[Please not that while this is published as a review for the 5th volume, it really is about the quintet in its entirety. Also, spoilers abound.]
I caug[Please not that while this is published as a review for the 5th volume, it really is about the quintet in its entirety. Also, spoilers abound.]
I caught a bad case of the summer flu recently and as that tends to make somewhat unfocused, I looked around for some light reading that would not require too much attention to get me through the period of sickness. I eventually hit on Daniel Abraham’s Fantasy series The Dagger and the Coin which, as it turned out, did its job quite nicely, keeping me pleasantly distracted from my frequent bouts of coughing and sneezing. And I even got a bit more than I bargained for, as you will find out if you manage to make your way to the end of this overlong review.
Abraham is also the author of the Long Price Quartet, which in my opinion is one of the best Fantasy series in recent memory, and definitely one of the most originals, eschewing pretty much all of the traditional trappings of Epic Fantasy in a series of four novels that are as concise as they are intricate, taking place in a vaguely Asian-inspired yet highly original world and telling a story that is both epic and essentially human.
The Long Price Quartet won a lot of critical acclaim but apparently was not particularly successful commercial, and it seems not unlikely that this had a part in Abraham's decision to go for something more traditional with his next Fantasy series (he also wrote a series of Paranormal novels as M.L.N. Hanover and co-authored the hugely successfully, still ongoing space opera The Expanse). This starts with a distinctly more sprawling format (five medium-sized volumes rather than four slim ones) and continues with a pseudo-Medieval setting that will seem instantly familiar to most readers of Epic Fantasy. Abraham does not go quite as far as to include elves and dwarves, but he does have dragons, and they do play an important part, even if it is mostly in past events.
The Dagger and the Coin takes place in a world ruled by dragons, dragons who enslaved humans and split them apart into thirteen different races. When the first novel, The Dragon’s Path, starts, the dragons have been gone for thousands of years, presumably disappeared down the eponymous Dragon’s Path into civil war and mutual self-destruction. The Empire of Antea is expanding ruthlessly, and in its grasp for domination it is aided by the priests of the mysterious spider goddess who not only have the ability to discern whether someone is lying or believes what he says, but also possess uncanny powers of conviction. And while Antea, led by its Lord Regent, conquers one nation after another a small group of people set themselves to resist its apparently invincible forces...
So far, so conventional. But Daniel Abraham would not be the author he is if all he did was regurgitate well-chewed Fantasy tropes, and one takes a closer look things start to appear quite different.
(This paranthesis marks the border to spoiler country; so if you're worried about spoilers, do turn back here.)
Starting with its title, The Dagger and the Coin promises to concern itself not only with war and fighting, but also pay attention to finance and banking. This is not totally new especially in historical novels (Abraham gives a nod to Dorothy Dunnett's House of Niccolo series in his acknowledgements) but it's extremely rare especially in Fantasy novels. Dagger and coin, then, mark the two opposed paths of war and banking, each of them also represented by one of the four point of view characters (a number the novels stick to, although with occasional brief excursions to different characters): Geder, the Lord Regent of Antea, and Cithrin, a young but brilliant banker.
Geder is clearly the villain of the series, although that is not obvious from the start: When we first meet him, he comes across the Fantasy version of a geek who is majorly into "speculative history," something his peers wrinkle their collective nose at and is being harsly bullied. In short, Abraham initially sets Geder up as a character to if not like, then at least to sympathize with and gradually reveals his pettiness, his self-delusions and his potential for cruelty. And while Cithrin is clearly Geder's antipode, the novels hint again and again that in some ways she also is his mirror image. Abraham may not quite be on the level with Bertolt Brecht's dictum that robbing a bank is the by far the lesser crime when compared to founding a bank but he also leaves no doubt that banks are not necessarily a force for good and generally more interested in profit than making the world a better place.
The extremes of good and evil do remain clearly distinguishable in The Dagger and the Coin (this is no Grimdark Fantasy), but between them there is a large grey zone where things become murky and hard to distinguish. This is already a far cry from traditional Epic Fantasy, but Abraham even does one better by making precisely the denial of this moral grey zone, the insistence that there is only black and white, only absolute Truth and absolutely Evil, absolute Truth or absolute Falsehood - which is so characteristic of most Epic Fantasy - the central tenet of his version of the very traditional ancient-evil-that-is-being-reawakened, namely the spider goddess and her priests. Except that again things are not at all as they first appear - when two of our protagonists go forth to heroically slay the evil goddess it turns out that she does not even exist. Like the Long Pride Quartet, The Dagger and the Coin is a human-scaled story (dragons notwithstanding); there are no gods here except those created by man and only very few magic, and the ancient evil turns out to be if not man- then dragon-made and feeds (metaphorically) on very human weaknesses.
This is also Fantasy that does not shy away from recognisable references to the real world - the money-making scheme which Cithrin cooks up pretty much describes the invention of paper money and the way the Antean Empire's grasp for world domination unfolds and ultimately fails (not to mention its institutionalized racism) bears more than a passing resemblance to Nazi Germany. And I do not believe that is accident or Abraham running out of ideas of his own, but rather think that he is opening up his world intentionally, inviting the reader to draw those parallels, because he is after more than just telling an entertaining story with his novels. This is probably most obvious in the series' title and the central conflict it designates: Dagger and coin clearly have a symbolic significance beyond the borders of the Fantasy world of the novels. The dagger obviously stands in for violence and conquest (although one does wonder why Abraham did not go for the more genre-appropriate sword – maybe he wanted a reminiscence to “cloak and dagger”? or he is already indicating with that choice that he will not be doing things quite the traditional way? Or maybe it’s just the number of syllables…) while the coin not quite so obviously (not until you’ve actually started reading the novels, that is) stands in for negotiations and compromise. So far, so conventional, but things do get more complicated – for one thing, the dichotomy is not all that clear-cut, good and evil divided by grades rather than essence. Which is something most contemporary Epic Fantasy has figured out these days; Daniel Abraham takes things not simply a step farther, however (like for example Joe Abercrombie does), but in a completely different direction. If the side of peace intends to win, then it cannot simply vanquish the side of conquest, because that would just repeat what they were doing and merely prolong the conflict rather than ending it. Instead, what is needed is to “overcome the idea of war” as one character puts it (more or less, I’m quoting from memory) and find a means to resolve the conflict that does not rely on violence.
In short, The Dagger and the Coin is pacifist Epic Fantasy, and you don’t come across that very often. Of course there is lots of Fantasy that is not about violence at all, but as soon as things get Epic, they usually get violent, too, and it's all about epic heroes swinging epic swords in epic battles. We do not get much of that in these novels – there is barely any fighting at, and what is happening in the way of battles almost always happens offstage (we do get glimpses of the not-so-pretty aftermath, however). Abraham does not quite avoid that other staple of Epic Fantasy narrative, the travelogue, but he does keep it to a minimum and actually uses it for advancing the plot or deepening character development rather than for showing off his world building skills. Of course, the reason for the latter may be that world building is markedly one of the weaker points of The Dagger and the Coin (and where it falls short of Abraham's earlier Fantasy series). It is great in the particulars, especially the descriptive passages which are full of richly imagined, vivid details, but remains strangely vague when it comes to the bigger picture. I am certain that Abraham has everything worked out in his notes, but I felt that he just doesn’t let enough of it filter down into the actual novel, and that can be a bit frustrating. Partly this is certainly intentional - the novels do not spoon-feed the reader with bland infodump gruel but rather serve it up as small tasty morsels over the course of the narrative. Which is very commendable in principle but I could not help but feel that Abraham maybe errs too much on the side of nutritional value and leaves the reader unsatisfied - to name but the most striking instance, it is certainly possible to piece together what must have more or less happened for the dragons to disappear, but one really wishes this would have been fleshed out a bit more.
In general, however, what I probably loved most about The Dagger and the Coin is precisely the way it does not overstate what it has to say, but rather puts it in front of the readers and then lets them draw their own conclusions. So, for example, religion is never explicitly criticized in any of the novels, but I cannot help but find it significant that the spiders whose function is to make the human race destroy itself by inducing them to endless war against each other coalesce into a religion in the mind of their victims. Another example is the choice of point of view characters - not all of them are exactly likeable and in fact one of them is the main villain of the series - who, of course, does not think of himself as a villain at all, and it is left to the reader to see through his rationalizations and self-delusions. And even the likeable characters are not entirely reliable, particular in the way they think about themselves, so the reader has to be constantly critical of them and pay attention to how other characters assess them (not simply taking them at face value, either, of course). Which, it has to be said, somewhat lessens the emotional involvement with the characters, but at the same time considerably enhances the intellectual pleasure to be gotten from the series as a whole. Whether that is an adequate pay-off, every reader will have to decide for themselves, but I for my part certainly enjoyed it. In any case, Abraham is subtle where other authors of Epic Fantasy are ham-fisted, he lets readers work out implications on their own where others work them over with a sledgehammer - and yes, I think that this is another instance of the coin and dagger metaphor, this time raised to a meta-level.
The project Abraham pursues with The Dagger and the Coin is very ambitious; unfortunately, however, in the end he does not quite manage to pull it off. On the level of plot, the way the priests of the spider goddess are defeated seems a bit too neat and pat, and not all that plausible – the cult is rife with apostasy and schism, and still every single of its priests heeds the call of their leader when he calls in a meeting? Based on the way Abraham has described the cult and its purpose before, namely as something that is meant to bring discord and violence wherever it goes, this just seems not very likely. More seriously, there are issues on the level of imagery and concept as well: Frying all of the priests in a giant blast of fire is not exactly what I’d call a non-violent solution and was rather disappointing after Cithrin had declared on several occasions that she was looking for a peaceful way to resolve the conflict. I kept waiting for her to come up with something really ingenious and overwhelmingly clever, and I don't think the actual plan was either.
The most serious problem, however, is that the central conflict is not really solved by means of banking at all - if one wants to be generous, one could say that a workable plan is found by people applying a banker's mindset to the issues to be solved, but that plan itself does not involve anything banking-related at all, but only involves some fairly crude deception and some terminal violence, the latter in particular going completely against the grain of the general argument. I suppose one might argue that this shows that nothing is ever resolved without compromise, even if one has to comprise on making compromises itself, but that seems like a lazy way out. I find another line of thought more interesting, namely that the series at its heart is not about violence vs. negotiation at all, but something quite different.
I said before that one way to view the ending is that Anthea is pacified and the priests of the spider goddess overcome is by applying a certain mindset to the situation, one that is not rooted in war and conquest and would thus just perpetuate the conflict and work in favour of the spiders. In other words, the way to overcome the spiders is to perceive and interpret things in a certain way, a way that is not prescribed by violence. Just to fully accept that there is more than one story to be told about the world already undermines the worldview the spiders attempt to propagate and in the end, Cithrin overcomes them by - telling a different story. As one of the characters in The Spider's War puts it (actual quote this time): “To look at the world and doubt the stories you’ve heard of it is your right. Your responsibility, even."
And this is what I think really lies at the centre of this series - the difference between the dagger and the coin, between warriors and bankers, between conquerors and negotiators is not one of essence, but it lies in the kind of stories they tell about the world and themselves. And it is those stories The Dagger and the Coin is about Once you pay attention to it, you notice the storytelling motif pop up all over the five novels, and all kinds of things start falling into place - there is, for example, the troupe of actors two of the point of view characters travel with for a while in the first volume of the series and which then keep showing up at the most unexpected places. Once one realizes that these novels are mainly about the power of stories this takes on an entirely new significance and a much greater importance. Or take what I said above about untrustworthy point of view characters - this also relates to stories. To quote again: "I find that unless we are very, very careful there can be a difference between who we are and the stories we tell ourselves about who we are." Which, of course, is blatantly what happens to Geder but can also be observed to a lesser degree in several other characters. And there are the priests of the spider goddess who also figure into this theme. They have the special power to discern whether someone is telling a lie or telling a truth - but they fail to see that there is a difference between what is perceived as truth and what is true. Therefore, all they ever can tell is whether someone believes to be telling the truth but not whether what he says is the truth. So every opinion which is believed to be true becomes an absolute truth for them, and as there is an infinite number of opinions - of stories told about the world - none of which they can doubt since are held to be true and therefore must be true, everyone who disagrees of necessity becomes an apostate and needs to be eradicated. I don't think I need to explain how and where this refers to our real world, or, indeed, is easily applicable to current events.
So maybe David Abraham is not missing his subject of the dagger / coin dichotomy at all, but only introduced it as a sleight of hand, to distract us while he introduces another subject, tells a different story. Given the evidence, this appears very likely - but even so, I'd consider The Dagger and the Coin is not quite as great as the Long Price Quartet due to other issues I have mentioned above. I still found it very much worth reading, however, not just because it was a fun romp but because presents the very rare case of a Fantasy series which invites readers to use their minds when reading it and which rewards continued thinking about it after they have closed the final volume. It certainly occupied my thoughts to quite some degree, as you can see by the rather ridiculous length of this review....more
Considering the incredibly large amount of books that she has published, one would expect the works of Joyce Carol Oates to be mostly bland and streamConsidering the incredibly large amount of books that she has published, one would expect the works of Joyce Carol Oates to be mostly bland and streamlined, as easy to consume as they are (presumably) to write. And maybe some of them are, but everything I have read by her so far (the stories in High Lonesome: Selected Stories, 1966-2006, the novel Childwold and now this novella) have swerved very far from the middle of the road and offered challenging, exciting reading experiences. I’ll likely bump into a dud one day, but that day has not yet arrived.
Triumph of the Spider Monkey, then, starts with a baby being pulled out of a duffel bag that was found in a coin locker – and from that moment onwards, this slim but intense book (so intense, in fact, that I actually had to put it for a while down after each chapter) is threaded through with images of trying to break free from a confining inside towards a liberated outside, or its reverse, of being forced from an open outside into a closed inside. And in a way, this mirrors the reader’s situation, because for the 90 pages this novella extends, we find ourselves trapped inside the mind of its narrator, one Bobbie Gotteson. And that mind is emphatically not a pleasant place to be, because Bobbie is a murderer who killed nine women (hacked them to death, as he tells us (or himself?) – the novella does not indulge in any graphic details of the acts, however).
As we are informed very early into the novella, all the voices we are going to encounter are Bobbie’s, even those that purport to be someone else’s.* And there are many voices in Bobbie’s head: Apart from his own and that of a third-person narrator who tells part of his story there is a whole court of law where he stands trial for one of his murders (but only one, because things have to be done properly and in order and one at a time). The voices are not in harmony either, they often interrupt, contradict, or even accuse each other; and Bobbie’s mind in general is quite a bit of a mess, with things tumbling and rattling about in no discernible order – while the novella does start out with Bobbie’s (kind of) birth from a coin locker, there is no narrative continuity for the rest of the novella, its chapters are a succession of fragmented pieces, resonating with fragmented voices that never come together to form a coherent story.
Which actually may not be quite true, because there is Bobbie’s full name which will immediately ring several alarm bells for anyone speaking German. Bobbie Gotteson = “Gottes Sohn” = German for “son of God”. So we get a serial killer as Jesus analogue with his life, as far as we are able to put it together, mirroring that of Jesus, more or less. Unfortunately Oates missed out on dividing the novella into 14 chapters (she opted for 20 instead), but explicit references to Jesus abound, from disciples to crucifixion, and are almost as frequent as the inside / outside imagery. This might be (and probably is) Bobbie attempting to get some meaningful structure into his shattered life, but there might be something more going on as well. It also is hardly a coincidence that a murderer of women is set in parallel to the messiah of a monotheistic, extremely patriarchal religion, but I think even that does not quite exhaust the significance this analogy has for this novella, there is also the aspect that it serves to set Bobbie apart from his fellow men, puts a vast distance between him and everyone else – which also ties in with him being “born” from a coin locker, i.e., nothing human.
It is very hard to write a book about a serial killer without ending up glorifying him in some way or another (all the more so if you are writing it from the inside of his mind) – in fact, Triumph of the Spider Monkey is the first book I have read which manages to avoid this entirely. And this is in spite of the Jesus analogy I just pointed out – or possibly at least partially because of it. For one thing, the novella does not offer a realistic narrative, not even in a sense of realism which would include stream-of-consciousness writing. Triumph of the Spider Monkey is as stylized as it is fragmented and at no moment lets readers forget that they are reading literature rather than peeking through a window into someone’s soul. And yet, even though it is “only” literature, and highly self-conscious literature at that, never pretending to be anything else – or rather (as you probably guessed) precisely because of it -, it tells us more about its subject than any supposedly transparent-to-its-object, telling-it-as-it-is, “unpretentious” writing ever could. I’ve said it on several occasions before (and probably will on several more), but I think one really can’t say it often enough: Realism still is very much overrated as a way of showing truth, especially if that truth is something the reader didn’t already know before.
It is only consequential, then, that the subject of Triumph of the Spider Monkey is not quite what it appears to be on first sight, that it’s not really the portrait of a serial killer. Or rather, that aspect of the novella is but a means to an end, or, to use a different metaphor, the symptom of the disease to which Joyce Carol Oates here offers the pathogenesis, namely loneliness. Bobbie Gotteson is someone who from the very beginning of his life has been cut off from any meaningful contact with other humans, nobody ever has reached out to him, with the result that he ends being caught in a loneliness so deep that the only way he can bridge the gap that parts him from other humans is by violence, effectively destroying what he desires most. Put like this, it does sound rather trite (and do keep in mind that this is just my reading of the novella, you might come up with something entirely different), but that’s another glorious thing about literature, especially of the non-realist variety (although it has to be said that realist literature can achieve that effect,too, but it has to work harder to get there) that you cannot really boil it down to a fabula docet because when all is said and done, literature (good literature, anyway) never is about anything at all but rests in itself, an autonomous work of art. (Of course, that negation of a reality outside itself constitutes a statement, too, but that is something to discuss when I’m doing a post on Theodor W. Adorno’s Ästhetische Theorie, i.e. most likely never.) So, what Triumph of the Spider Monkey really boils down to is “a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” In other words: very strongly recommended.
* We are told this by a footnote, which of course begs the question: who wrote it? Is it by Bobbie, too? Or did some other entity add that footnote?...more
Whenever a new novel by Rachel Aaron is released, there is a lot of squeeing at Maison Larou. Things were no different when No Good Dragon Goes UnpuniWhenever a new novel by Rachel Aaron is released, there is a lot of squeeing at Maison Larou. Things were no different when No Good Dragon Goes Unpunished came out a couple of days ago. This time, however, a bit of grumbling was mixed among the squees as I’d always assumed that The Heartstrikers would be a trilogy only to find out that it will take four or maybe even five volumes until all the mysteries will be revealed. Of course, this also means at least one more novel in the series, so the grumbling was very short-lived in the end.
A new novel by Rachel Aaron is also reason to drop everything else I may currently be reading in order to tackle her most recent offering, and that’s what I did this time, too. No Good Dragon Goes Unpunished (I really do love the titles she comes up with for this series) continues right where One Good Dragon Deserves Another left off, with Julius – aka the Nice Dragon aka the Dragon Gandhi (okay, I believe he is only called that once in the novel but it’s a title that is becoming increasingly appropriate as events unfold) finding out that his New Dragon Order won’t be quite as smooth and easy to establish as he had hoped. But then, he is probably the only one who is at all surprised at it, and even as intrigue and infighting among the Heartstriker clan reach new heights, the reader slowly realizes that the focus of this series is actually shifting away from the dragons towards human magic and its implications, with Marci, Julius’ human partner, maybe not completely taking centre stage but becoming as least as important a protagonist as Julius. So we not only find out on the dragon side of things what Chelsie’s secret is (it’s never explicitly spelled out, but the author heaps up so many clues that it’s obvious that reader is supposed to guess it) but on the human side we learn about more about Merlins and why everyone is so keen to have one.
Overall I have to say that I did not like No Good Dragon Goes Unpunished quite as much as the previous novel in the series. It seems to me to suffer somewhat from middle book syndrome – i.e., when everything is said and done and in spite of all the hectic activity, there is not all that much really happening in this volume and the author seems mostly concerned with getting all of her pieces in place for the end game. Also, there is not enough Bob in this installment (admittedly, there obviously can never be enough Bob, but even so, he is very much in the background this time). Which does not mind that this is a bad novel, quite to the contrary, it is fun as always, just does not quite reach the dizzying heights of reading glee which One Good Dragon Deserves Another scaled. And it should be added that one notices this only after finishing the novel and thinking about it – I believe that Rachel Aaron could not write a dull book if her life depended on it, and No Good Dragon Goes Unpunished is exactly the kind of compulsive and emotionally engaging page-turner that one has come to expect from her.
There was some more grumbling on my part at the end, because there’s a cliffhanger there, and I strongly dislike cliffhangers and think that their use should be punishable by law. At least it’s not the hanging-from-a-cliff-by-their-fingernails kind of cliffhanger, but more the WTF-just-happened-I-want-to-know-what-this-means-right-away kind. But that is a very minor niggle, and needless to say, the fourth volume can’t come fast enough for me....more
O’Brian’s writing is often compared to Jane Austen, but I strongly suspect that this is just a widespread reflex to which pretty much anything set inO’Brian’s writing is often compared to Jane Austen, but I strongly suspect that this is just a widespread reflex to which pretty much anything set in the Regency period is somehow “like Jane Austen.” There is at least some justice to it in this case, in so far as the implied narrator of the Aubrey-Maturin novels is clearly a contemporary and shares not only the conceptions and prejudices of his characters but also their language – as manifest not just in the extensive (and to the reader often exasperating) use of nautical terms but in O’Brians’s general choice of words, the way he constructs long periods, indeed even the very rhythm of his prose is somehow evocative of the late 18th / early 19th century. However, while on one hand the narrator appears completely immersed in the period in which the novels take place, at the same time he is clearly not and writes with a distinct detachment, watching the to-and-fro on both land and sea from a distance, with wry amusement and ever-present irony.
And irony is, I think, the key word here – the author who O’Brian makes me most think of is not Jane Austen (whose irony, it seems to me, is more of the tongue-in-cheek variety and something quite different) but Thomas Mann the vast majority of whose narrators also cultivate this involved-but-not-really-commited attitude (and his protagonist often as well – as when Joseph is said to have become in all respects like an Egyptian – “but with reservations”). Thomas Mann is one of the most imitated writers of the twentieth century, but for some reason it seems to be next to impossible to imitate him successfully – while there is a plethora of excellent, even great Faulkner epigones (to name just one example), almost everyone attempting to write in the vein of Thomas Mann seems to end up second- or third-rate (if not worse), mostly due to a vapid and anaemic prose style. Now, one can call O’Brian’s writing a lot of things, but anaemic is certainly not one of them. I suspect that the reason O’Brian succeeds where so many others have failed is that he applies Thomas Mann’s distinct brand of irony not to the novel of ideas but to the historical novel, where the genre itself pretty much guarantees a certain saturation with vivid details and a certain groundedness which prevents a text from pirouetting endlessly around itself, producing nothing but narcissistic self-centeredness – another trap those who would follow in the footsteps of Thomas Mann like to fall into.
In addition the characteristic hovering of irony, the vacillating between two sides of a border without coming down on either seems an almost too perfect solution for what is maybe the central dilemma of the traditional historical novel (i.e., not postmodern and not written by William T. Vollmann) – to present a past period as it has been experienced by its contemporaries while at the same time remaining aware of the basic impossibility of that undertaking, simultaneously immersing the reader in a historical epoch and reminding him that this immersion is an illusion, mere make-believe and an approximation at best. This is a very fine line to walk, and most historical novels tend to fall off to one side or the other – which is not necessarily a bad thing, in fact the results can be quite fascinating, especially if the novel crashes on the immersion side of the divide. O’Brian, however, always remains in perfect balance, walking the tightrope in supreme confidence. In fact, he sometimes makes it look too easy – this is always a danger of irony, that it just is not very dangerous but plays things safe, that the narrator’s equanimous distance from events prevents them from touching him too deeply.
Treason’s Harbour – to say at least a sentence or two about the actual book I’m supposed to be writing about here – does not quite escape this, I think. While it speeds things up again after the non-events of The Ionian Mission, spicing things up mainly with some espionage intrigue, it certainly chuffs along pleasantly enough, and it’s of course always a delight to let oneself be carried along by the rhythm of O’Brians prose. But I felt the novel was lacking a bit in emotional involvement. So I may have liked this chapter in the Aubrey-Maturin saga just a tad less than some previous instalments, but overall I still loved and remain eager to continue....more