★ ★ ★ 1/2
I cut my reading teeth on fantasy and science fiction. A regular at the local library, I had gone through their “SF/F” offerings by early teens (which is how I came to read The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant) and relied on my babysitting money and the local Waldenbooks for more current fare. The scarcity of material meant I re-read books I owned many, many times. As a result, when I encounter something that feels new in fantasy, that has a fresh take or inspired writing, I tend to gush (in case you are wondering, both N.K. Jemisin’s The Killing Moon and Frances Hardinger’s Fly By Night were dazzling takes on the genre). I was intrigued with the positive buzz about Abraham’s epic fantasy The Dragon’s Path and had it on my radar for some time. Unfortunately, it felt surprisingly familiar.
This feels like a self-conscious book. You know; the kind of book that clearly started with a Big Idea instead of a great story. Abraham has both writing experience and Notable Writing Connections around him, and The Dragon’s Path feels like a genre idea in search of storytelling finesse. In fact, in an afterward interview, Abraham mentions that this book was his foray into a full-length Epic Fantasy. Had it been less self-conscious, or integrated better, or maybe had I just been generally new to the fantasy reading experience, I might have enjoyed it more.
There are four viewpoints in the story along with a fifth character who appears in the prologue and final act. Two viewpoints in the story intertwine early on: Marcus, a former elite soldier turned mercenary, and Cithrin, a half-blood orphan ward of a banking house. Then there are the separate stories of Geder, minor noble and sometime scholar, and Dawson, childhood friend of the king and a highly ranked Baron. They mostly start in the city of Vanai, Marcus trying to get free of likely conscription and Cithrin sent out with a wagon from the banker’s house in the last caravan to leave the city. Geder is experiencing his first campaign and discovering it isn’t nearly as awe-inspiring as the written stories. Dawson is scheming against another Baron in an attempt to spur the king to action. Marcus and Dawson are both experienced while Cithrin and Geder are naive and undergoing journeys of self-discovery. Overall, I enjoyed the characterization. While certainly genre typical, they feel rounded enough to be enjoyable. I was interested in Cithrin’s maturation, and the way the traveling troupe took her under their wing. Marcus was admirable but predictable as the heroic archetype (complete with dead wife and child), and Geder the bumbling youth that gets his chance at power.
A few reviewers make a point of remarking on the uniqueness of Cithrin’s role as female financier and the role of economics in the story, but I confess, I was strongly reminded of Silk in David Eddings’ The Belgariad series and his frequent lectures and demonstrations of the economics of trade and the psychology behind business strategies. Quite honestly, it felt familiar–although still enjoyable. While I respect the idea that Abraham wanted the perspective of the individual as he explores the path to war, changing from four different story lines presents a world-building challenge that doesn’t ever quite resolve. There are the Free Cities, each with their own political history; the Severed Throne, it’s rival and their political intrigue; and thirteen different races. I got the sense that certain events were supposed to be significant, but I rather lacked the context to understand why. Dawson’s plot line with complicated scheming meant to oppose other factions was particularly challenging to follow.
One aspect that sets Abraham apart are are moments of lovely writing:
“It was an evil that the city would weather, as it had before, and no one expected the disaster would come to them in particular. The soul of the city could be summarized with a shrug.”
“‘Good,’ Lerer Palliako said. He was hardly more than a shadow against a shadow, except that the starlight caught his eyes. ‘That’s my good boy.’”
A reviewer I admire mentions that it is one of the few books she re-read, and felt like a re-read was worth it for the extra understanding, once the reader has the general world-sense. I don’t doubt that. The trouble is, I’m no longer a 12 year old limited to the small fantasy section of the local library and my local bookstore. I can barely find time to re-read the few books I feel were excellent the first time around. I have no doubt that a re-read will give me more insight into the dynamics between the races, and the politics behind the Severed Throne–I’m just not sure I care. But I think Abraham will have a great epic for a new generation of fantasy readers to cut their teeth on.