Sunday, May 8, 2016

The Spider's War - Daniel Abraham

The Spider's War is the fifth and final installment of Daniel Abraham's Dagger and Coin series. It is Abraham's take on traditional epic fantasy. It has all the ingredients: dynastic struggles, an ancient wrong to be set right, unlikely heroes and heroines, war on a large scale and the fate of the world itself hanging in the balance. He didn't aim to be startlingly original with this series - although he can't help but subvert a few fantasy tropes here and there - but rather do epic fantasy exceptionally well. In the previous volumes I always had the feeling it was indeed well done but not exceptional. Time to find out how he handles the climax of the series.

The armies of the Antean Lord Regent Geder Palliako have overextended themselves. Exhausted, poorly supplied and only kept from mutiny by the power of the Spider Goddess, they face almost certain annihilation when the fighting resumes in spring. The desperate state the empire is in hasn't penetrated the court in Camnipol yet, but it  is only a question of time. In the city of Carse in the mean time, Marcus Wester, Cithrin bel Sarcour and Clara Kaliam have gathered to find a way to bring the war to an end. Preferably without razing Antea to the ground. It is a formidable challenge that requires innovative financing, military excellence and intimate knowledge of Antean politics. And a dragon of course. Can't save the day without one.

Once again it is obvious that Abraham knows exactly where he is taking the story. Where series like these sometimes get away from the author and move in unexpected directions, Abraham keeps it nicely on track. Apart from a number of brief interludes, he resists the temptation of adding more point of view characters, drawing more parties into the conflict or exploring other parts of his world. It is focussed on the four point of view characters who have been with us from the beginning. As epic fantasies go, it is tightly plotted. Abraham leaves himself the option of more stories in this setting but the main conflict is resolved. Given how busy The Expanse is keeping him, the television series based on these novels is going into the second season, I very much doubt we'll see more on this world any time soon.

The one thing that Abraham does that seems to go directly against the current in epic fantasy at the moment is the relative lack of violence, blood and gore. There is fighting for sure, people die in horrible ways. They starve, freeze to death, get stabbed, are thrown off cliffs and fried by dragon fire but none of it is described in unnecessary detail. Sexual violence is almost completely absent. One or two references that it might have occurred during the war is all this book contains. It feels like a deliberate choice by Abraham, a comment on the direction Fantasy has taken in the last decade or so. One well worth thinking about.

Economics is again the most innovative part of the novel. Abraham describes the transition from using gold as currency to paper money only partially backed by gold in the national treasury. Nobody in the novel fully understands the consequences and risks of this move but in the short run (even fantasy bankers seem to be short-sighted) it works surprisingly well. Cithrin also seems to think that monetary compensation can slake the thirst for blood of Antea's enemies. Somehow I don't think that is going to work out very well. It strikes me as a bit of a fantasy version of the treaty of Versaille, but the story doesn't take us that far. None of the characters feel their plans can prevent all future military conflict though. They are wise enough to realize that.

Despite Cithrin's innovations, in previous books I felt Geder was the more interesting character. The dark streak in his personality, the doubt and rejection that are always gnawing at him, is seemingly at odds with his desire to do what he believes is right. In all the time he is regent it never occurred to him to get rid of the heir to the throne for instance, but he is ruthless with his enemies. There is a contradiction in his actions that keeps building and eventually has to lead to a crisis. In this novel his behaviour reaches new extremes. He strikes me as a full blown manic depressive in The Spider's War. The spiders can only do so much to keep him going it seems.

The other character that is clearly headed for a crisis is Clara. After all she has been through there is simply no going back to her old, comfortable life among the Antean nobles. Too much has changed. Of course facing up to the fact that her old life is a closed book takes courage. This is something Clara doesn't lack but for the final step she needs a push.  Geder and Clara are the most dynamic characters in the book. By contrast, Cithrin and Marcus more or less keep doing what they've been doing for most of the series. She keeps banking, he keeps campaigning even past the climax of the book. It is as if they don't quite know what to do with themselves after the end of the conflict.

Their response to the events in this final volume of the series is not unlike my own. Abraham wraps up his story neatly, if a little predictably here and there. It is well executed for sure but it does leave me with the feeling that it didn't quite achieve what it set out to do. Abraham tried to do something different with his Long Price novels and, commercially at least, they were not as successful as his publisher hoped they'd be. He bounced back with this series, among other projects, and delivered a well written, entertaining, traditional epic fantasy. It does not, however, have that one ingredient that lifts it above the mass of epic fantasy published today.

The drama of Khaiem, their unique culture and language supported by poses, added something to the story that the Dagger and Coin books lack. They were more risky in the sense that these books contained elements that made as many readers bounce right off these books but for readers looking for something a little different, they worked very well indeed. Taking this risk made them stand out for me in a way that the Dagger and Coin series does not. While I enjoyed reading these books, I wouldn't mind seeing Abraham try something a little less traditional for his next project.

Book Details
Title: The Spider's War
Author: Daniel Abraham
Publisher: Orbit
Pages: 489
Year: 2016
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-316-20405-7
First published: 2016

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