This week I finished The Spider’s War by Daniel Abraham, the last book in his The Dagger and the Coin quintet (a series I first started reading way back in 2012 I just realized), and it was an awesome concluding volume. However, as it would be pretty pointless to talk about just this last book, I shall gush about the whole brilliant series instead.
Abraham is another author I wouldn’t have found without Jo Walton first writing about him over at Tor.com. The library didn’t have any of the Long Price books, but did have the first of The Dagger and The Coin series – so I read that and was pretty soon hooked. It was clear from the start that Abraham is a master world-builder and that, along with his characters and dialogue, grabbed me even though I wasn’t sure about the plot (which sounded a bit dry) going in. The first book in the series, The Dragon’s Path, introduces an eclectic cast of characters (all via POV, the chapters moving between the characters as necessary) from all walks of life, and a world peopled with the Thirteen Tribes of Humanity, a world where dragons were once the master race, but have been gone for hundreds of years at the start of the story. Everything that’s left – the great ruins, parts of the cities, the dragon jade roads, the thirteen races and so much more – are a part of the dragons’ legacy. This may sound typical Fantasy fare, but Abraham is in the Martin league of Fantasy writers and there are no prophecies to be fulfilled or chosen ones to be discovered, trained and set on the path to greatness. Instead he puts the Medean bank and its workings front and centre of the story. He takes something as seemingly uninteresting and mundane as the day-to-day life of a bank, and builds the rest of the plot up around it. It’s banking of a Renaissance-era sort and in Abraham’s hands it is a thrilling, gripping game, with the stakes getting ever higher as the series progresses and Cithrin Bel Sarcour increases in power. I didn’t think it was going to be my thing at all, instead I found myself completely caught up in the twists and turns and the clever deceptions Cithrin uses to set herself up as an underage banker after her guardian and household are killed. Cithrin has become one of my all-time favourite characters in SFF – she is so unlike what is thought of as a typical female fantasy character. She has a calculating intelligence and ambition that means she achieves some astonishing things, but she also has a gnawing self-doubt and a heroic drinking habit that sometimes undercut her. She is a young woman who first disguises herself as a boy wagoner (not all that successfully), and then, with the help of Master Kit and his troupe of actors, passes herself off as an older woman more suited to being the head of a bank. It is Cithrin that makes the bank’s story all that more involving – you worry with her when it looks like it’s all going to the dogs, and breathe a temporary sign of relief with her when she pulls it all off.
In fact, both of Abraham’s main female characters are written really well. Cithrin and Clara are enjoyable, realistic characters with unique powers (little ‘p’, not capital ‘P’ Powers), both go through some serious crap and come out stronger, but definitely changed. Clara, particularly, starts out as a typical respected lady of the court, loses almost everything she thought she valued, discovers she actually has some pretty serious cajones stashed under her skirts and builds herself a new and unconventional life, employing all the skills she has at her disposal to undermine the regime that took her husband – all without once touching a sword, axe or magic wand. Both women have believable story arcs and they’re not just in the story for sexual/romantic/throw-something-in-for-the-ladies purposes. They both feel like women in the way that I am a woman, it isn’t their only defining characteristic and isn’t something that they think about much of the time. The assumptions people make about them because they are women is something they use rather than something they suffer. I think Abraham should get a big fat gold star just for writing Cithrin and Clara so satisfyingly.
The rest of the characters are equally engaging, well-rounded people. They are charming, and funny, and flawed, and they’re all doing the best they can with what they’ve been dealt. I found something with which to identify in each of them and I care about the things they care about, which is perhaps the most impressive when one of those characters is a man responsible for some truly horrendous acts (done for some very petty reasons) across the span of the series (yeah, I’m looking at you Geder). In fact, one of my favourite quotes in book three The Tyrant’s Law is appropriate here (and kind of prescient of later events, which I cannot divulge, obviously):
“I have loved many, many people … and I’ve never meant the same thing by the word twice. Love is wonderful, but it doesn’t justify anything or make a bad choice wise. Everybody loves. Idiots love. Murderers love. Pick any atrocity you want, and someone will be able to justify it out of something they call love.”
It would be hard to pick a favourite character from the group Abraham writes about as they’re all sympathetic and interesting in their own ways … Marcus and his world-weary cynicism is perhaps the most trope character of the bunch but his relationship with Cithrin gives him more interest and depth; Yardem Hane, the other half of Marcus in some ways and always looking out for him, as well as providing some of the best double-act back-and-forth I’ve read in ages (I am ridiculously fond of Yardem Hane); Master Kit, the powerfully persuasive actor, troupe leader and former apostate of the Spider cult; the upright Dawson Kalliam in the earlier books; Inys, the last dragon, in the later ones; even Geder. Poor Geder. As the series has unfolded I haven’t known whether to pity him or fear him, hate him or love him. I still don’t. I think I feel a little of everything for him, and you really have to admire an author who can write someone like Geder and still have you care about him despite everything.
I enjoyed too that while there are full-scale things happening, Abraham tells it all from a smaller perspective, by dedicating chapters to different POVs he keeps everything feeling very real. There are no sweeping birds-eye-view descriptions to detach you from the story, it’s all happening at the reader’s eye level. Even when it comes to the war that soon dominates the story there is no Big Bad, no all-encompassing evil, just something that takes advantage of humanity’s flaws, a repercussion of the dragons own squabbles thousands of years before.
Finally, throughout the series there is an ongoing discussion about stories and their transmission. Geder loves to study ‘speculative essays’, (which seems to be the study of history as far as I can tell) but Basrahip scorns the written word as ‘dead’ and therefore beneath notice, claiming that only the spoken word is worth hearing. Master Kit and his troupe perform popular myths and legends and Kit talks about how stories can be used to comment on current events or used to inspire action. The Spider priests use their scary persuasiveness to make their version of a story true. All of Abraham’s characters tell themselves stories to justify their actions or to reinforce their sense of identity – like Marcus’ memory of the loss of his wife and child and how he weaves Cithrin into that tale, or Geder’s story of how he has been hard done by and misunderstood to justify the massacre of a city. Like the stories a court tells about someone who is in favour and holds power, and how those stories change when that person falls.
“The story of a person could never be as complex as they actually were because then it would take as much time to know someone as it did to be them. Reputation, even when deserved, inevitably meant simplification, and every simplification deformed.”
It’s awesome stuff. They’re awesome books. Abrahams is an awesome author. Totally worth reading.