Friday, June 24, 2011

The Future of Epic Fantasy: An In-Depth Look at The Dragon's Path

A Shadow in SummerIf you don’t know the work of Daniel Abraham, then shame on you.  You should.  He is one of the most original and thoughtful writers in contemporary epic fantasy literature.  Abraham came to prominence with the publication of The Long Price Quartet, a fantasy series set in an Asian environment and focused on the relationship between magic, economics, and politics.  But Abraham does not only write epic fantasy literature.  He writes urban fantasy (The Black Sun’s Daughter series) under the pseudonym MLN Hanover, and science fiction (The Expanse series) as James S. A. Corey.  Abraham was a student of George R. R. Martin, and works closely with him (he has been entrusted with providing the text to a graphic novel version of A Game of Thrones), though any foray into Abraham’s books will prove his originality and differences from Martin.

Abraham’s work gives us a fascinating glimpse into the changing face of epic fantasy, especially in light of Martin’s work.  Martin has largely been credited with bringing a gritty realism to the epic fantasy genre, one that focuses on the realpolitik and the will to power lying behind social facades.  This is not to say that magic and the fantastical do not figure into Martin’s books, only that they take a back-seat to the real focus of the story, the interaction of characters attempting to survive in a brutal, power-hungry world. [Note: This article contains spoilers about the novel The Dragon's Path]

The Dragon's PathAbraham also writes in a no-frills, realist manner.  He holds magic at a distance (for now, at least), and he follows his characters as they maneuver through a budding civil war.  However, Abraham, more than other writers in epic fantasy right now, places economics front and center in his narrative.  This was true of the Long Price Quartet, and it is true of The Dagger and the Coin.  Indeed, one of the main characters of The Dragon’s Path, Cithrin, has been raised as an indentured servant in a bank, and comes of age in the novel as she takes control of a branch of the Medean bank, based loosely on the banks run by the Medici in the 14th and 15th centuries.  Abraham’s banks are rather like transnational corporations; they operate independently of kingdoms, and maintain their own networks of communication and interest.  Their power extends deep into the social fabric, enabling the economies of the cities and exerting influence on their governance.  His world building therefore embraces not only the military maneuvers of kingdoms, but also their trade routes, their consumption, and their financial institutions.

The plot of The Dragon’s Path initially revolves around Cithrin’s escape from the city of Vanai.  Upon hearing of the imminent conquest of the city by the forces of the northern kingdom of Antea, Cithrin is charged with smuggling the Vanai branch’s gold and jewels out of the city and safely to the branch in Carse.  The novel, however, is told from 5 points of view, of which Cithrin is only one.  Marcus Wester is a famous war hero turned mercenary.  Wester lost his wife and daughter in an earlier civil war, and comes to protect Cithrin in her journey in personal reparation for his inability to protect them.  Cithrin and Wester never make it to Carse, and Cithrin attempts to set up a bank branch in Porte Oliva, supported by Wester’s military experience.

Geder Palliako is a soldier of Antea, initially part of the invading army that conquers Vanai.  He is a scholar interested in “speculative essays” (a reference to SF readers?) and the history of the remote past.  Nevertheless, through a series of political maneuvers in Vanai, he becomes the governor of the city, with disastrous consequences (see below).  The other “points of view” belong to Dawson Kalliam and his wife Clara, who are fully immersed in the politics of Camnipol, the capital of Antea.  Kalliam is a wealthy aristocrat, concerned with protecting the privileges of the nobility.  His feud with the populist figure Curtin Issandrian provides the central political instability of the novel.  His wife Clara attains a voice later in the novel, as her relationships with other women at court becomes important to Kalliam’s strategy.  Although not “point of view” characters, I should also mention Basrahip, a mysterious priest of the Spider Goddess who Geder brings back to Camnipol, and Master Kit, the leader of a theater group who turns out to be an apostate from Basrahip’s cult.  This latter narrative is underdeveloped in this book, but every indication suggests that the emergence of the spider cult will become the central focus of the series.

Much has been made of Abraham’s embrace of a “European” setting for this epic fantasy (he had set his Long Price Quartet very successfully in an Asian setting).  He has suggested that one of the reasons for this was to engage with the origins of epic fantasy in the West.  Indeed, Abraham foregrounds and complicates some key themes that are integral to the genre as a whole: the sense of nostalgia, an anxiety with social complexity, and the coming of age drama. He complicates and comments on each one of these, and his book becomes an exploration of the parameters of the genre itself.  Abraham himself has commented on the importance of nostalgia for the epic fantasy genre:

“I don't find fantasy to be more or less suited to philosophical questions than any other genre, really. I think that the soul of fantasy—or second-world fantasy at least—is our problematic relationship with nostalgia. The impulse to return to a golden age seems to be pretty close to the bone, at least in western cultures, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if it's a human universal. For me, it's tied up with the experience of aging and the impulse to recapture youth. Epic fantasy, I think, takes its power from that. We create golden eras and either celebrate them or—more often—mourn their loss.”

Perhaps in reaction to this nostalgia, the past in The Dragon’s Path is not the nostalgic moment of purity, and the social cohesion of the past was an enforced slavery.  The past here is a past of civil war and racial engineering.  The races of Abraham’s world live in the wake of the dragons, creators of 12 of the races and overlords who killed each other off in a massive civil war.  To travel down the “dragon’s path” in this book is to move closer and closer to civil strife and violent self-destruction.  Human beings have moved down this past before, and the character of Marcus Wester is a representative of the ensuing destruction.  A distinguished military leader from a previous (human) civil war, Marcus watched his wife and daughter die at the hands of the man he served.  The past does not appear as a golden one to him; it haunts him in his dreams.  His protection of Cithrin provides occasion for him to potentially redeem himself.

The past is also one of racial enslavement.  Abraham’s world has 13 races, each with a distinctive look and set of abilities.  Many have complained that Abraham’s description of the races is not as detailed as it needs to be, and this is true.  We do not get a full-fledged description of the origin of the races, or their histories.  However, from the text and from information posted on Abraham’s website (see “An Introduction to the Taxonomy of Races” there), it seems to be the case that the dragons created 12 of the races from the original stock of the “Firstbloods.”  Firstbloods are the most numerous of the races, and served as the original slaves.  Other races were created to fulfill other, more specialized functions.  When the dragons disappear, however, the Firstbloods become predominant through sheer numbers.  At any rate, the characters of Abraham’s book still live in light of the fact that they were created more or less as slave races, even the so-called “Master Races.”

The races, of course, also live with the specter of repetition, that they will repeat the mistakes of the dragons and contribute to the crumbling of the entire society.  There really is no Sauron here, no force of evil, no “Dark One.”  The force of destruction, the agent of chaos, are the races, seeking for their own interests in and through and around their social institutions.  Society in The Dragon’s Path, tends towards dissolution (“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”).  It cannot be held together by a single person, however powerful and skilled.  A good deal of the plot centers around the court of King Simeon of Antea, who must navigate between a cabal of courtiers concerned with the rights of farmers, and a second faction, headed by Dawson Kalliam, that seeks to protect the prerogatives of the hereditary nobility.  Both sides negotiate with foreign powers, and it is only through the intervention of a unique, uncanny character that a plot to kill the prince of the realm comes to light.  In all of this, the king has the least amount of power, and the least insight.

There is one character who does become nostalgic for the past: Geder, the scholar-knight who is unexpectedly put in charge of occupied Vanai.  Geder is placed in charge of the city when certain elements of King Simeon’s court find it helpful for the occupation to fail.  Geder is set up for failure.  He is more scholar than soldier, and would rather read his “speculative essays” than lead a city.  He finds that his “speculative” reading is no preparation for governing.  In fact, Geder’s time as “Protector” of Vanai makes him a mass murderer.  He orders the entire city exterminated because of a personal affront (occasioned by his own ineptitude).  It is his nostalgic fascination with the past that also propels him, during his travels later in the book, to explore the outer reaches of the kingdom in search of a long-lost weapon.

But Abraham does not rest in simply showing the power games of his world, though he does this relatively well.  He also throws a unique wrench into the works, by asking how that politics would be different if there were a truth-teller.  The more satisfying narrative—the one concerning the imperial court of Camnipol—is transformed with the introduction of Basrahip, a mysterious priest of the Spider Goddess Geder encountered in the east, with the uncanny ability to discern whether someone is telling the truth or not.  It is not at all clear from the book that this is a good thing, but it eventually leads to the discovery of the plot to kill Simeon’s son, Prince Aster.  The reader does not know, of course, where the Basrahip narrative will go, but it is strongly hinted that Geder has once again made a critical mistake in bringing the priest back to the capital.  The spider cult represents here an element of the past that could very well be magical, though it is shrouded in mystery at the end of the novel.  The reader gets the sense, however, that even this emergence from the past will very likely lead to destruction.  As the Apostate declares at the opening of the book, the Spider Goddess is “going to eat the world” (p. 10).

Of course, the real strength of Abraham’s writing is his ability to boil down the epic events of the narrative to the decisions and emotional lives of his characters.  For all his concern with world-building and large-scale change, Abraham’s books have always been largely character-driven.  In this respect, the human heart of this book is the narrative surrounding Cithrin and Marcus.  And it is also here that Abraham toys with the traditional “coming of age” trope in fantasy literature.  This narrative shows Cithrin gradually taking her place in a profession dominated by men.  She comes to express her agency, both intellectual and sexual, in the endeavor to establish and maintain the Medean bank in Porte Oliva.  But in the process, she comes to see herself—her body, her sexuality—as a bargaining chip.  Earlier, she explores her sexuality in her budding relationship with the actor Sandr, though Marcus breaks up their tryst at an early stage.  But later, Cithrin uses her sexuality as a way of spying on her banking rival, Qahuar Em, who instead betrays her.  Cithrin comes of age sexually, but it is a painful process, filled with failure, betrayal, and self-commodification.  Yes, Cithrin come to self-discovery, but the results are decidedly mixed.

But it is also in the depiction of human relationships that this book sometimes fails, and in this, I think, lies a danger for contemporary epic fantasy.  When it comes to depictions of suffering, war, intrigue, and will to power, Abraham does very well.  However, in some moments of real human intimacy and insight, his descriptions do not ring true.  For example, at about midway through the book, Cithrin experiences an emotional breakdown in the presence of Master Kit, who persuades her to persevere in setting up her bank:

“You can do this,” he said.  “No, just listen to me. You can do this.”

 “You mean you think I can,” she said.  “Or you expect that I will.”

 “No.  I meant what I said.  You can do this.”

 Something in the back of Cithrin’s mind shifted. (p. 252)

I don’t buy this for a second, even granted the italics for emphasis.  Even if Master Kit has some magical power of persuasion (and this is possible) this moment does not work.  This is an important transition in the book, a moment in which Cithrin begins building up her self-confidence.  The relationship between the characters, I think, does not prepare us well for the brevity of this moment of persuasion.  And the persuasion by repetition is clumsy.  Likewise, I found Marcus’ sudden decision to protect Cithrin as unprepared and unpersuasive.  Or take Marcus’ pop-psychologizing about Cithrin’s plan to keep the Medean bank’s money:

“She’s going to try to keep it,” Yardem said.

 “She’s good at this.  Maybe very good.  And she’s not the kind of girl who stops when she likes something too much” (p. 339). 

This is almost painfully bad, and relatively unprepared in the text.  We’ve really not seen this fully in Cithrin, and we have to rely on Marcus’ clumsy observation to establish something about the character.  It is almost as if Abraham gambles on finding the moments of human hope, understanding, and friendship amidst the turmoil of a power-hungry world, and then falters occasionally when it comes to expressing them.

This is a real danger in epic fantasy literature, and one that is especially problematic for someone like Abraham who attempts admirably to show how historical events are human events.  Part of the reaction of writers like Abraham and Martin against Tolkien is the representation of world events in a gritty, violent, disillusioned manner.  But the novel still offers a picture of humanity to the reader, and asks, “Is this the way you are?”  My fear is that contemporary epic fantasy could become so invested in power that it fails to persuasively tell us about ourselves in our full complexity.  The ideal type here, I think, is Tolstoy (and why shouldn’t we hold our fantasy writers to such ideals?).  To my reading, no one has combined the personal and the epic, the local and the transnational, as well as Tolstoy did in War and Peace.  Tolstoy didn’t much care for magic, but narratively speaking walked the line that Abraham attempts to walk, with varying degrees of success.  No novelist has merged the scope of the epic with the psychological complexity of the 19th century novel in as successful a manner.

Finally, Abraham’s book ultimately suffers from first-book syndrome.  It ultimately operates with two major narrative arcs, one centering on Cithrin and Marcus, and one centering on Dawson and Geder.  The latter has a stronger drive to the climax than the former, though the former seems to be where the heart of the book resides.  In the latter, the climax is reached as Geder uses Basrahip to uncover the assassination attempt against the prince.  This works relatively well.  However, in the Cithrin narrative the climax is … an audit.  The Medean Bank sends one of its chief auditors, Paerin Clark, to ensure that Cithrin has not lost or stolen money.  Cithrin passes, and gets herself named the titular head of the Porte Oliva branch (through some clever political maneuvering).  However, there is just something unsatisfying about this as a narrative climax.  And prior to this moment, there is a lot of waiting around for the auditor.  For this reader, this decision did not generate very much narrative momentum.

In general, the book feels like Abraham’s attempt to set up the chess board, before he can spring the real events of the series.  The book therefore doesn’t fully satisfy as a narrative in its own right.  However, there is still plenty to enjoy, from the world-building to the character work to the depiction of the political strategies of the factions of Camnipol, and I am confident that Abraham will carry through on the promise of the situations set up in The Dragon’s Path.  More importantly, the questions Abraham is asking about the genre are questions that all readers of epic fantasy should consider.  The book is accessible, and engaging, with a real sense of creativity.  I recommend it to you.  But also check out The Long Price Quartet, a tragically underrated but brilliant series!