I think I owe Daniel Abraham a favor. Whether it’s entirely due to his novel, the first in a new fantasy series, or whether I read it at precisely the right time, it’s ended a long dry spell in which I’ve been burnt out on big, pseudo-medieval-Europe epic fantasies. All of the familiar building blocks are here: war and trade, kings and courtiers, princes who have to be fostered to nobles who can’t be trusted. But Abraham does interesting and unexpected things with these characters, slowly rolling out a story that I want to read more of.
Marcus Wester is a war-weary mercenary captain, much in the line of Firefly‘s Mal Reynolds. Threatened with the likelihood of being drafted into another military campaign, he hightails it out of the city, pledging his company to protect one of the last trade caravans getting out before the fighting starts. One catch: he hasn’t got a company. But he does know a troupe of actors.
And in this caravan, now being guarded by a bunch of people who only look like they can use a crossbow, is the accumulated wealth of the city branch of a multi-national bank. A fortune in jewels, silks, and ledger-books, being smuggled out of the city by a teenaged girl in disguise. Cithrin bel Sarcour was raised by bankers, but her education in finance hasn’t done much to prepare her for a life of subterfuge and constant fear.
I was dubious about Cithrin. The girl-disguised-as-boy trope is one of my least favorite in literature, and she starts off a passive and rabbity character. But soon enough, fear drives her to determination and the decision to grab back some control of her life. When she finally gets her feet under herself and tells Captain Wester what they’re going to do next, the story really kicks into gear.
This first installment of the Dagger and Coin series falls into the George R.R. Martin school of fantasy: multiple, alternating points of view; morally-ambiguous characters who are often difficult to like; low on magic except for the threat of an old evil returning to a land that’s forgotten it. It’s low on violence, too, at least of the up-close-and-gory kind. Commerce and trade are as important to the plot as swords and bows, in fact, one of the climactic scenes of the novel is an audit. (Lesson learned from K.J. Parker’s Engineer series: watch out for the bureaucrats.) And apparently I didn’t imagine the similarities to Dorothy Dunnett’s House of Niccolo—Abraham cites her influence in the author’s note.
Check the WRL catalog for The Dragon’s Path.