Despite my best intentions, it took me over four years to come to the conclusion of this five-book saga, mostly because other titles kept distracting me from the goal, but now that I have finally reached the end I can say it was a very engaging and very satisfying read.
The central theme of the series, as indicated by its name, is the duality of power: exerted by armies on one side and by the laws of economy on the other, in a constantly shifting tug-of-war that in the course of the whole story sees lands ravaged by conflict and struggling to resurface from its devastation.
As the previous book, The Widow’s House, reached its end, the army from Antea was continuing its campaign of conquest and annexation under the banner of the Spider Goddess: Geder Palliako, the former nobody risen to the position of Regent for young Antean king Aster, still trusts the counsel of priest Basrahip but at the same time is unable to deny any longer the inner turmoil that comes from the realization that Antea is dealing with a war on too many fronts, and that even the evil power of persuasion of the priests’ voices can do little for tired, overtaxed and ill-supplied soldiers.
Geder’s adversaries – Cithrin bel Sarcour and the Medan bank; former mercenary Marcus Wester; Clara Kalliam, the widow of one of Geder’s first political victims, just to name a few – are pooling their forces to try and overthrow the Antean invasion and defeat the Goddess’ masterminds. It’s a multi-pronged assault, one which sees Cithrin on one side concocting a daring scheme based on “war gold”, which is nothing more than the invention of paper currency, and Marcus on the other planning to use the last surviving dragon, Inys, to strike the final blow. Clara, for her part, plays a subtle and dangerous double game from inside the enemy’s lines as the conspirators set up a daring scheme that involves suborning Geder himself.
It’s hard to summarize a story that has been running for five books and which sees here, in its final installment, a series of twists and turns that flow into a hair-raising epilogue – one that includes a dragon breathing fire and destruction – and to say the truth, the story itself looks less important than the characters driving it: throughout the series we saw these characters change – some for the best, some for the very worst – and the focus on their struggles always held my attention more than anything else. Daniel Abraham’s characters feel like flesh-and-blood people and particularly in this last book I felt myself invested in their individual journeys and I enjoyed the author’s way of not closing neatly those journeys but rather showing that they still had a long road to travel, even though it’s not one we will be able to follow.
Marcus Wester might be the archetype of the tired warrior carrying a painful baggage from his past, and at times he looked nothing more than that, but in the end he comes across as much more through his interactions with other characters, like Master Kit, the former spider priest turned actor, or like Yardem Hane, fellow soldier and laconic “conscience” whose sparsely worded replies have been a constant source of delightful humor throughout the story. Wester’s steadfastness is one of the rocks on which Cithrin’s growth can stand: from scared girl saddled with an important assignment to confident banker able to make or break the destinies of a country, Cithrin is the coin to Wester’s dagger, just as their dealings are the representation of the series’ dual view of the world.
My sympathies, however, have mostly focused on Clara Kalliam: I’ve been fascinated with her character from her appearance in the first book, and her elevation to POV figure made me quite happy because this lady is one of the players who enjoys the best focus in the course of the saga. At the start of her story-arc she is the accomplished wife and mother, the quiet, unassuming strength behind her husband’s power, and she fully comes to her real potential only by passing through the fire of tragedy and loss: far from diminishing her, the downfall allows her to shed the chains of convention and to play different roles – behind-the-scenes politician, revolutionary, spy – all the while hiding behind the masks of court socialite or frail old woman, and setting in motion many of the events that ultimately change the course of history.
The theme of roleplaying is indeed a recurrent one in The Dagger and the Coin: although some real actors are actual characters in the story, and their leader Master Kit is quite proficient at hiding in plain sight, everyone sooner or later must play a role – or many – and not just Clara. Cithrin starts by pretending to be older and more accomplished than she is, and then goes on affecting a brash certainty she does not possess; Marcus Wester charms Inys by feigning submission, and so on. In this world where the Goddess’ priests are able to detect lies, deception requires subtlety and often means walking on a tightrope over the abyss…
And then there is Geder: I don’t remember changing my mind about a fictional character as much as I did for Geder – where at first he elicited my sympathies, given how he started his journey as the proverbial fish out of water, his personality took some unexpected directions that made him loathsome. If he had simply turned into a villain, it would have been easy to hate him outright, but even when he is responsible for the worst atrocities, he finds a way to justify those choices as necessary and unavoidable, showing that he is as much a victim of circumstances as he is their enabler – a willing pawn, granted, but one who clearly enjoys the better consequences of those choices…. Here in The Spider’s War he goes way overboard, burning away any remaining dregs of pity I might have harbored because of his past: his desire for recognition, for respect, and the price he’s ready to pay to get them, turned him into a monster – a bumbling, insecure and troubled one, true, but still a monster. And for this very reason the way his narrative journey ends does not feel completely believable: I can’t say much about it because I want to avoid spoilers, but to me what happens does not have the “flavor” of an organic development.
This dissonance, and the way the ending winds down – almost with the proverbial whimper instead of the expected “bang” – are the reasons I can’t rate this final book as high as its predecessors, although I still consider The Dagger and the Coin one of the best fantasy series I have read so far, and Daniel Abraham as a very, very accomplished author.