Monday, September 24, 2012

Book Review: The King's Blood by Daniel Abraham

The King's Blood, by Daniel Abraham, is the sequel to The Dragon's Path, one of my top 5 books of 2011. The story continues where we left off with mostly the same characters. Not sure if I'll have the sequel among my top 5 this year, since I've read so many other good books in 2012.

A tyrant's power increases with the help of priests of a ravenous Goddess while a young banker struggles to hold on to her bank. Things are going to get messy as war breaks out in the lands once ruled by dragons.

Read on, to find out what I thought.

Overall Impression
Being a direct sequel is always hard as you have to live up to the predecessor and bring something new to the series. The King's Blood manages this with some mixed success. The focus on characters means the story flows nicely from one book to the next without regard to the particulars of plot. However, being set directly after the first book means you need to have read it recently to remember all that went on. The one thing you will get out of this book are the characters. They are so amazing you will remember them, even if you forget everything else that takes place in the book.

A lot happens in the prior novel, The Dragon's Path, and in this one. However, my reading of the prior novel was so distant (last year) that I could scarcely remember the details. As I read this book, I started remembering more and more, but I still have gaps about certain events. Some authors, for example Kevin J. Anderson, like to include a brief synopsis of "the story thus far" for each book in the series. I personally appreciate such efforts as they can help the reader re-familiarize themselves with the story. Such things are probably unnecessary (or impossible) in giant epics like The Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erikson or The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan, but shorter trilogies and tetralogies may benefit, particularly if the events happen described therein happen in short succession (like this one).

This is a character-driven story; the plot centers around where the characters are and what they are doing. Like the prior novel, many events take place, but all of that gets washed away in light of the characters themselves.

This is where the book really shines. Abraham's characters are so cool and well-developed that they drive the story onwards. It's akin to George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, where the characters and their interactions are really what the books are all about.

Cithrin bel Sarcour is a young woman and brilliant banker, a rather unusual profession in a medieval fantasy world. However, she is also willing to bend the rules to benefit herself and has a bit of a drinking problem. The blend of positives and negatives make Cithin one of the most fascination characters in the story:
“You’re a forger and an extortionist. From what I hear, you like wine entirely too much for your own good. And Pyk Usterhall thinks the part of your brain that measures risk was underfed when you were a babe. None of this has changed.”

Geder Palliako is a young nobleman with a scholar's heart. All he wants is to study speculative essays in peace. However, events in the prior novel thrust him into the higher levels of society and his star continues to rise in this book. He is pragmatic, but ruthless to the point of cruelty and we are conflicted as whether we should cheer for him or be appalled by his actions:
It was only after Vanai that he’d gained the respect of the court. And by respect, they meant fear. He liked being feared, because it meant no one laughed at him.

Dawson Kalliam is a rich, well-connected noble man. He has the best intentions at heart, but his way of thought is very different from what current democratic societies uphold. His convictions make him a man of honor, but they also paint him in an unfavorable light to modern readers:
“We are noblemen, my lord,” Dawson said, choosing his words. “Our role in the world is to protect and preserve order. [...] We are who we are, Palliako, because we have been born better. When a low man crosses me, I execute him. When a highborn man, a man of quality, crosses me, then there is the dueling field.”

In addition to these brilliant characters, you also have others like Marcus Wester, Kip, Prince Aster, Basrahip, and those in Kalliam's household that play key roles in the story. Honestly, the best part of The Dagger and the Coin series has been the interplay between these characters.

Setting / World Building
As you may know, the setting is what drives me to read science fiction and fantasy. This series' initial hook for me was the varied species of humanity in the aftermath of the dragon's rule. The dragons governed over humanity for a long time and created subspecies of humans: 12 in all, plus the original from which they are drawn (Firstbloods). The end of the book has an interesting essay describing the taxonomy of each species. You have Jasuru, Yemmu, and Tralgu with their physical prowess; Cinnae, Dartinae, and Timzinae, with unique and mysterious abilities; the 'failed' or decadent races of Haaverkin, Southling, and Drowned; and a triad representing the supposed best combinations: Kurtadam, Haunadam, and Raushadam.You can clearly see the essay's author's biases (he's Kurtadam) as you read the short piece.

Unfortunately, these races have yet to play a role in the story. Nearly all the main characters are Firstbloods (normal humans); only Cithrin is half-Cinnae. You do have minor characters, such as Pyk and Yardem who are of other races, but in general these other species just form a thin background to the world. There's a few derogatory nicknames thrown about, but only once or twice. We've actually never even seen all the races. For example, apparently the Raushadam can fly, but we have yet to see a single one. The essay on the taxonomy of the species clearly illustrates Abraham has spent quite some time thinking about the races, but I wish he had incorporated most of that into the story. It would have been interesting to have the main characters be separate races and have them play to (or against) their racial strengths and weaknesses in addition to their personalities.

The magic of the priests of the Righteous Servant, however, is well done. These people are masters of conviction-- of truth and lies. If someone speaks, they can tell if that person is lying. If they speak, they can put their power in their voice and, with enough repetition, can convince you of anything. They use their abilities to devastating effect in war, and in peace.

Final Thoughts
This book was quite good, but I can't decide if it was better than it's predecessor. Certainly, the characters have taken a life of their own and I'll be continuing to read the series to find out what happens to them. I felt a bit lost at times trying to remember what had happened in the prior book, particularly since the characters emphasize it quite a bit. I was also a bit disappointed at the world building: all these fabulous races and history is presented, but rarely used. The best part of the book, and the series thus far, however, are the characters and for that alone I consider the book a great read.

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