Recent Reading: The Dragon’s Path

So what is it about modern epic fantasy that makes authors insist on showing us the pov of really unlikable characters?

To be fair, I actually did enjoy THE DRAGON’S Path, which as you may know is the first book of an epic series by Daniel Abraham. It’s very well written, as you would expect from Abraham.

But you know? I’ve liked Abraham’s other first-books-of-series too, and yet I haven’t ever picked up the second book of any of his series. That kind of says something right there, doesn’t it?

The problem is, even if I really do like many of his primary characters, and even if they improve (come to understand themselves better, increase in competence, commit to an important goal, whatever) — as I say,even if they improve over the course of the book, there are always enough grimdark elements to push me away from other characters and from the book as a whole.

In THE DRAGON’S Path, we have:

a) Marcus, a mercenary captain. I like him a lot, I truly do. He is interesting. He very much thinks outside the box when necessary, which it often is — this is mostly because he is a captain without actual troops, so he has to improvise. And I like his backstory and how that influences everything he does. Abraham has a deft touch, weaving all that history in without you really noticing: no info dumps here. There’s no doubt at all that Abraham has the chops when it comes to writing.

b) Cithrin, a young girl who was raised by a bank (yes, really) and understands banking right down to her toes, but is not the least bit used to the real world. I like Cithrin . . . mostly. I like competent characters, and she sure does understand banking. But she has a self-destructive streak a mile wide and a really tough time handling setbacks, and those are two characteristics that go very badly together. At this point I am flinching from the second book because I’m afraid of what situations Cithrin might get into — and because I’m convinced that whatever nasty situations those are, she will have got into them herself. I really like the father-daughter relationship that grows up between Marcus and Cithrin, though; that’s more interesting than the romance I expected, and Abraham handles it really well.

c) Master Kim, who is extremely cool. I love Master Kim! He runs an acting troupe, and I don’t want to say too much about this whole subplot, but I loved the acting troupe and everything about it! (Well, almost everything.) Master Kim is very definitely a secondary character compared to Marcus and Cithrin, though; those two are the primary focus throughout. But just let’s take a look at the rest of the pov lineup:

d) Geder, a totally ineffectual, incompetent character we are supposed to feel sympathy for, as he bumbles into becoming a horrible tyrant sort of by accident. I mean . . . my sympathy ran out even before he BURNED ALL THOSE PEOPLE ALIVE. To be fair, at that point I don’t think Abraham imagines we will still feel much sympathy for Geder. But, yuck, can we NOT spend time in his head, ever? (I know he is doing it to show us plot developments we would otherwise not know about, but still, yuck.)

e) Lord Kalliam, who is totally committed to supporting the monarchy and keeping those damned upstart peasants in their place. Let the lower classes think they can run their own lives and who knows where it will all end? Lord Kalliam is written in a sympathetic way that is interesting, but you are constantly jarred out of the story because how can you really have sympathy for a guy who thinks like this?

f) Lady Kalliam, his wonderful wife, who everyone is going to love, but nothing about her can make up for her husband — plus she is a very minor character.

Compared to GRR Martin, Abraham almost counts as light and fun. Compared to Joe Abercrombe, well, there’s no comparison! Marcus really is admirable and competent, and you can root for Cithrin even as you roll her eyes at her. And Master Kim, seriously, very cool guy.

But epic fantasy today — I mean, is there ANY modern epic fantasy where we are not forced to spend time in the pov of several evil characters? And ineffectual is almost worse than evil, it’s so painful to read! Both ineffectual and evil at the same time, and, well, not rushing out for the second book.

So . . . I was in the mood for epic fantasy, but now I think I’m over that for a while. Next up: something lighter.

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13 thoughts on “Recent Reading: The Dragon’s Path”

  1. Oh, God–The Dragon’s Path! Abraham is a fantastically talented writer, and I’m glad I finished his Long Price Quartet, even though it was right at the edge of my tolerance for horrible things happening. I really enjoyed the beginning of DP, too, for the same reasons you did. But unlike you, I actually kind of liked poor hapless Geder. I felt sorry for him and hoped things would improve for him, and then he BURNED ALL THOSE PEOPLE ALIVE and I was D-O-N-E done with the book forever. I’m sure there are people out there who think it’s really cool to find out that the poor nebbish they’ve been sympathizing with is willing to commit mass murder, but I’m not one of them.

  2. No problem, through the magic of this editing button, I will fix your formatting! I don’t know what the probem was, btw, the code looked like it was in the right place, but then it didn’t come out right.

    Anyway! Yes! I thought Geder was going to improve and become more competent and wind up a cool guy, and I was willing to wait for that, but no! Instead he stumbles ineffectually into actually becoming evil! And then gets MORE self-deluded after that. So far from cool, there are no words. : (

  3. Husband gave it half a thumbs up, with a murmur of “Robert Jordan Syndrome”. Says there are likeable characters, but it’s taking way too long.

  4. Ah, well, I’m thinking most likely I won’t bother. Glad to have someone else test the waters for me.

  5. Modern epic fantasy? Does that mean it has to be (1) more than one book (2) about saving the world? Maybe P. C. Hodgell’s Kencyrath books, though there may be a few places with evil PoV characters. Ditto with Overstreet’s Auralia series, if you look at “saving the world” a bit slantwise. I’d suggest Seraphina (Rachel Hartman) and D. M. Cornish’s books but they are more about personal quests. Megan Whalen Turner’s Thief series is a bit sideways from my idea of high fantasy but might count, though I find myself disliking Gen in the latest book. He’s not really evil per se, though… Do Shannon Hale’s Bayern books #2 and #3 count? Or Kate Elliott’s Cold series? (Can’t remember if I hated any of the PoV characters.) Or Bujold’s Chalion books?

  6. Oh, and Pamela Dean’s books – The Dubious Hills, The Secret Country. They are about saving smaller worlds, I suppose (especially The Dubious Hills).

  7. I think epic fantasy also has to show us a huge swath of the world over the course of multiple books, and at this point I think it’s almost defined by having multiple pov characters in every book, with multiple plotlines that separate and converge. So I don’t actually include MWT Attolia series or Seraphina. I haven’t read the Auralia ones or Hodgell’s books or even Elliott’s Cold Magic series. So many books, so little time!

    I love Eugenides in the last Attolia book, but I appreciate ruthlessness — especially when the character is driven to be ruthless, rather than ruthless by nature, which is how I think Gen is.

  8. I can save you a little time and tell you Cold Magic is principally from one PoV (Cat’s). It does cover a fairly big world, though: from pseudo-Europe to pseudo-Carribea to faery. Auralia and Hodgell’s worlds seem quite a bit smaller, with more characters; though there are only perhaps half a dozen principal ones in Auralia with many scenes from other minor PoVs as convenient, and Hodgell focuses mostly on Jame and (secondarily) Tori and K. (can’t remember his full name), again with other minor PoVs as convenient. Both worlds seem somewhat smaller than Elliott’s, I think perhaps because Elliott knows how to weave in threads that suggest a lot more behind the scenes, where many authors tend to make things much tidier.

    In fact, one of the things that bothers me about Hodgell’s series is that there have been 3,000+ years of history in which practically nothing seems to have happened, and that even history before that is centered around the Kencyrath (at least from their point of view! others may disagree), a relatively small race. When you claim tens of thousands of years of history have been leading up to the present day, you need a big pay off! I wonder if it might be better to omit the claim and focus on including details that allow the reader to come to that conclusion instead.

    Brandon Sanderson’s books also come to mind for epic fantasy: Elantris, Warbreaker, Mistborn. They tend to have more thoughtful worlds but are still somehow a bit too tidy, too self-contained; though Elantris is, as I recall (it’s been a while), less flawed in this respect.

  9. Interesting observations about world size. I agree that if the writer explains less, the world can seem much bigger.

    re: length of history . . . I don’t know. It’s true that if you have some sort of prophecy or something working out, then maybe it shouldn’t take 6000 years or you start to wonder what the point of the prophecy even was. But in real history, we do get huge spans of time in which nothing much happens or changes, at least in one region or another, so I might find that kind of history realistic in a novel. If perhaps less interesting.

    This sort of comment sure points out how MANY books out there I haven’t read. Sigh. I really must try Sanderson sometime.

  10. In the real world we don’t often know the significance of what’s happening except sometimes in hindsight. But I wouldn’t agree that nothing happens for long stretches of time. If that was really true, we wouldn’t be here. :)

    Hodgell is (MILD SPOILERS) not so much about a prophecy as about a race which was adopted by a god, given a racial geas to fight against the god’s enemy (a compulsion most everyone involved feels even if they don’t really want to), and has been fighting a slow retreat ever since, perhaps for 30,000 years. (END MILD SPOILERS)

    The problem is that most everything interesting in the story seems to have happened around 3,000 years ago and then from about 200 years ago to present. There are token nods to history, like songs singers sing, but not much that seems to happen for any reason other than to advance the plot in the present. It’s as if historical persons all asked themselves, “What can I do to make sure my descendants have the worst mess possible to deal with, even if it makes my life worse too?” and then did it… they don’t seem to have had real motivations and personalities of their own.

  11. On worlds seeming larger or smaller – this reminds me of a discussion I had with a friend about MD Russell’s SPARROW. (I had actually stopped reading SPARROW halfway through as I realized I was massively bored.) Anyway…. She was grumbling about the worldbuilding. We eventually pinned it down to there being no sense of anything outside of what was on the page. If rooms were described they weren’t attached to houses, streets, cities… everything stopped with what was in the text. It felt like a Hollywood set.

    Other writers can imply a lot, and even if they don’t describe the cities, streets, surroundings in detail, they provide enough for our minds to fill in. Rachel did it in HOUSE OF SHADOWS, frex.

    Hodgel, which I’ve just read at our teenager’s insistance, has LOTS of details, a lot of them rather quirky: ‘arboreal drift’ being plants that pick up and move in the spring. Even trees. One willow takes root in a man’s foot, and is quite a problem to dislodge. Her gods…The earth goddess knits ‘foxkin’ (flying foxlike critters), and when a volcano erupts all the goddess’ fat gets melted down into her feet. Our protagonist has to work the fat back over the body. Hanging the goddess by her feet and thumping them on the ceiling works best. The desert that sometimes turns back into water briefly. it’s a very strange world. the city in the first book has factions, gods, temples, distinct subcultures. The Kencyr, who are refugees from another world, were recruited by their god (the one true god – in their opinions) to fight the encroaching darkness, umpty-thousand years ago, and have only been losing ever since, aren’t native to the world, and aren’t really interested in it, even if they’ve been there for over a thousand years. They figure they’re not going to stay. And all the POVs have been from them – we get as much as we do about it because our protaganist is separated from her people, has only a hazy memory of her past, and is living with the locals for the first book. And she’s an intelligent character who is interested in lots of things.

    For all the furnishings of worlds in danger, gods, etc., I don’t think of them as epic, though. They’re a bit too down-to-earth and quirky, and yes, single-focused, to read as epic.

    Haven’t read the Elliott. I have read some of Overstreet’s Auralia – something about his writing bugs me – his world isn’t a Hollywood set, but I’m not sure I believe it’s a world, either. It doesn’t come across as all that coherent for me. It does seem to be epic, though.

  12. Nothing major — in the way of technological advances or political tumult. Instead you get millinia of people farming the same way it’s always been done, with minor changes at the top from time to time — look at long periods of Chinese history. Or Egypt.

  13. That is definitely a strange world. Whoa. Hanging the goddess by her feet to redistribute her fat! That’s certainly unexpected.

    I thought Mary Doria Russell’s SPARROW was amazing in terms of dialogue, and amazing in what she did with characters who were very flat, but flat the way caricatures are flat — flat for effect, and very effective they were, too. I didn’t notice at the time the flatness of the setting! What an interesting observation.

    I didn’t believe in her alien species, btw. Evolutionarily, what she set up makes no sense. And what she put her protagonist through is the second-worst thing I’ve ever seen in fiction. But for setting up a society that is going to be thoroughly misunderstood by absolutely anybody who encounters it, yeah, she did that.

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