even if it does read, at least at first, a little like a textbook itself.