The Dagger and the Coin (Series) by Daniel Abraham
Reviewing an entire series in one fell swoop can be tricky. Luckily, I’ve got the perfect metaphor to carry us through this one . . . but more on that in a moment. First, here’s a quick introduction for those who’re not familiar with the series.
The Dagger and the Coin is a fantasy quintet that blends myth, violence and political intrigue to create an entertaining and thought-provoking tale about what can happen when absolute power is placed in the hands of one man. Daniel Abraham shows us how quickly and unexpectedly a kingdom can dissolve into chaos and war, and how easy it is for an entire civilisation to succumb to fear and prejudice.
What I like most about Daniel Abraham’s writing is his clean, engaging style. He doesn’t dazzle us with descriptions or confuse us with cleverness. Instead, he patiently draws us in with easy prose and a conversational tone that eases the reader into a familiar, close relationship with each character. Sometimes spectacular, often laugh-out-loud funny and always engaging: Daniel Abraham has crafted a character-driven series that becomes stronger and more complex with each instalment.
Kind of like a river.
Let’s start at the beginning (or should I say ‘source’?): The Dragon’s Path, in which various characters’ lives first begin to trickle downhill and mingle together. Abraham does a creditable job of introducing the protagonists – including Cithrin (a banker’s apprentice), Marcus (a jaded mercenary) and Geder (a quixotic nobleman) – using alternating PoV chapters. Most of these the reader will continue to follow throughout the series . . . and through both sides of the conflict.
Right from the get-go, Cithrin and Geder are established as the ‘major’ characters. Already embarked on radically divergent paths, events soon begin to shape their thoughts and personalities in very different ways that nonetheless force both to shed their innocent naïveté. That Abraham juxtaposes Cithrin (representing trade, or ‘coin’) and Geder (symbolising war, or the ‘dagger’/‘dragon’s path’) isn’t immediately obvious in The Dragon’s Path; but it soon becomes a pivotal part of the saga.
Some readers dislike being thrown into a secondary world and bombarded with unfamiliar names and races and cities. I’ll admit that I found The Dragon’s Path a bit confusing at first! But while it takes roughly the first half of the book for the characters to fully begin to form, the other aspects of the world soon fall into place. Abraham sacrifices clarity at the beginning in order to convey the diversity of his world in a more organic way, and I guarantee it won’t be long before you’re familiar with all thirteen races: pale, slender Cinnae and black, chitinous Timzinae; sharp-toothed Tralgu and tusked Yemmu; otter-pelted Kurtadam and the elusive Drowned. (For those who are interested, Abraham actually has a handy guide on his website – creatively presented as a historical record!)
Aside from his agreeable prose, another distinguishing feature of Abraham’s writing is his depiction of female characters – something that he also carries over into The Expanse, his co-written SF series published under the pen name James S.A. Corey. Both female leads in The Dagger and the Coin are strong in different ways (none of which, thankfully, involve clichéd and improbable skill with sex or weapons) and are equally as well-drawn and likeable as Naomi, Bobbie, Avasarala and co in The Expanse. Cithrin, although very young, is well-versed in her knowledge of banking and finance, and skilfully uses this knowledge to turn many poor situations to her advantage; while the much older Clara exploits her gender’s inferior position within society to acquire items and information that her husband and sons aren’t able to access.
The Dragon’s Path does an excellent job of setting future events in motion, and in hindsight gives the reader some intriguing hints about the bigger picture. It also successfully establishes characters and setting, and Abraham displays impressive originality in terms of worldbuilding. But he also isn’t ashamed to embrace the familiar, and so the perplexed reader will soon find themselves grounded by a comforting backdrop of classic fantasy elements that I like to think of as the author’s gentle homage to the genre.
This is particularly evident in book two, The King’s Blood, in which mercenary Marcus and apostate Kit embark on a quest to find a magic sword and kill an evil goddess. Agreed, this sounds like the clichéd plot of an old role-playing game; yet seeing these two cool characters paired up on a wild adventure is actually a LOT of fun. The fact that Abraham acknowledges the cliché with a few dry remarks from Marcus is a perfect example of how he’s using The Dagger and the Coin not only to pay tribute to traditional fantasy elements but also to mess around with (and poke fun at!) our expectations.
If the events of The Dagger & the Coin are a river with The Dragon’s Path as their source, then The King’s Blood is the young river stage: downhill (obviously…), and increasing pace rapidly. Book two takes a somewhat darker turn and remains more or less focused within the city of Camnipol, where social and political discord is beginning to form cracks in this once-stable capital.
The King’s Blood unfolds the tale of Camnipol’s gradual descent into civil war, which we witness through two main PoVs – each on a different side of the conflict. These two characters (who shall remain unnamed because SPOILERS) are really well written. In The Dragon’s Path, both were likeable for different reasons, but now we’re presented with a new side of them. Both have their reasons for doing what they do, but it’s difficult to decide which is right and which is wrong. The ambiguity of the characters and the fallout from their decisions – not to mention the reader’s conflicted emotional response to certain characters’ story arcs – creates a darker tone than book one, seeping subtly into the narrative and setting the mood for the rest of the series.
On a lighter note, I think most readers tend to be pleasantly surprised by how interesting Cithrin’s chapters are. Even for someone like me (i.e. someone who can barely look at a bank statement without getting cross-eyed) the details of her financial schemes actually become one of the most exciting plot points. But although Cithrin plays a crucial role in future events, she spends much of book two waiting in the wings.
No matter, though, because there’s another character in The King’s Blood who may surprise you. Clara, the middle-aged wife of Baron Dawson Kalliam, receives a lot more page time here than in The Dragon’s Path. Mother to four children, Clara’s main purpose is maintaining the house and participating in social events with other wives of the rich and powerful. This might not sound like the makings of an interesting character, but in reality it’s a breath of fresh air from the morally-grey ‘grimdark’ antiheroes that populate (and dominate) so much of recent fantasy. Lady Kalliam has a unique perspective on events; she’s a very brave and sympathetic character, and the way she deals with her trials and tribulations while still remaining gracious is lovely to read about.
As you can tell by now, Abraham’s protagonists are the undisputed stars of the stage. But likeable characters alone are rarely enough to win over most readers. That might explain why the adjective I see most often used to describe the Dagger and Coin series is ‘good’ . . . which, while positive, is about as lukewarm as praise gets. I suspect that the relatively slow pace is the main reason many people aren’t blown away by the series early on, and it’s true that neither The Dragons Path nor The King’s Blood could ever be described as ‘rip-roaring’.
However, those who persevere will find that the series isn’t so much slow as it is slow-burn; and The Tyrant’s Law, the middle novel in the quintet, is like the first major set of waterfalls in our story-river’s path. As in the first two books, the story and the action begin slowly and build steadily. But there’s a turning point around the halfway mark when The Tyrant’s Law starts to thrum with a real sense of urgency, and the final quarter begins a brilliantly tense convergence between two of the characters.
The world of The Dagger and the Coin seems to exist in spite of the story, not because of it. It’s vivid but organic, which (for me, at least) is the most vital aspect of convincing, immersive worldbuilding. The Tyrant’s Law is the first book in the series where the diversity of the different races becomes a contentious issue, and the fact that we the reader have already spent two books peacefully co-existing with those who are now reviled makes us feel especially uncomfortable with the rising bigotry.
Geder’s chapters are particularly powerful here, and the tragic-comic story of his unwitting rise to power continues to be fantastically told. The transition of a clumsy, loveably inept minor noble into a hateful yet well-meaning tyrant has been so subtle and seamless that it remains hard not to feel sympathetic towards him . . . whilst also wanting to smack him ‘round the head with the flat of Marcus’ culling blade. Geder’s volatile, pliant nature (and the sinister figure who’s taking advantage of it, of course) tends to be the catalyst for most of the events from here on in.
It really is compelling to see how Geder – blinded by good intentions and personal insecurity – drags an entire country along behind him as he stumbles over the edge of each waterfall. And if The Tyrant’s Law is the tumbling waterfall, then The Widow’s House is unquestionably the calmer, middle stage of the Dagger & Coin story-river. Languid and meandering, it is a marked change of pace from the excitement of book three. However, it continues steadily towards the end of its journey: calm on the surface, but shedding innocent corpses in its wake like silt deposits and leaving the ground behind it irrevocably altered.
Once again, the protagonists are the most engaging feature of The Widow’s House; and once again, Geder Palliako edges into the lead as my personal favourite. The Lord Regent is child-like and peevish, petulant and bitter . . . yet strangely sympathetic at the same time. He’s the nicest of people, and he’s the villain of the piece; a tyrant who simply does not realise he’s a tyrant. A social outcast for most of his early life, he’s so desperate to be liked that he’s blind to the fact that everyone is terrified of him. He’s ruled by his own insecurities, which are fuelled and manipulated by Geder’s most trusted ‘friend’: Basrahip, the spider-priest pulling Geder’s strings in an attempt to turn Camnipol into a platform for the chaotic cult of the spider goddess.
Meanwhile, the insidious currents of treachery finally start to draw the other PoVs together. Cithrin’s chapters are often the most interesting: I mentioned earlier that she is the ‘coin’ in The Dagger and the Coin, and she uses manipulation and money (rather than force) to undermine her enemies. This thread of the story focuses entirely on economics, and is well written and original. (I actually would have liked to see Cithrin’s manoeuvring play an even bigger part. Perhaps we might see a spinoff at some point in the future, Mr. A?)
So. Geder is intriguing, Cithrin is cunning . . . but the real darling of The Widow’s House is Clara. Brave, practical and loyal, her chapters always make for a pleasantly easy read – a trend which continues into book five, The Spider’s War.
The Widow’s House may have lulled us into believing that The Spider’s War will be a quick, smooth strait that takes us through to the end . . . but not so in our Dagger and Coin river. Just as you think you’re nearing the mouth you realise too late that there’s one more unseen waterfall. Only those who survive the drop will crawl from the wreckage to finally paddle down the delta and float off in their own separate directions.
From the very beginning of The Dagger and the Coin, Abraham uses Geder’s story arc to paint an increasingly horrifying scenario of a world where absolute power is held by one man alone. Nowhere is this more apparent than the final book. It’s hard to be specific without vomiting spoilers (or spiders) all over the page, so I’ll switch to vagueness for this last part . . .
What a finale! The Spider’s War is a worthy – though somewhat bittersweet – ending to an original and (at times) unpredictable fantasy series. Abraham demonstrates how alternating PoVs should be used: switching back and forth with skill and cunning, heightening tension and uncertainty in the build-up to the big finish. Moreover, he also takes the time to thoroughly wrap up surviving characters’ story arcs in a variety of (mostly) satisfying ways, striking a fine balance between breathless action and patient closure.
There isn’t much else I can say without repeating myself. The characters are developed consistently and intriguingly (although, amazingly, they can still surprise us . . . even after spending five books in their company, and even when their actions are in no way at odds with what we know about them as a character), and the writing style remains as engaging as ever. The Spider’s War is certainly one of the strongest Dagger and Coin instalments, and is pretty much everything you could ask for in a finale. And while there’s nothing remotely resembling a cliffhanger, there are plenty of plot threads that are tied off less tightly than others – welcoming (but not demanding) an eventual return to the Dagger & Coin universe.
But for now, that river has run its course. I highly recommend Daniel Abraham’s work to any and all readers of SFF, and I’ll certainly be taking a look at his Long Price Quartet in the near future. Some people say the best writers are the ones who, at the end of a series, leave you desperate for more. However, much rarer (and arguably more special) are the voices and the tales that we choose to revisit. And having finished The Spider’s War I know for a certainty that I’ll be returning to Cithrin, Clara, Geder and co. in the future. I miss them already.
This review was originally published on Fantasy-Faction on 17th August 2016.