Fantasy Review Barn
This is the third volume of the Dagger and Coin Quintet, the difficult middle book - the one that drags the weight of two books’ worth of previous history, that also has to begin arranging all the pieces for the endgame and still has to make sense by itself. It should be an impossible task, an experience as dense and heavy and glutinous as treacle. Yet it flows like cream, tastes like chocolate and slips down just as easily. Abraham’s prose is a joy to read, elegant and spare, every word in its proper place.
As before, the cast of point of view characters is limited - Clara is finding her feet amongst the nobodies of Camnipol after her noble husband was executed for treason; Cithrin is in another new city learning more about banking; Geder the unstable Regent of Antea is making war again, aided by his spider-goddess priest; and Marcus the former soldier is hiking through the southern jungles with escaped spider-goddess man Kit looking for a magic sword. And as before, the story jumps about from one to another, but the individual plotlines are not independent, so one chapter will show the events of that character is close-up, while also revealing something of events elsewhere, glimpsed from afar in rumour and hearsay. This is done very cleverly, so the overall plot flows beautifully from chapter to chapter.
This is industrial-strength fantasy, so Geder's war is spilling across the whole northern continent, and is seemingly unstoppable. This is the third campaign to feature in the story. The first book centred on the fall of the city of Vanai. In the second, Antea conquered neighbouring Asterilhold. This time, Geder (or rather, his spider-priest adviser) has his sights set on Sarakal. There is inevitably some sense of repetition in all this, but Abraham gives the events a new perspective to keep things fresh. This time, Geder's capabilities are well understood, and there are no illusions about the consequences.
The series is called The Dagger and the Coin, and is presumably intended to contrast the two powerful forces of conquest, by armed force, or by economics. Geder's military ambitions continue to roll onwards, but for the first time there are signs that the financial clout of the bank can have an impact. There are hints about the difficulties of maintaining long supply lines, and getting the staple crops planted and harvested when so many men are tied up in the war. There are hints, too, that the bank can help indirectly with the refugee and resettlement problem, and more directly, in supporting covert acts of rebellion. However, it’s still not obvious how economics will bring a real direct challenge to bear against military might. Perhaps this isn’t Abraham’s intention, but if not, the whole banking plot becomes marginalised.
Abraham has a nice way of subverting the tropes of the genre. Most fantasy is (in the broadest sense) about swords and sorcery, so that all problems are eventually disposed of by one or other of these elements (or occasionally both). The evil villain is bent on global domination for vague reasons, and the hero (or occasionally a heroine) tools up with a magic sword or else learns to use the magic powers they’ve mysteriously been endowed with. Here, the evil villain is sort of bent on global domination, but it’s a role he more or less reversed into accidentally, and all with the very best of intentions. What could be so malign about spreading the spider-goddess’s message of truth across the world? Meanwhile, Marcus and Kit go on a traditional fantasy quest to track down the magic sword which will kill the goddess, but (without giving too much away) that doesn’t go quite as they expected. As for magic, there’s very little around at all. Proponents are called ‘cunning men’ and have minor roles as showmen and healers.
One nice aspect is that we have two interesting female characters taking strong leadership roles in the fight against Geder the war-making Regent. Clara is now released from the stifling conformity of court rules and taking advantage of her freedom to plot and scheme in Camnipol, as well as enjoying a degree of personal freedom. I very much like Clara, her subtlety, her cleverness and her determination. It makes a nice counterpoint to her husband’s more ham-fisted efforts in the previous books. Even though things don’t always go quite as anticipated (what ever does in an Abraham book?), she always makes well-considered decisions.
In contrast, Cithrin... Look, I’m going to have a bit of a rant about Cithrin, so feel free to skip ahead to the next paragraph if you want. Cithrin, you stupid, stupid woman. When will you ever learn? Your entire character arc has been defined by short-sightedness and downright bad decision-making. You find yourself stuck in the wrong city with the bank’s wealth? Why not forge a few papers to set yourself up as a pretend bank? After all, it would be too simple just to write to the bank’s head and await instructions, wouldn’t it? And if you find yourself trapped during an uprising with a powerful but totally unstable character who wants sex? Well, why not? This book is quite a good explanation of why not, actually. And then, given a one-time opportunity to get close to the Regent, to influence the events of history and do some good, could you actually, just once in your life, do something sensible? Course not. Gah. Stupid woman. I mean, what exactly does she think Geder is going to do now? Smile sweetly and forget all about her? He already burned one city because he felt slighted.
Geder himself is a fascinating character. Of course he makes dumb decisions as well, but in his case his motives are entirely understandable and believable, and it’s possible to feel very sympathetic towards him, and appalled at the same time. Being the focus of everyone’s amusement is dispiriting and annoying, and being the patsy for other people’s political games would get anyone riled. His response to the Vanai problem, although it was more a fit of petulance than a rational decision, was not an unusual way to deal with a recalcitrant conquest. Even when he’s behaving very badly, it’s easy to see exactly how and why it happened. He’s a social incompetent, who would be very much at home in the modern world, head buried in his iPad or harmlessly slaughtering orcs in World of Warcraft. It’s only in his fantasy setting that he is the tyrant of the title.
Marcus - meh. I like the banter, and the low-key cynicism which sometimes borders on suicidal fatalism, but it’s not an original character trait, and the whole tragic wife and child history is a bit over-used. I like Yardem a lot better, in fact, because although he has baggage (why did he leave the priesthood, exactly?) he doesn’t let it define him. Although that may simply be an artefact of not being a point of view character; because we never get inside Yardem’s head, we never see how tortured his soul is. Or it may just be the ears. Gotta love a character with such speaking ears.
This is not a high-action book. Even though there’s a war going on, and a new religion spreading like a stain from Camnipol, and the whole continent is in turmoil, it still feels like an intimate, close-up portrait of the characters before all else. A whole chapter may feature nothing but Clara walking about Camnipol, Clara taking tea with a friend, Clara going home again, but this gives the characters the space to breathe, to live, to think, to feel. Between paces, Clara can contemplate a great many subjects without it becoming heavy philosophising. Abraham doesn’t ever tell his readers what to think about anything (religion, war, slavery, inherited monarchies), and those who want can simply enjoy the story and the author’s exquisite prose, but the deeper themes are there to be explored by those who wish, usually by the contrast of one approach with another. For example, Kit and Basrahip are both spider-infested; one is using that to control people so that he can take over the world in the spider-goddess’s name, while the other goes to great lengths not to control people at all, and is trying to find a way to end the spider regime altogether. Is it evil to remove lies from the world and impose honesty? Good question.
The ending? Awesome. A great big bowl of awesomeness, with lashings of awesome sauce on top. The first two books I had some settling down reservations about, but this one, none at all. It’s a quieter book than the previous ones, but in my view it’s all the better for that. Perhaps the series is just getting into its stride, or the characters have grown into their roles (even Cithrin, maybe, possibly), or perhaps it’s just that, after a lot of circling round, we’re getting to know something about the dragons at last. Dragons make everything better. So unquestionably five stars. And now the long wait until the next book...