This book has been sitting on my virtual shelf for quite some time now: I did start reading it, a while back, but it was not the right moment for it – it does happen sometimes, when I realize that a book has the potential to be a good one for me, but I’m not in the right frame of mind to appreciate it as it deserves. So I set it aside, and in the interim read Daniel Abraham’s Long Price Quartet – which I loved – and as time went by, the author managed to publish all five books in this series: on hindsight, that was quite fortunate, because I will not have to wait for the other four volumes to be published. After a somewhat slow start, this story and these characters took hold of my imagination, and I’m certain I will need to follow the rest of their journey as soon as possible. Knowing I can is indeed a great relief…
The Dragon’s Path’s world-building is deceptively standard for the genre, following a number of characters moving across the kingdom of Antea, where political unrest is brewing toward war. Young Cithrin bel Sarcour, an orphan and ward of the Medean Bank, is tasked with the job of taking the bank’s funds out of the city of Vanai before the unavoidable invasion by a conquering army. Cithrin joins a caravan escorted by Captain Marcus Wester, a war hero with a painful past, his Tralgu lieutenant Yardem Hane, and a group of traveling performers enrolled to act as guards. On the eve of Vanai’s conquest, Geder Palliako, son of a minor noble and the butt of cruel jokes by his comrades, tries to fit the soldier’s mold while dreaming a life of scholarly pursuits. And Dawson Kalliam, shrewd politician close to Antea’s ruler and staunch believer of the “old ways”, navigates the court’s many intrigues while pursuing his own goals.
The world itself dimly remembers its past, an age in which dragons ruled and men – all thirteen different species of them – were their servants. The only legacy left by these mythical rulers are the roads, covered in enduring material, that link the cities of men and on which travelers and armies move. On the surface, this would not look so different from many other similar backgrounds, with a medieval-like society, a few hints of magic, and the required components of war and intrigue; some of the characters might appear as tropes, especially the world-weary former soldier and the young orphan on a quest. And yet, as the story unfolds, we discover that there is more here that meets the eye.
For starters, the ancient history that’s mentioned in passing offers an intriguing glimpse into a past that is as fascinating as it is nebulous, and the many different species of men – some of them quite exotic-looking – represent another point of interest, though hardly explored. With five books in this saga, it’s possible that more will be explained in the next installments and that the few peeks offered to the readers might get expanded later: at this point, more would have been a distraction and it would have overburdened the narrative flow – at least in my opinion. More importantly, one of the novel’s focal points is on economics and business, prime motivators in any society – real or fictional – and the space that these elements are given here shows how they are just as important as an army’s might or the influence of powerful men. This is a new and very welcome twist in the story, one that is developed in an easy-to-understand and intriguing way, adding to the many facets of this novel.
What truly drives The Dragon’s Path forward, however, are the characters: if Marcus Wester is a little standardized for the genre – former soldier who turned mercenary after a bloody betrayal that cost his wife and daughter their lives – he grew on me as the story unfolded, and I enjoyed his exchanges with his wingman Yardem, whose subdued humor is always delightful, and his complicated relationship with young Cithrin. Dawson Kalliam does not possess any of the characteristics that would endear him to me – he’s “old guard” to the bone, and something of a martinet – but his adversaries are such that I ended up rooting for him anyway, hoping his plans would succeed. Dawson’s most intriguing feature comes from his wife Clara, the real “power behind the throne” and a woman so subtly powerful, clever and manipulative that I hope there will be more about her in the following books. Master Kit, the leader of the acting troupe, is an interesting character as well, and there is just that hint of mystery about him that makes him worth keeping one’s eye on.
Cithrin bel Sarcour and Geder Palliako are the two figures that drew most of my attention, though. On the surface, Cithrin looks like the proverbial girl on a quest, the kind that will lead her on a journey of discovery and growth, but there is much more to her than that. Forced to assume the enormous responsibility of smuggling the Medean Bank’s riches out of doomed Vanai, she at first struggles with this burden and the need to keep a low profile, all the while trying to survive outside of the sheltered world where she grew up. But once she can do away with the cover-up, she starts to come into her own, showing her skills as a banker and revealing her determination to forge a path for herself through those skills: the fact that the road is far from easy and that she moves along it through trial and error – sometimes with painful results – only adds to the depths of this character that shows a great deal of promise for the future.
As for Geder… Well, I’m very ambivalent toward him, and I say that as a compliment toward the complexity of his character: when we first meet him, he looks like what we would nowadays call a “nerd” – not very physically-inclined, more interested in “speculative essays” than in the rules of war, he’s the target of his comrades’ jokes and cruel hazing. There is enough, in Geder’s psychological makeup, to make us root for him, especially when he manages to find some sort of courage once he’s in the midst of his first real battle, but when a series of circumstances raises him from obscurity and derision toward a brilliant political career, something in him changes, and not for the best. Underestimated and reviled up to that point, Geder finds himself invested with unlooked-for power, while at the same time realizing that everyone sees him as a joke even though they are forced to bow to his commands: something does snap at that point, and he makes a decision that left me stunned for its unthinking ferociousness, so that I started to wonder about Geder’s true nature, whether I had totally misread him, because the act seemed so contrary to his personality as shown until then.
As a long-time Babylon5 fan, the step toward a comparison with Londo Mollari was a very short one for me: in both cases we deal with people who are looking for redress, Geder for himself and Londo for his people, and when they are in the position to do so they take a path toward darkness, more or less aware of the price they will ultimately have to pay for it, but willing to do it, despite the doubts and nightmares that plague them. From the point of Geder’s meeting with the mysterious priest Basrahip, servant of the goddess of truth, the similarity has become foremost in my mind, and I can’t shake the feeling that Basrahip could be Geder’s Mr. Morden…
Even though The Dragon’s Path beginning is something of a slow burn – probably the reason for my original doubts – it quickly finds its pace and evolves into a solid, promising first installment of a series I know I’m going to enjoy. Highly recommended.