‘Darkhaven’, ‘Goldenfire’ & ‘Windsinger’ by A.F.E. Smith


You could be forgiven for assuming A.F.E. Smith’s debut is a tame, fluffy tale about a magical unicorn. I assumed the same. But trust me when I say that there’s *nothing* tame or fluffy about Darkhaven.The Darkhaven series by A.F.E. Smith

Firstly, let’s get one thing straight: that’s not actually a unicorn. It’s an alicorn; a hybrid of the ‘pure’ Changer (shapeshifting) forms of griffin and unicorn. Why does it matter? Because the Nighshade family pride themselves on the purity of their unique bloodline.
According to its current patriarch – who follows the Targaryen-esque approach of, um, ‘keeping it in the family’ – his daughter’s alicorn form is as shameful as her rebelliousness is unacceptable. (He himself takes the ‘pure’ form of a mighty firedrake, because ‘nothing keeps Darkhaven by Afe Smithpeople honest like the fear of a fire-breathing lizard turning up on their doorstep.’)

And so Darkhaven kicks off with a prison break. Ayla Nightshade, assisted by her brother Myrren, escapes from the citadel – on the same night as their father is brutally murdered by a Changer. Obviously, this looks bad for Ayla, who spends the rest of the book trying to survive long enough to clear her name. But the search for answers turns up some uncomfortable truths about Ayla’s ancestors… and a few dark secrets about the goings-on within Darkhaven’s walls.

Ayla is dynamic and determined; a bit of a ‘damsel in distress’ type, but the writer makes it clear that this is situational – a product of her isolated upbringing rather than any fault in her character. But while Ayla is a likeable enough protagonist, the true stars of the story are Tomas Caraway (a disgraced former Helmsman and struggling alcoholic) and Naeve Sorrow (a mercenary).

In fact, Sorrow is (for me) a highlight of the entire Darkhaven series.

‘I come in peace,’ Sorrow drawled, offering him the knife hilt-first. ‘This was just in case I met anyone I didn’t like on the way.”

Essentially a murder-mystery in a fantasy setting, Darkhaven is a solid debut; not quite great, but certainly very, very good. Goldenfire, on the other hand, is brilliant. Characters who were sketched out in Darkhaven are filled in and brought to life in Goldenfire, as is the steampunkish city of Arkannen. Furthermore, the entire world feels much more three-dimensional, as Goldenfire’s plot is inextricably interwoven with its politics and economicsGoldenfire (Darkhaven #2) by A.F.E. Smith (as well as its characters, of course).

Set three years after the events of Darkhaven, Smith’s second novel explores the idea of an inherent conflict between tradition and science when Ayla Nightshade’s position of absolute power is challenged by an assassination threat from the neighbouring country of Sol Kardis – whose number one export just happens to be firearms. Darkhaven’s struggle to reconcile the inevitable technological advances of an industrial revolution with the need for gun control is a really fascinating underlying aspect of the story. (It’s particularly thought-provoking when political dissenters apply words like ‘tyrant’ and ‘monster’ to our very own Ayla Nightshade.)

Goldenfire is, in many ways, a self-aware deconstruction of judicial and societal issues. It’s also a well-written (and bloody exciting) mystery novel that uses its killer plot and engaging characters to unravel these issues in a succinct, honest and wry – if cynical – manner. I really admire the skill with which Smith carefully picks out narrative details to highlight problematic issues – such as feminism – without ever sounding preachy.

Ree flinched as a dozen heads turned her way. She could see how they expected this to go. Either she and the other girl would become great friends and form their own exclusive little circle separate from the rest, or they’d be bitter rivals who constantly vied to beat each other in training. Those were the only two narratives open to her. That was what happened when you were part of a minority: to everyone else, your identity was intimately bound up with the group you belonged to.

The extract above is taken from one of Goldenfire’s early chapters. In it, Ree Quinn – a noble-born girl from the provinces – is disgruntled to learn that she’s not the only person vying for the distinction of becoming Darkhaven’s first female Helmsman. In her desperation to separate herself from other women and escape the sort of sexist abuse she anticipates receiving from the male hopefuls, she herself unwittingly inflicts that same misogynistic attitude on her female peer. Ree’s hypocrisy isn’t immediately obvious, and just as she learns the error of her ways, so too does Smith ensure her readers emerge a little bit more enlightened than before.

Suspenseful and cleverly crafted, Goldenfire is a massive step up from Darkhaven (and is actually my favourite book of the series so far). From start to finish, every page is pure adventure, and the new characters – Ree, Zander, Penn, Miles – are a welcome and dynamic addition to the existing cast. (The return of Naeve Sorrow is also a HUGE selling point, obviously.) Furthermore, while it builds on the events of Darkhaven whilst also Windsinger (Darkhaven #3) by A.F.E. Smithsubtly setting the stage for Windsinger, the plot of Goldenfire is wonderfully self-contained and its resolution wholly satisfying. It also left me with a big, goofy smile and a desperate urge to read more.

Luckily, Netgalley obliged with an e-ARC of book three, Windsinger – the awesomeness of which I’ve been shamelessly touting on social media for the last couple of weeks. Because even though I thoroughly enjoyed the fast-paced story and light-hearted tone of Goldenfire, there’s no arguing that Windsinger is a better, more fulfilling book.

Chillingly relevant to today’s social and political climate – which, I think we can all agree, is a particularly ripe breeding ground for contention – Windsinger is darker and more serious than its predecessors. The stakes are higher – for Ayla, for her citizens, and for Mirrorvale itself – and issues which had hitherto been present in the background now take centre stage.

‘People are far better at noticing how they’re different than how they’re the same. I see it year after year when I’m training new recruits. And war only brings it out more strongly. It turns everyone into patriots.’ One corner of his mouth turned up. ‘Not that I object to people being proud of their country, obviously. But there’s a difference between that and hating everyone else’s.’

Racism lurks below the surface of Goldenfire; it’s the driving factor behind the Helm’s suspicion of Zander, who is an immigrant from Sol Kardis. In Windsinger, this prejudice is right there in front of us, devolving into discrimination and violence as soon as diplomatic relations between Mirrorvale and Sol Kardis collapse.

The day after Sol Kardis declared war on Mirrorvale, a woman walked right up to Zander in the streets of the fourth ring. ‘Kardise scum,’ she hissed at him. And spat in his face.

[…]

‘For the Mirrorvalese to turn on us that quickly, that violently … it makes me think, maybe they hated us all along. Why else would they be so unable to separate a country from its individual descendants? Maybe they never looked at me and saw a person. Maybe they always just saw a Kardise boy.’

Smith uses Zander’s chapters to foreground incidences of hate crimes in a way that the reader can’t ignore, and heavily emphasises the fear and loneliness that accompany life as a minority. She deliberately juxtaposes these chapters with those of other characters – who are utterly oblivious to the various sorts of bigotry taking place right in front of them.

Zander approached the street vendor. Easy to see, now, why the youths had picked on him. By the colour of his skin and the cast of his features, he could have been Zander’s older brother.

‘Are you all right?’ Zander asked.

The vendor’s gaze flicked up, then quickly back down again. ‘Sod off.’

‘I just wanted to … I mean, I’m Kardise too, so …’

The man’s head lifted again, a scowl touching his features. ‘I’m not Kardise. I’m Mirrorvalese.’

‘I’m sorry, I –’

‘Just stop talkin’ to me, will yer? Anyone sees us havin’ a chat, they’ll think we’re plottin’ a murder.’ He turned his back on Zander and began to walk away, flinging a glare over his shoulder. ‘A pox on you and your bloody country.’

If Smith has shown us anything, it’s that there’s no such thing as good and evil; only shades of grey, shadows, and perspective. But sometimes, when you believe strongly in something, even the most hardened and morally-ambiguous person will see the necessity of taking one side to prevent the other from succeeding.

Sorrow propped her head on her hand and sighed. First he accuses me of trying to do the right thing, and now he tells me he trusts me. What am I, a fucking priestess?

Still, she was working against the kind of people who thought peace with an old enemy was a betrayal, rather than a genuine chance for change. The kind of people who would happily engineer a war, because they’d never have to fight in it. The kind of people who could use the phrase Kardise scourge to refer to ordinary citizens of Mirrorvale, getting on with their lives, who happened to have one or more foreign-born ancestors somewhere in their family tree.

Yes: if there was ever a right side, she was on it. That had to count for something.

Yes: even Naeve Sorrow – a notoriously unscrupulous mercenary – has a better sense of right and wrong than a huge percentage of Arkannen’s average population. Again, though, Smith doesn’t sermonise about morality; nor does she belabour the point. Amidst the frank conversations and philosophy are much wryer (yet equally discerning) observations about the dangers of judging people by their appearance or country of origin.

He looked sad. ‘It’s hard to believe of her. She always seemed such a sweet girl.’

Sorrow rolled her eyes. ‘Your problem, Tomas, is that your natural paranoia is in constant tension with an almost pathological desire to believe the best of people. Sweet tells you nothing. Fuck it, I could be sweet if the occasion demanded.’

They looked at each other. Caraway’s lips twitched. Sorrow glared at him for a moment before conceding. ‘Maybe not. But you take my point.’

Finally, characters like Sorrow and Caraway and Zander are full of hard-won wisdom, and Windsinger has important messages for all who’re willing to listen.

If one man in a hundred is a traitor, and I allow that knowledge to close my heart to the other ninety-nine, who is the winner then?

Insights and social commentary aside, Windsinger is a tense, exciting continuation of one of the most entertaining series I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. Smith’s writing is powerfully emotive (Windsinger had me shedding tears in more than once place) and her storytelling has rapidly evolved from good to great to WOW.

Though it does take a much more serious turn in book three, the Darkhaven series is nonetheless 100% fun. With a diverse range of sympathetic characters and a metric fucktonne of page-turning action, A.F.E. Smith’s Darkhaven novels will leave you breathless, with a grin on your face and your heart aching for more.

Windsinger (Darkhaven #3) is available now.lauramhughes-sig

This review was originally published on Fantasy-Faction on 10 February 2017.
Darkhaven, Goldenfire, Windsinger by A.F.E. Smith

5 Reasons to Read ‘The Faithful & the Fallen’


This article was originally published by Tor.com on 28th November 2016 as ‘The Faithful and the Fallen: An epic tale of Valour in the face of Malice, Wrath and Ruin‘.celtic-greeny-tree

Have you ever found yourself ambling around your local bookstore, mumbling as you search the shelves for something – anything – that will fulfil your need for fictional giants mounted on giant bears?

Search no longer, my darlings! I present to you: The Faithful and the Fallen by British fantasy author John Gwynne.

The Faithful and the Fallen quartet by John Gwynne

Beginning with Gemmell Award-winning Malice (Best Debut, 2013), Gwynne’s series is perfect for readers who prefer their fantasy with a touch of grit and darkness (a la the Drenai saga or the Warlord Chronicles) as opposed to the nihilism that the genre is finding particularly fashionable of late. This gorgeously-jacketed quartet – featuring Malice, Valour, Ruin and Wrath – is epic, but not in that sprawling, distant, ‘wait-where-the-hell-am-I-and-who’s-this-character-again?’ sort of way. It’s bloody but not bleak; traditional, but by no means tropey.

Still not convinced? Here’s five more reasons why you might just love it.


1.

The Banished Lands are Eerie, Atmospheric and Beautifulceltic-greeny-tree


I don’t know about you, but I often reflect on the fact that there just aren’t enough ‘wyrms’ (with a ‘y’) in fiction these days. And no, I’m not talking about bog-standard dragons who’ve changed their name by deed poll to make themselves sound more interesting. I mean Proper Wyrms, the kind that show up in Germanic myths without wings or even legs and looking like pants-shittingly gigantic– well, worms.

The Faithful and the Fallen respectfully eschews elements of ‘high’ fantasy in favour of more unusual, folklore-inspired creatures. Dragons, elves, wizards and dwarves are nowhere to be seen; nope, instead, the Banished Lands are populated with giants, draigs, fallen angels and – yes! –  wyrms. (And giants. Did I mention the giants? Riding bears?)

Malice, Faithful and Fallen book oneGodless, but green: Gwynne’s settings are, in many ways, unapologetically familiar. Appearing at first glance to be little more than another ‘Medieval Europe’, the Banished Lands are infused with nostalgia and a gentle Germanic ambience that enfolds the reader in a pastoral utopia.

But it’s not long before dark, haunting Celtic overtones start to bleed into the Tolkien-esque quaintness. Gwynne’s descriptions are subtly evocative, and carry a rich sense of history – in a similar vein to the works of Miles Cameron or Mary Stewart – which will appeal to folks who’ve visited the greener, untamed parts of Britain.

A significant part of book two, Valour, takes place in a Romanesque setting, while books three and four (Ruin and Wrath) introduce misty marshes and mighty forests; ancient fortresses and windswept mountain peaks. Such vivid variety is a welcome change from the gorgeous, but overly-comfortable starting location.

With its shifting scenery (cinematically comparable to Game of Thrones, Ironclad, Spartacus and Lord of the Rings) and mixed mythological influences (from talking birds to wolf companions to legendary weapons to GIANTS RIDING BEARS) Gwynne’s saga is much greater than the sum of its parts: and is no less than a brilliant blend of Arthurian motifs and Brythonic lore scaled to epic, Norse-like proportions.


2.

The Characters are Compelling (Because Most of Them Aren’t Bastards)celtic-greeny-tree


The Faithful and the Fallen is a geographically-sweeping epic full of wicked and wonderful beings. Nonetheless, it remains admirably character-centred.

The quartet begins with just a handful of PoVs – including the ‘main’ protagonist, Corban. But as the story expands, so too does its cast. Gwynne’s structuring of these PoVs is especially smart: he introduces, and shifts between, new voices in a way that ups the complexity and creates excitement rather than confusion.Malice by John Gwynne

Honestly, I found Malice to be a little slow, and perhaps a little bit laborious: there are times when excessive detail in the child PoVs becomes repetitive. Having read the entire series, however, I now appreciate the first book’s investment in character-building.

While nowhere near the ‘shades of grey’ you’ll find in books by Mark Lawrence or Rebecca Levene, many of Gwynne’s characters – particularly later in the series – show how easy it is to find oneself on the ‘wrong’ side of a conflict, and how ‘evil’ can be a matter of perspective. It’s particularly interesting to watch some of the protagonists develop and change because of careful manipulation by others.

Here are some of the major players in book one:

CORBAN – Just your average blacksmith’s son. Nothing special about him at all. Nope.

CYWEN – Corban’s fiery knife-throwing sister.

SHIELD – Corban’s badass horse.

STORM – Corban’s big-ass wolf.

CAMLIN – Skilled archer and former brigand; fan favourite.

KASTELL – Unwilling heir; gentle giant-hunter (by which I mean he’s a gentle guy who just happens to hunt giants… not a guy who actively hunts gentle giants).

MAQUIN – Kastell’s loyal retainer and BFF. Also, HE – IS – SPARTACUS!

NATHAIR – The Fresh Prince of Balara; a bit of a tit.

VERADIS – Nathair’s first sword and blood brother (4 lyf).

Valour by John GwynneMany of you may roll your eyes at seeing such a male-dominated character list. Rest assured, the gender imbalance is addressed in book two, Valour, with the introduction of more female point-of-view protagonists. And book three, Ruin, is notably populated with strong female characters of all ages, races and stations – as well as one or two non-humans.

Malice (and, to some extent, Valour) carefully builds the web of character relationships that is then brought beautifully to the fore in Ruin. No matter how grand the situation or how large the scale, Gwynne never lets us forget that this entire series is a sprawling net comprised of a thousand little strands of humanity – and it’s this that makes it such an engaging and emotional read.


3.

‘Well, that escalated slowly!’ – The Faithful and the Fallen gets gradually bigger, better, darkerceltic-greeny-tree


The characters who survive Malice – several of whom were first introduced to the reader as children – grow and develop in interesting (and unusual) ways throughout the series. Corban’s tale is almost a coming-of-age story; except that the ‘farm-boy-with-a-destiny’ (as seen in The Belgariad, The Inheritance Cycle, The Demon Cycle, etc.) generally becomes omni-talented within an insanely short amount of time, and their eventual success is never really in doubt.

Corban, on the other hand, is entirely fallible. Love and loyalty confuse his decisions, and he makes plenty of mistakes along his entire journey (not just at the beginning). Furthermore, the skills he does possess are a result of growing up within a hard-working warrior culture.

But it would be reductive to label The Faithful and the Fallen as ‘Corban’s story’ when Ruin boasts a cast of no less than fourteen point-of-view characters. Unlike A Song of Ice and Fire, however – where you have eighty-nine protagonists spread over a million miles and whom you can easily forget about for entire books at a time – Gwynne’s are surprisingly story-focused. Many PoVs are part of the same group, so that often a change in PoV doesn’t necessarily signify a change in time, or even in location. This works fantastically for making battle scenes tense and pacy, and just overall keeps the pages turning.Ruin by John Gwynne

(There’s one extended scene near the beginning of Wrath that utilises this technique perfectly. Short chapters that switch back and forth between two characters left me breathless and desperate to keep reading until the sequence reached its (very satisfying!) resolution.)

I’ve mentioned already that neither Malice nor Valour swept me off my feet. Ruin, however, totally blew me away. By the time you reach book three, you’re invested in the characters and the story, but you’re possibly also wondering if and when the shit is going to hit the fan.

And then you start reading Ruin.

The Banished Lands are at war. No longer charmingly rural, the Celtic settings have become wild and threatening: large parts of Ruin take place in uncharted forests, treacherous marshes and daunting ruins that create a tangible atmosphere of threat and tension. Furthermore, our heroes’ predicament becomes direr with each page you turn; and the author finally gives us a peek inside the minds of some of the series’ most hated characters.

The God-War is not good vs. evil: it’s well-meaning villains and tired refugees; messy skirmishes and small-scale ambushes; confusing conflicts with people on both sides getting lost and making mistakes; losses piling up as constant fighting takes its toll both physically and mentally. The last two books are suffused with a grit and intensity that in the first two books is (for the most part) lacking.

The action comes thick and fast, and it feels as though the reader is right there amongst the combatants: sweating and bleeding and dodging blades and arrows and fists from every quarter. Large-scale battles (which I found distant and impersonal in earlier books) are visceral and immediate, featuring character-driven narratives that make the fighting feel less glorious and more real.


4.

Feels and structure and prose – oh my!celtic-greeny-tree


As the books increase in length and complexity, so too do they become more engaging – a testament to the author’s continually improving skills. Each book is stronger than the last, growing in pace, intensity and sheer readability with every chapter.

Wrath by John GwynneI don’t just mean that there’s more action (although there is!). The author’s portrayal of certain characters’ motives and emotions becomes much more powerful, granting the reader intriguing insights into nearly every aspect of the overarching conflict. With so many disparate groups of characters to keep track of, each chapter is a keyhole through which we glean hints of what might happen, and through which we gain numerous perspectives on events.

With perspective comes understanding, and readers will no doubt find themselves surprised by their own changing attitudes towards certain characters. Viewing a battle – along with its associated victories, losses and deaths – from different sides of the conflict brings humanity to every character, no matter how despicable they may seem. And with humanity comes sympathy.

Ruin is one of the very few books that has ever managed to bring me to tears (a reaction previously provoked only by Robin Hobb and Steven Erikson) and I confess to feeling physically sick with nerves at several points during both Ruin and Wrath while I waited to see what became of a beloved character.

What’s truly special about Gwynne’s stories, however, is that they can be tragic without being ‘tragedy’. The Faithful and the Fallen embraces the underlying hope that traditionally characterises the fantasy genre, that sense of an ever-present light amongst the darkness; the hope that good will push back against evil, no matter how grim the situation may seem.


5.

The Author is a Kickass, Axe-Wielding Writing Machineceltic-greeny-tree


Clearly influenced by the likes of David Gemmell and Bernard Cornwell, Gwynne’s prose is as economic as it is brutally beautiful.

If my words have failed to convince you, however, then let’s look at the facts.

Gwynne has released four full-length novels within the last four years. His first quartet is now complete, so you don’t have to worry about cliffhanger endings and decades-long waits! And with a new series (also set in the Banished Lands) slated to begin next year, Gwynne is a solid bet for those who appreciate regular, reliable releases.

Lastly… who wouldn’t want to read books written by this guy? Really? LOOK AT HIM!

Author John Gwynne, accompanied by dogs and axes


Even the Brave will Fallceltic-greeny-tree


Fans of traditional fantasy will fall in love with The Faithful and the Fallen. Readers who like their fantasy more epic than a flame-breathing oliphaunt, however, should be aware that this series is something of a slow-burn. The weight of history and prophecy and the sheer lore of the world creeps up on the reader rather than smacking them in the face; but although the series takes a little while to get going, before you know it you’ll be hooked. And Wrath is a fitting finale to a worthy series: a spectacularly epic and ambitious tale that delivers everything it promises, and more. Trust me when I say it’s worth the wait.Wrath

So next time you’re in a bookshop and you hear somebody muttering “giants… where are all the giants?” you’ll be able to step in and give them exactly what they need.


celtic-greeny-tree

Daniel Abraham, ‘The Dagger & the Coin’ (series review)


The Dagger & the Coin Quintet 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.

And now on to the metaphor (which, by the way, I intend to mangle extend past recognition by dragging weaving it through this entire ramble review). Here it comes.

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. No, really.The Dragon's Path by Daniel Abraham

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.The King's Blood by Daniel Abraham

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.

The Tyrant's Law by Daniel Abraham

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 (remember the river?) 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.The Widow's House by Daniel Abraham

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.The Spider's War by Daniel Abraham

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.


Review originally published on Fantasy-Faction on 17th August 2016.