I caught a bad case of the summer flu recently and as that tends to make somewhat unfocused, I looked around for some light reading that would not require too much attention to get me through the period of sickness. I eventually hit on Daniel Abraham’s Fantasy series The Dagger and the Coin which, as it turned out, did its job quite nicely, keeping me pleasantly distracted from my frequent bouts of coughing and sneezing. And I even got a bit more than I bargained for, as you will find out if you manage to make your way to the end of this overlong post.
Abraham is also the author of the Long Price Quartet, which in my opinion is one of the best Fantasy series in recent memory, and definitely one of the most originals, eschewing pretty much all of the traditional trappings of Epic Fantasy in a series of four novels that are as concise as they are intricate, taking place in a vaguely Asian-inspired yet highly original world and telling a story that is both epic and essentially human.
The Long Price Quartet won a lot of critical acclaim but apparently was not particularly successful commercial, and it seems not unlikely that this had a part in Abraham’s decision to go for something more traditional with his next Fantasy series (he also wrote a series of Paranormal novels as M.L.N. Hanover and co-authored the hugely successfully, still ongoing space opera The Expanse). This starts with a distinctly more sprawling format (five medium-sized volumes rather than four slim ones) and continues with a pseudo-Medieval setting that will seem instantly familiar to most readers of Epic Fantasy. Abraham does not go quite as far as to include elves and dwarves, but he does have dragons, and they do play an important part, even if it is mostly in past events.
The Dagger and the Coin takes place in a world ruled by dragons, dragons who enslaved humans and split them apart into thirteen different races. When the first novel, The Dragon’s Path, starts, the dragons have been gone for thousands of years, presumably disappeared down the eponymous Dragon’s Path into civil war and mutual self-destruction. The Empire of Antea is expanding ruthlessly, and in its grasp for domination it is aided by the priests of the mysterious spider goddess who not only have the ability to discern whether someone is lying or believes what he says, but also possess uncanny powers of conviction. And while Antea, led by its Lord Regent, conquers one nation after another a small group of people set themselves to resist its apparently invincible forces…
So far, so conventional. But Daniel Abraham would not be the author he is if all he did was regurgitate well-chewed Fantasy tropes, and one takes a closer look things start to appear quite different.
(This paranthesis marks the border to spoiler country; so if you’re worried about spoilers, do turn back here.)
Starting with its title, The Dagger and the Coin promises to concern itself not only with war and fighting, but also pay attention to finance and banking. This is not totally new especially in historical novels (Abraham gives a nod to Dorothy Dunnett’s House of Niccolo series in his acknowledgements) but it’s extremely rare especially in Fantasy novels. Dagger and coin, then, mark the two opposed paths of war and banking, each of them also represented by one of the four point of view characters (a number the novels stick to, although with occasional brief excursions to different characters): Geder, the Lord Regent of Antea, and Cithrin, a young but brilliant banker.
Geder is clearly the villain of the series, although that is not obvious from the start: When we first meet him, he comes across the Fantasy version of a geek who is majorly into “speculative history,” something his peers wrinkle their collective nose at and is being harsly bullied. In short, Abraham initially sets Geder up as a character to if not like, then at least to sympathize with and gradually reveals his pettiness, his self-delusions and his potential for cruelty. And while Cithrin is clearly Geder’s antipode, the novels hint again and again that in some ways she also is his mirror image. Abraham may not quite be on the level with Bertolt Brecht’s dictum that robbing a bank is the by far the lesser crime when compared to founding a bank but he also leaves no doubt that banks are not necessarily a force for good and generally more interested in profit than making the world a better place.
The extremes of good and evil do remain clearly distinguishable in The Dagger and the Coin (this is no Grimdark Fantasy), but between them there is a large grey zone where things become murky and hard to distinguish. This is already a far cry from traditional Epic Fantasy, but Abraham even does one better by making precisely the denial of this moral grey zone, the insistence that there is only black and white, only absolute Truth and absolutely Evil, absolute Truth or absolute Falsehood – which is so characteristic of most Epic Fantasy – the central tenet of his version of the very traditional ancient-evil-that-is-being-reawakened, namely the spider goddess and her priests. Except that again things are not at all as they first appear – when two of our protagonists go forth to heroically slay the evil goddess it turns out that she does not even exist. Like the Long Pride Quartet, The Dagger and the Coin is a human-scaled story (dragons notwithstanding); there are no gods here except those created by man and only very few magic, and the ancient evil turns out to be if not man- then dragon-made and feeds (metaphorically) on very human weaknesses.
This is also Fantasy that does not shy away from recognisable references to the real world – the money-making scheme which Cithrin cooks up pretty much describes the invention of paper money and the way the Antean Empire’s grasp for world domination unfolds and ultimately fails (not to mention its institutionalized racism) bears more than a passing resemblance to Nazi Germany. And I do not believe that is accident or Abraham running out of ideas of his own, but rather think that he is opening up his world intentionally, inviting the reader to draw those parallels, because he is after more than just telling an entertaining story with his novels. This is probably most obvious in the series’ title and the central conflict it designates: Dagger and coin clearly have a symbolic significance beyond the borders of the Fantasy world of the novels. The dagger obviously stands in for violence and conquest (although one does wonder why Abraham did not go for the more genre-appropriate sword – maybe he wanted a reminiscence to “cloak and dagger”? or he is already indicating with that choice that he will not be doing things quite the traditional way? Or maybe it’s just the number of syllables…) while the coin not quite so obviously (not until you’ve actually started reading the novels, that is) stands in for negotiations and compromise. So far, so conventional, but things do get more complicated – for one thing, the dichotomy is not all that clear-cut, good and evil divided by grades rather than essence. Which is something most contemporary Epic Fantasy has figured out these days; Daniel Abraham takes things not simply a step farther, however (like for example Joe Abercrombie does), but in a completely different direction. If the side of peace intends to win, then it cannot simply vanquish the side of conquest, because that would just repeat what they were doing and merely prolong the conflict rather than ending it. Instead, what is needed is to “overcome the idea of war” as one character puts it (more or less, I’m quoting from memory) and find a means to resolve the conflict that does not rely on violence.
In short, The Dagger and the Coin is pacifist Epic Fantasy, and you don’t come across that very often. Of course there is lots of Fantasy that is not about violence at all, but as soon as things get Epic, they usually get violent, too, and it’s all about epic heroes swinging epic swords in epic battles. We do not get much of that in these novels – there is barely any fighting at, and what is happening in the way of battles almost always happens offstage (we do get glimpses of the not-so-pretty aftermath, however). Abraham does not quite avoid that other staple of Epic Fantasy narrative, the travelogue, but he does keep it to a minimum and actually uses it for advancing the plot or deepening character development rather than for showing off his world building skills. Of course, the reason for the latter may be that world building is markedly one of the weaker points of The Dagger and the Coin (and where it falls short of Abraham’s earlier Fantasy series). It is great in the particulars, especially the descriptive passages which are full of richly imagined, vivid details, but remains strangely vague when it comes to the bigger picture. I am certain that Abraham has everything worked out in his notes, but I felt that he just doesn’t let enough of it filter down into the actual novel, and that can be a bit frustrating. Partly this is certainly intentional – the novels do not spoon-feed the reader with bland infodump gruel but rather serve it up as small tasty morsels over the course of the narrative. Which is very commendable in principle but I could not help but feel that Abraham maybe errs too much on the side of nutritional value and leaves the reader unsatisfied – to name but the most striking instance, it is certainly possible to piece together what must have more or less happened for the dragons to disappear, but one really wishes this would have been fleshed out a bit more.
In general, however, what I probably loved most about The Dagger and the Coin is precisely the way it does not overstate what it has to say, but rather puts it in front of the readers and then lets them draw their own conclusions. So, for example, religion is never explicitly criticized in any of the novels, but I cannot help but find it significant that the spiders whose function is to make the human race destroy itself by inducing them to endless war against each other coalesce into a religion in the mind of their victims. Another example is the choice of point of view characters – not all of them are exactly likeable and in fact one of them is the main villain of the series – who, of course, does not think of himself as a villain at all, and it is left to the reader to see through his rationalizations and self-delusions. And even the likeable characters are not entirely reliable, particular in the way they think about themselves, so the reader has to be constantly critical of them and pay attention to how other characters assess them (not simply taking them at face value, either, of course). Which, it has to be said, somewhat lessens the emotional involvement with the characters, but at the same time considerably enhances the intellectual pleasure to be gotten from the series as a whole. Whether that is an adequate pay-off, every reader will have to decide for themselves, but I for my part certainly enjoyed it. In any case, Abraham is subtle where other authors of Epic Fantasy are ham-fisted, he lets readers work out implications on their own where others work them over with a sledgehammer – and yes, I think that this is another instance of the coin and dagger metaphor, this time raised to a meta-level.
The project Abraham pursues with The Dagger and the Coin is very ambitious; unfortunately, however, in the end he does not quite manage to pull it off. On the level of plot, the way the priests of the spider goddess are defeated seems a bit too neat and pat, and not all that plausible – the cult is rife with apostasy and schism, and still every single of its priests heeds the call of their leader when he calls in a meeting? Based on the way Abraham has described the cult and its purpose before, namely as something that is meant to bring discord and violence wherever it goes, this just seems not very likely. More seriously, there are issues on the level of imagery and concept as well: Frying all of the priests in a giant blast of fire is not exactly what I’d call a non-violent solution and was rather disappointing after Cithrin had declared on several occasions that she was looking for a peaceful way to resolve the conflict. I kept waiting for her to come up with something really ingenious and overwhelmingly clever, and I don’t think the actual plan was either.
The most serious problem, however, is that the central conflict is not really solved by means of banking at all – if one wants to be generous, one could say that a workable plan is found by people applying a banker’s mindset to the issues to be solved, but that plan itself does not involve anything banking-related at all, but only involves some fairly crude deception and some terminal violence, the latter in particular going completely against the grain of the general argument. I suppose one might argue that this shows that nothing is ever resolved without compromise, even if one has to comprise on making compromises itself, but that seems like a lazy way out. I find another line of thought more interesting, namely that the series at its heart is not about violence vs. negotiation at all, but something quite different.
I said before that one way to view the ending is that Anthea is pacified and the priests of the spider goddess overcome is by applying a certain mindset to the situation, one that is not rooted in war and conquest and would thus just perpetuate the conflict and work in favour of the spiders. In other words, the way to overcome the spiders is to perceive and interpret things in a certain way, a way that is not prescribed by violence. Just to fully accept that there is more than one story to be told about the world already undermines the worldview the spiders attempt to propagate and in the end, Cithrin overcomes them by – telling a different story. As one of the characters in The Spider’s War puts it (actual quote this time): “To look at the world and doubt the stories you’ve heard of it is your right. Your responsibility, even.”
And this is what I think really lies at the centre of this series – the difference between the dagger and the coin, between warriors and bankers, between conquerors and negotiators is not one of essence, but it lies in the kind of stories they tell about the world and themselves. And it is those stories The Dagger and the Coin is about Once you pay attention to it, you notice the storytelling motif pop up all over the five novels, and all kinds of things start falling into place – there is, for example, the troupe of actors two of the point of view characters travel with for a while in the first volume of the series and which then keep showing up at the most unexpected places. Once one realizes that these novels are mainly about the power of stories this takes on an entirely new significance and a much greater importance. Or take what I said above about untrustworthy point of view characters – this also relates to stories. To quote again: “I find that unless we are very, very careful there can be a difference between who we are and the stories we tell ourselves about who we are.” Which, of course, is blatantly what happens to Geder but can also be observed to a lesser degree in several other characters. And there are the priests of the spider goddess who also figure into this theme. They have the special power to discern whether someone is telling a lie or telling a truth – but they fail to see that there is a difference between what is perceived as truth and what is true. Therefore, all they ever can tell is whether someone believes to be telling the truth but not whether what he says is the truth. So every opinion which is believed to be true becomes an absolute truth for them, and as there is an infinite number of opinions – of stories told about the world – none of which they can doubt since are held to be true and therefore must be true, everyone who disagrees of necessity becomes an apostate and needs to be eradicated. I don’t think I need to explain how and where this refers to our real world, or, indeed, is easily applicable to current events.
So maybe David Abraham is not missing his subject of the dagger / coin dichotomy at all, but only introduced it as a sleight of hand, to distract us while he introduces another subject, tells a different story. Given the evidence, this appears very likely – but even so, I’d consider The Dagger and the Coin is not quite as great as the Long Price Quartet due to other issues I have mentioned above. I still found it very much worth reading, however, not just because it was a fun romp but because presents the very rare case of a Fantasy series which invites readers to use their minds when reading it and which rewards continued thinking about it after they have closed the final volume. It certainly occupied my thoughts to quite some degree, as you can see by the rather ridiculous length of this post.