After the events of the previous book, The Tyrant’s Law, I built a few expectations about how the story would progress, but the developments in The Widow’s House went in a completely different direction – which does not mean I was disappointed with this fourth volume of The Dagger and the Coin series, only surprised, and once I fell into the unexpected rhythm of the plot I started to appreciate the further buildup the author created here, while waiting for the ultimate showdown in the final book.
The attack against the Timzinae, one of the thirteen races inhabiting the world, has turned, from the heinous act of genocide it started with, into an all-out war of conquest as Geder Palliako, the Regent for the throne of Antea, becomes obsessed with the dream of unifying the whole world under the rule of the Spider Goddess – and also with his need for revenge against Cithrin who spurned his affections – these two drives combining with Geder’s unacknowledged but quite keen desire of retribution for any past slight he suffered.
At the same time Clara Kalliam, whose husband fell victim to the political manipulations from Geder and his priestly advisor Basrahip, keeps trying to undermine the Regent’s hold on power by planting doubts and misinformation in a dangerous scheme where she must balance this goal with that of her sons’ survival, one of them an outcast, another elected as military commander of Antea’s army and the last one enrolled by the Spider Goddess’ priesthood, which now makes him a danger to her, given that the acolytes are able to detect lies and deceit.
Cithrin, having survived the destruction of two cities, is now prey to depression and despair compounded by the awareness that capture at the hands of Geder’s men would mean certain death. Her banking upbringing does however come to the fore thanks to an inspiration that offers a measure of hope against the encroaching armies, and her courage is bolstered by the reunion with her old friend and protector, Captain Marcus Wester, who undertook a journey to the far edges of the world with former Spider-priest and now traveling actor, Master Kit, and has now returned with the last of the dragons who once ruled the land.
This is, in a nutshell, the chain of events at the core of The Widow’s House, a story gifted with a peculiar pace, because on one side it seemed to move too slowly for my tastes, considering the seeds sowed in the previous book which I hoped to see flourish more in here; on the other I could not avoid the sense of a brewing storm that is gathering strength with each new detail introduced in the plot. Power, and the exercise of it – be it the power of armies or that of the assets of a banking house – keeps being central to the narrative as the two forces strive for supremacy in a land devastated by war.
If the might of the Antean armies seems almost unstoppable, thanks to the weird powers of persuasion of the Goddess’ priests, the forced conscription has left the fields all but unattended and food shortages loom on the horizon. The soldiers are tired of what looks like an unending series of battles from which they emerge triumphant, granted, but with increasingly depressed spirits and wasted bodies, so that every victory is tainted by a nagging feeling of doom that the priests are hard-pressed to contain with their Goddess-granted abilities.
For its part the Medean bank, the most powerful economic authority in the land, is playing a waiting game, thinking, as some of the lesser realms do, that by not making ripples they might avoid the gaze of Antea and its expansionist drive, not realizing that it’s only a matter of time and opportunity before they too will fall under the shadow of the Spider Goddess.
The unexpected detail that opens this story to unforeseen possibilities is the waking of the last surviving dragon at the hand of Marcus Wester. Inys is an amazing character for several reasons, the most interesting being that through it we are allowed a look into the distant past, the origins of the Spider Goddess cult and the motivations for its ruthless focus on the extermination of the Timzinae. But what I really enjoyed was Inys’ characterization, a mixture of arrogance and wistfulness, the former because he was one of the world rulers, the creators of the thirteen races now roaming the lands and once the willing slaves of the dragons; the latter because Inys is now the last of its species, alone among people who know nothing about past glories, severed from all those he loved – or hated – and unable to find, among the people of the present, that same level of worship and awe he used to enjoy in the past.
The characters we already know and whose points of view are explored in the course of the book, gain new depth or new facets – or both. I was somewhat disappointed with Cithrin, seeing how for most of the time she moves under a pall of gloom that not even her frequent recourse to drinking can lift: I can understand her present mindset – she survived the burning of Vanai, her home town, the bloody revolution in Camnipol and the destruction of Suddapal, where she tried to help the Timzinae escape Geder’s genocide – and she is now suffering from a form of PTSD, but I find it hard to reconcile this dejected young woman with the one who single-handedly carried the treasure from the Vanai branch of the Medean bank through a war-torn country. There is however a small glimmer of hope that a newfound purpose will bring her back from the abyss.
Clara Kalliam keeps shining as a true mastermind, a player who can hide her keen mind behind the pretense of womanly weakness or the cover of old age, while at the same time weaving a web of deceit that will hopefully bring about Geder Palliako’s downfall. If I hoped to see her character in a more central position, in consideration of the book’s title, I was however satisfied with her part in the grand scheme of things and I keep enjoying her maneuvering and her newfound freedom of action: being shunned by Camnipol’s high circles, after the execution of her husband, removed all the social trappings that forced her into a stifling mold, and now that she is something of an outcast Clara can be her own person, and more true to her real nature. Her point of view chapters have been my favorites since she came out of the shadow of her husband, and I look forward to seeing what will be her further contribution to the story.
Last but not least, Geder: I don’t recall being so ambivalent toward a character, which highlights the skill with which Daniel Abraham drew this pathetically tragic but also irresponsibly cruel figure. Geder is at first what we would now call a ‘nerd’, a bookish type forced to participate in a military campaign and the butt of cruel jokes from his comrades; once events bring him to a position of power, however, he shows a merciless streak, culminating in the burning of the city of Vanai, that seems at odds with the personality shown until that moment. As the story progresses, and Geder becomes entangled in the Spider Goddess’ schemes, his behavior tends toward what I like to call ‘bumbling viciousness’, since he orders the most merciless of actions with the same casualness he would use in ordering a meal. Being snubbed by Cithrin only exacerbates this attitude, and we see him wavering between equally creepy dreams of cold-blooded retribution and magnanimous forgiveness which speak of a lack of maturity that sounds even more dangerous considering his political status. And yet Geder is still capable of acts of unselfish kindness, as we see when he saves the life of a friend’s pregnant wife and takes active interest in the health of the child: as far as I’m concerned, the jury is still out on this character, so that he might either end as a hero or a doomed villain. Only time will tell…
No matter how much this book defied my expectations, moving in a direction I had not counted on, the story is still a strong, compelling one, and I’m quite looking forward to see how Daniel Abraham will wrap it up in the last volume.