In June of 2010, I threw a bit of a fit. I’d learned that not only was Tor Books not going to be publishing anymore novels by Daniel Abraham, they wer...moreIn June of 2010, I threw a bit of a fit. I’d learned that not only was Tor Books not going to be publishing anymore novels by Daniel Abraham, they weren’t even going to do his fans the service of releasing the final volume of his The Long Price Quartet in paperback. I went on record, then, saying that Tor would regret letting the promising author go, that they were foolish to let such a promising young writer slip through their fingers.
Orbit Books wasted no time in snapping up Abraham and immediately announcing The Dagger and the Coin, a new series completely unrelated to The Long Price Quartet and set within a more familiar frame that was sure to appeal to the casual Fantasy fan that is so important in ensuring Abraham’s continued and inevitable rise through the genre. Tor made a mistake in letting him go and there’s no better proof of that than The Dragon’s Path, the first volume of The Dagger and the Coin.
As a fan of The Long Price Quartet, it’s difficult to consider The Dragon’s Path without drawing comparisons between the two. Throwing aside the unfamiliar world of his first series, The Dragon’s Path places the reader in a world heavily inspired by 15th Century Europe and populates it with 13 distinct races (comprising ‘humanity’), each rising from the ashes of the long-crumbled Dragon Empire . It’s somewhat alarming to see Abraham working with such twee Fantasy conventions, but with a little bit of faith, one soon realizes that this is no retelling of The Belgariad or The Lord of the Rings, but very much its own beast. There is an equal shift in the tone of the story and the characters met. When first describing The Dagger and the Coin, Abraham wrote:
"The glib way I’ve been describing it is that I wrote my tragedy first, now I’m writing my adventure"
And it’s absolutely true. When I first heard about The Dragon’s Path, and despite my initial alarm, I was nearly giddy at the idea of Abraham turing his attentions to a more traditional tale. Sure, it sounds silly, given that I love his other work so dearly for its originality and the way it confidently sticks out from a crowded Fantasy market; but, bottom line, it is one of my favourite authors working in one of my favourite sub-genres. A combination I would find it impossible not to be excited about.
At its heart, The Dragon’s Path is still absolutely an Abraham novel. Though the story features drunken pranks, dragons, priests with giant swords, siege warfare and an ‘evil’ cult following a spider goddess, it also deals heavily with the economics of war, the emotional toll of growing up and being repeatedly push to the dirt, the politics that boil under the surface of any successful kingdom and the subtleties of human relationships. And the characters, as I’ve come to expect from Abraham’s work, are where the novel truly shines.
Abraham manages to weed out those little mannerisms, those little ticks of character and setting that are so important in getting to know a person or a place, and reveals them to the reader quietly. One of the major roadblocks in dialogue in literature is that so much of the important communication happens through body language, yet so many authors use only the words spoken to reveal the relationships between their characters. Abraham manages to let us know so much about the characters through not only their words, but also through these little actions that define them. A small smile here, or a nervous habit there. Other authors try at this, but unlike Robert Jordan’s braid-tugging, Abraham’s prose and between-the-lines dialogue never feels bloated or unnecessary. It’s simply another level to the story that weaves organically between the other aspects of the prose.
“Why do you apologize for everything you say?” she asked.
Master Kit turned to her, bushy eyebrows hoisted.
“I wasn’t aware that I did,” he said.
“You just did it again,” Cithrin said. “You never say anything straight out. It’s all I believe this or I’ve found that. You never say, The sun rises in the morning. It’s always, I think the sun rises in the morning. It’s like you’re trying not to promise anything.
Master Kit went sober. His dark eyes considered her. Cithrin felt a chill run down her spine, but it wasn’t fear. It was like being on the edge of finding something that she’d only guessed was there. Master Kit rubbed a palm across his chin. The sound was soft and intimate and utterly mundane.
“I’m surprised you noticed that,” he said, then smiled at having done it again. “I have a talent for being believed, and I’ve found it problematic. I suppose I’ve adopted habits to soften the effect, and so I try not to assert things unless I’m certain of them. Absolutely certain, I mean. I’m often surprised by how little I’m absolutely certain of.”
“That’s an odd choice,” Cithrin said.
“And it encourages me to take myself lightly,” Master Kit said. “I find a certain value in lightness.”
“I wish I could,” she said. The despair in her voice surprised her, and then she was weeping. (p. 251 of ARC)
There are few authors whose prose I enjoy more than Abraham’s. He manages to be both plain and endlessly deep. He has the ability to touch on descriptions and characters with only a few words where other authors would devote paragraphs. With that, he’s able to pack so much into his novels that it makes writers like Robert Jordan or Brandon Sanderson seem incredibly obtuse and self-indulgent. Abraham packs more story and character into a third of the word count of those industry giants.
"Cithrin walked through the streets of Vanai, her stomach in knots. The false mustache was the sort of thin, weedy thing a callow boy might cultivate and be proud of. Her clothes were a mix of Besel’s shirts and jackets resewn in the privacy of the bank and whatever cheap, mended rags could be scrounged. They hadn’t dared to buy anything new. Her hair was tea-stained to an almost colorless brown and combed forward to obscure her face. She walked with the wider gait Magister Imaniel had taught her, a knot of uncomfortable cloth held tight against her sex to remind her that she was supposed to have a cock. (p. 47 of ARC)"
"Dawson looked at his childhood friend. The months of winter had etched a frown into the corners of his mouth and left grey at his temples like the first frost. Or perhaps the signs of age and weakness had always been there, and Dawson hadn’t been willing to see them until now. The jewel-studded robes that Simeon wore—even the crown itself—looked less like the raiments of power and greatness than they had in the autumn. Instead they were the empty form of it, like a dry pitcher waiting to be filled. (p. 211 of ARC)"
From Cithrin’s naivety to Dawson’s jaded politicking, it’s crude and sophisticated by turns, matching the necessary tone of the scene and revealing in small pieces how the characters view the world and their situation. There’s never a word out of place and even the most off-hand thoughts, observances or actions always have weight behind them.
Structurally, Abraham adopts a style that’s been popularized in recent years by authors like Joe Abercrombie and George R.R. Martin. The plot progresses via multiple view-point characters—sometimes half-a-world apart, sometimes sharing the same cramped cellar—and alternates between Geder’s politically charged story of princes and warfare, and Cithrin’s struggle to move a fortune half-way across the world. The characters sometimes cross paths and seeing the situations through multiple sets of eyes sheds light on the tale that wouldn’t be possible with a more traditional single point-of-view storytelling method.
As mentioned, the world Abraham’s created leans much more heavily towards the traditional stylings of classic authors like Raymond Feist or Tad Williams and contemporary authors like the aforementioned Joe Abercrombie or Scott Lynch. Magic is still only on the periphery of the tale, but the prologue and the later portions of Geder’s story hint that there are big things to come as magic emerges and finds a greater foothold among the thirteen races.
Speaking of the races, Abraham’s split ‘humanity’ into many different races. Some, like the Firstblood, Tralgu and Cinnae are heavily featured, while others, like the Timzinae, the Drowned and the Yemmu play almost no part. One criticism often heaped on The Long Price Quartet is that the ‘poses’, a cultural touchstone used by the characters to express their emotions, were hard to grasp; I can see a similar criticism being placed on The Dagger and the Coin regarding the thirteen races. Like magic, there are hints that the various races, and their origins, will play an important part later in the series, but I often had trouble separating them in my head and could rarely remember their physical appearances, especially given that they’re all (with the exception, perhaps, of the Drowned) human in their emotions, attitudes and personalities. Even a simple glossary breaking down the different races would have gone a long way towards easing the reader into the world.
Captain Marcus Wester, the third major view-point character, stays rather static throughout the novel, but his relationship to Cithrin and how it plays with the ghosts of his past, is interesting and I look forward to seeing how their relationship grows through the course of the next several novels. On the flip side, Cithrin and Geder both grow in leaps and bounds as they overcome the adversity heaped upon them. Geder’s transformation is very direct and reminiscent of a typical coming-of-age tale familiar to fans of Fantasy (and provides the thrust of storyline that appears to be setting up the main conflict of the series), while Cithrin’s development is much quieter; it’s very satisfying to watch her grow from a young girl to a confident, but toubled woman. Abraham’s characterization is always a strong point of his novels. Unlike many of the Fantasy novels that Abraham cites as an inspiration for The Dagger and the Coin (like Eddings’ The Belgariad, oddly enough), growing older and more adult introduces as many problems as it solves. In particular, it’s heartbreaking to watch Cithrin deal with everything from heartbreak to alcoholism as she struggles to grow up more quickly than any 17-year-old should ever have to. Her transformation from the novel’s beginning to its end is easily one of the highlights among many great moments.
Of all the novels (confirmed) to be released in 2011, The Dragon’s Path was, by a wide margin, my most anticipated. Of course, such anticipation is always a double-edged sword. Abraham took many chances with The Long Price Quartet and formed a dedicated (if small) following for those novels and what he managed to accomplish. By moving to a more traditional world and a more tried-and-true premise, Abraham is sure to make wary some of those fans who appreciated the originality of The Long Price Quartet; at the same time, he’s blown open the doors for a new, wider audience and has written a more accessible novel that is sure to appeal to fans of Tad Williams, George R.R. Martin or Scott Lynch.
Regardless of whether you’ve discovered Abraham previously, you can rest assured that The Dragon’s Path is a tremendous novel and Abraham deftly mixes the classic foundations of the genre with a sophistication expected of him and rarely found in the work of his compatriots. Look for this one to appear on my ‘Best of 2011′ list come year-end.(less)
The New Weird. It’s that strange little literary movement that, according to Mark Charan Newto...moreThis review was originally published on A Dribble of Ink
The New Weird. It’s that strange little literary movement that, according to Mark Charan Newton, is dead. And yet, he’s flying that mantle high, telling anyone who’ll listen that City of Ruin, the second volume of his Legends of the Red Sun series, has been let of its leash by virtue of a four book publishing deal; it’s going to be weirder, more true to Newton’s original vision of the sun-deprived Boreal Archipelago. Nights of Villjamur, Newton’s first novel, dabbled in the New Weird, but City of Ruin is meant as a love letter to two ailing genres (it’s also very much in the vein of Jack Vance’s Dying Earth novels and Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun), and promises to be the unrestrained novel Newton wanted to write in the first place (it’s not easy to sell giant spiders, floating spaceship islands and geriatric cultists to publishers, I guess.)
The New Weird movement is one I’ve only watched with vague disinterest from the sidelines. It just wasn’t for me. I’m too traditional, too happy to read novels I recognize. Why would I need weird for weirdness sake? At least, that’s what I thought. I was worried that the New Weird would take too much to wrap my head around, would be more trouble than it was worth. But, if City of Ruin is such an example of the genre then, well… the New Weird just isn’t as weird as the reputation that precedes it. Rather, it’s Fantasy with an open mind, Fantasy that steps away from Elves and Dragons and replaces them with smoking, male banshees and corpse golems. My early perceptions of New Weird were that I’d constantly be forced to reevaluate how I approached the place and setting of the novel, to push aside preconceptions and learn again how to listen to a story; but, really, in the end, a hulking, angry coin golem is just a fresh coat of paint on a troll, and a city-stomping cephalopod is just a dragon in disguise.
But I digress, this isn’t an essay about my ill-conceived misconceptions, but a review of a novel that draws influences from many genres beyond New Weird. There are touches of Epic Fantasy (cross country travelogues, complete with aloof, drunken swordsmen and tangential encounters with ravenous tribes) and Urban Fantasy (with a few battle scenes that would make the film version of Children of Men jealous), dusty old detective novels (with noirish undertones galore), but most interesting are the ties, intentional or not, to Cyberpunk and near-future Science Fiction. Among the new characters introduced is Malum, a gang leader and Vampyre, who reveals the seedy underbelly of Villiren. His story arc, full of gang politics, cigarettes, smuggling and whores, a constant reminder that this is a tale told not in the past, on some fantastical other world, but in a far future of our own. This isn’t your grandma’s Fantasy:
"Under a sleet-filled sky, in a area of the city currently blocked off for renovation, Malum and the banHe had words.
The banHe smoked his roll-up nervously, as if paranoid, though there were always a couple of his thugs loitering nearby, their boots crunching on the vacant rubble-patch. This place used to be an educational establishment until the rents got too high, but now it was marked out for being turned into a larger apartment block. At the moment, it made a good place to meet: there were no places to hide a crossbow, not even enough cover behind which someone could crouch with a blade.
‘What is it, Malum?’ the banHe enquired, an almost musical quality to his voice.
‘Portreeve says there’s going to be a massive march of strikers heading through the northern districts – protests from stevedores on the docks, support from the smaller merchants, that sort of thing.’ ‘What they angry about?’
‘Dangerous working conditions mainly.’
‘Why ain’t they taking it up with their employers? What’s Lutto got to do with it? It’s a free market, right?’ Malum smirked. ‘C’mon, you know better than that, Dannan. Private companies in this city means no one takes responsibility for things like deaths occurring at work – mainly from hypothermia at the moment. No one wants to work shit jobs for shit money in the ice, especially when they’re dying all round, but their employers say shut up or they’ll just ship in cheaper workers from off-island. Even talk of slaves coming in to work for next to nothing, though Lutto told me that he’s uncomfortable with that – might spoil his image back in Villjamur. Not even the Inquisition can get involved, in case it sends out a bad signal – that there isn’t much democracy here. Got to create the illusion of freedom just to placate the rest of the masses.’"
This is balanced by the more traditional stories of Randur and Brynd Lathraea, both returning, rather dubiously, from Nights of Villjamur. Their’s are stories of quests and tactical, large scale warfare, racial tensions, sword fights and invading armies. This balance lends the novel more variety than its predecessor and shows Newton’s ability to tackle large scale stories from multiple angles. That said, the story meanders through the first 2/3rds of the book, dropping storylines and characters for long periods of time while focusing on others, and could have used some tightening and better pacing leading up to the, admittedly, page-turning climax.
The crutch of the novel is Villiren. A Fantasy version of Los Angeles, Villiren lives off the debauchery and sin of its inhabitants. Gangs rule the streets, and inanimate, lifeless sex golems fill the beds of all damned souls waiting for the sun to die. It’s reputed to be the wealthiest city in the archipelago, but lacks a real defined governmental system, instead letting the gangs and a corrupt Port Reeve (whatever that is) run the show. Newton’s proving himself to be adept at creating these Gormenghast-esque settings, infused with as much character and importance as any of the living characters, but forgets that, ultimately, the reader has to invest themselves in the city if they’re supposed to fear for its safety. Villiren is as fully realized as Villjamur, but I often felt it would be better if it were just invaded and destroyed, for there was little worth saving. To Newton’s credit, one of his characters struggles with this very concept, but when most of the story is told through the eyes of outsiders to the city, who struggle with its chaotic personality, it becomes hard to empathize with Villiren’s plight. As they title suggests, Villiren is a city on the edge of ruin, it’s fucked no matter what happens, so why bother to save it? Distressingly, it’s what’s most recognizable in Villiren that makes it so vile. Newton draws upon our world and gets too many of the little details alarmingly right.
Again, like Nights of Villjamur before it, City of Ruin has a detective story at its heart, but Newton lets the spider cat out of the bag on page one. Rather than explore and reveal the mystery through the eyes of Rumex Jeryd, the investigator, we’re introduced to the killers in the prologue of the novel. Sure, their motives are cloudy, and the reveal is genuinely pleasing and twisted, but much of the tension whodunnit fun is stolen from Jeryd’s story when the reader already knows so much more than he does. As he searches for the identity of the murderer, he seems more like an old, weary, bumbling fool rather than a seasoned pro.
The characters that return from Nights of Villjamur are all fleshed out further, but I constantly felt like they (aside from Brynd Lathraea, who has an honest, necessary reason for being in the city) were forced into Villiren’s story, as opposed to an natural piece of the puzzle. With Newton returning to Villjamur in the third volume of the series, I would have appreciated if he took a Steven Erikson-like approach, introducing a new cast of characters for us to learn and love, eventually merging their stories with those from the first novel. As it stands, the old faces were familiar, but got in the way of Malum, Lupus and Beami, (newcomers all, and sharing in the most interesting storyline of the novel.)
"It entered the deep night, a spider reaching taller than a soldier. Street by street, the thing retched thick silk out of itself to cross the walls, using the fibrous substance to edge along improbable corners. Two, then four legs, to scale a wall – six, then eight, to get up on to the steps of a watchtower, and it finally located a fine view across the rooftops of Villiren. Fibrous-skin tissue trapped pockets of air and, as tidal roars emerged from the distance, the creature exhaled.
A couple walked by, handy-sized enough to slaughter perhaps, their shoes tap-tapping below – but No, not them, not now, it reflected – and it slipped down off the edge of a stone stairway to stand horizontally, at a point where observation took on a new perspective. Snow fell sideways, gentle flecks at first, then something more acute, adding to the brooding intensity of the streets. Within this umbra, the spider loitered.
As people sifted through the avenues and alleyways, it sensed them by an alteration in the chemistry of the air, in minute vibrations, so no matter where they were they couldn’t hide. With precision, the spider edged across to a firm overhang constructed from more recent, reliable stone. Webbing drooled again, then the creature lowered itself steadily, suspended by silk alone, twisting like a dancer in the wind. Lanes spread before it, grid-like across a plain of mathematical precision. The frequency of citizens passing below had fallen over the last hour; now only a handful of people remained out to brave the extreme cold. It could almost sense their fear.
One of them had to be chosen – not too young, not too old. The world collapsed into angles and probabilities as the creature made a controlled spiral to the ground.
Scuttling into the darkness, the spider went in search of fresh meat."
With the release of Nights of Villjamur, Newton’s prose was divisive for its loose, stream-of-conciousness style. People either loved it or hated it. Strikingly, especially to those expecting a Fantasy novel (as it’s generally marketed as), the prose is very contemporary, a seemingly intentional move on Newton’s part to, again, solidify the fact that this tale is being told on a future version of our world, far removed from contemporary times, but with echoes of our language and culture still intact. This anachronistic language fits in the Cyberpunk-esque Villiren much better than it did in the Medieval-esque Villjamur, especially when dealing with the locals; it’s like comparing the expectations when a Scottish farmer opens his mouth to a SoCal teenager. Newton is a better writer in City of Ruin, but it will likely do little to change the minds of those who were put off by the prose in Nights of Villjamur.
It’s clear, also, that Newton has things to say. Like his inspiration China Mieville, Newton fills his novel with political and social commentary, reflecting on the state of our world, our culture and our cities through the destruction of those in his novel. Beyond the parallels between Villiren and Los Angeles (with a bit of London thrown in, I expect), Newton explores racism, sexuality and prejudice, though never hits you over the head with his philosophies. If there’s one are where Newton improved immensely, it’s this. Unlike Nights of Villjamur, much of the commentary and philosophy evolves naturally from the plot, rather than being revealed by blatant internal monolgues by the characters.
Rather than being intimidating in its ‘weirdness’, City of Ruin is, instead, an fantastically inventive look at familiar tropes and archetypes, and full of visual marvel. As with Nights of Villjamur, City of Ruin further proves that Newton’s an author worth watching closely. Pulling from its myriad influences, City of Ruin takes the best of many genres and blends them together into a refreshing mosaic, never quite letting the reader get comfortable with their preconceptions, and constantly pushes at the boundaries of imagination. If City of Ruin is an example of the (New?) New Weird, then it might not be as brain-bending and weird as I’d feared, but it is bloody good.(less)