Sunday, August 4, 2013

Review of The King's Blood by Daniel Abraham

I suppose novel readers can be sometimes compared to heavily invested and knowledgeable sports fans. When a team they have been following for years suddenly changes tactics, say goes from a strong running game to a strong passing game, heads wag, talking heads analyze The savvy sports fan though sees farther and thinks through what the coach's goal, if he has any, is and makes analyses that encompass not only the seemingly minor changes but how the new dynamic affect the whole outlook and season in various subtle ways.

So too the constant novel reader sometimes comes across a formula that turns out to not be formulaic at all, a seemingly common type or setup is suddenly revealed to be subtle and different, the product of a conscious choice, not a random gimmick, and something which reveals a fundamental change in tactics for the novel, the characters and the series. Something that is, to continue with the sports analogy, a game changer.

In the epic fantasy series the types and tropes are well established. The hero, the villain, the saving of the kingdom, the threat of annihilation by an invading force have all been done and redone and remixed. All these are well established, as are their opposites. The anti cliché fantasy novels with the grimdark or satiric bite: A Song of Ice and Fire, The First Law Trilogy and stand alones that follow, the K.J. Parker Engineer trilogy and others. These novels deliberately skewer the accepted tropes with a bitter realism and worldliness.

But The King's Blood, the second installment in The Dagger and the Coin series, is doing something that seems to me to be a game changer. When I reviewed the first book in the series I spoke with admiration and appreciation , and still stick by my opinion. I made the statement that the characters, the situations and the setting, with bankers and outdated royalty with their eroding sense of honor, all made the book feel as though Balzac had written a fantasy novel. I still believe the comparison fits. The series is very much concerned with the problems of an outdated royalty and an emerging unfettered banking system. In the first book I was shocked by the mash up of money and fantasy. Im still captivated by what he is doing with it in this book.

What is changing the game in the series are the characters. There is a depth here that I am struck into silence by. Geder's portrayal, his initial uncomfortableness with being in the public, his awkwardness, his geekiness, his being thrust into 'greatness,' his thoughts, what he holds dear, and what he hopes for are all shown with a depth of understanding for the character himself. You are inside his motivation, inside his anxieties, inside his hopes. All of which are even more fascinating since you cannot help but wonder if what you are being shown is the development of a bloody tyrant and dictator who will kill hundreds of thousands in the name of security.

So too with Cithrin, the banker. An unusually sharp orphan with a talent for finance, she has progressed from pulling off her swindles in the beginning to working on larger acquisitions and holdings for the future. But here too, you wonder if what you are being shown is not so much a hero's development, as the development of a cold hearted calculating CEO type who cares only, in the end, about money.

Dawson, the noble from the beginning book, is still loyal to the throne. But here is shown to become even more bloody minded in the name of patriotism. He will risk the stability of the kingdom for what he believes is right.
Captain Marcus is the swaggering sergeant with a tragic past. He is perhaps the book's moral center but there are also subtle questions of his motivations. Does he really love Cithrin? Or is it a fatherly protection love? He ends up finding employment for the bank kicking people out of their homes and without giving too much away he is good at his job.

Clara, Dawson's wife is one of the most moving characters in the book. How she keeps the family together, the things she does, the losses she accrues and the effect they have on her is some of the most poignant writing I've ever read, not just in a fantasy series but ever. I found myself moved to a deep empathy when reading of her coming down in the world.

What makes this series a game changer for me is not just that these characters are all in a morally grey area, but that they are beng moved into this area completely conscious of what they are doing. I see this as a bit of a game changer for the fantasy novel because the characters are neither high minded nor are they fools either. They do not have the world weary cynicism of a Tyrion Lannister, or the despair of their own redemption of a Logan Ninefingers.

The game changing aspect of this is that this is something new in fantasy, at least to my experience of reading fantasy. He is working with familiar tropes and types and not writing anti fantasy as much as doing something different. And the something different in these books is the level of character building. There are subtleties here and they are deep. To portray a monstrosity in the making of a Geder takes great skill and ability.

What's rare for me in a fantasy novel series is to read one right after another but I immediately picked up The Tyrant's Law(book 3). Generally I need a break from the characters and the world and need to read something else. But I am intrigued to learn what is going to happen to these characters.