The thirteen races of humanity have survived the downfall of the Dragon Empire and forged new kingdoms. The great nation of Antea now seeks to expand its influence into the Free Cities, sending its army to conquer the city of Vanai. Ahead of the Antean advance, the Medean Bank evacuates its Vanaian treasury by caravan, escorted by a young ward of the bank, Cithrin Bel Sarcour, and one of the most respected soldiers in the city, Captain Marcus Wester.
Meanwhile, in Camnipol, capital of Antea, Baron Dawson Kalliam finds himself engaged in a clandestine struggle as two factions clash for influence over the Severed Throne, with the assault on Vanai just one of the intrigues in motion. Geder Palliako, a minor nobleman accompanying the army, is less interested in glory and plunder than in knowledge and lore, and in Vanai finds hints that will lead him to unexpected ends. And in a remote and distant mountain range, a shadowy organisation holds secrets that the world has long forgotten...
A bald plot summary suggests that The Dragon's Path is the same old: armies marching and lords politicking whilst an ancient threat lurks in the wings. To some degree this is understandable: after completing the Asian-influenced Long Price Quartet, Abraham decided to pen a more traditional fantasy series. The Dagger and the Coin is set in a land more overtly influenced by late Medieval/early Renaissance Europe, complete with powerful kingdoms, feuding city-states and a banking institution reminiscent of the Medici. On the one hand this may be considered a retreat by Abraham into writing something less original, but on the other it may have been a wise move, given that readers responded to the near-blanket critical acclaim of The Long Price Quartet by not buying it (at least not in the United States).
Still, whilst Abraham may be swimming in more familiar waters, that's not to say he doesn't put 110% effort into it. His trademark impressive characterisation remains the focus of the book: whilst major and epic events rock the world, his interest is more in the development of Dawson, Geder, Cithrin and Wester, our main POV characters (there's a few other minor ones, likely to rise more to the fore in future books). These characters are somewhat complex and all deeply conflicted. Dawson is presented somewhat sympathetically as a loyalist to the king, but he's also a staunchly traditionalist opponent of any change in the social order calls for greater freedom being to resonate from the populace. Geder is selfishly only interested in pursuing his interest in book-learning, which seems harmless enough until he is given a position of authority and promptly displays a side we hadn't seen before. Cithrin is a confident negotiator and investor who is utterly lost when faced with the day-to-day realities of surviving on the road, whilst Wester is the old soldier who strives for cynicism but keeps being drawn to idealistic causes.
For The Long Price, Abraham used economics as a casus belli for the conflict, but didn't fully engage with the economics in depth. This is understandable as making economics interesting to the average reader can be tricky, though in the past Scott Lynch, KJ Parker and, perhaps unexpectedly, Raymond E. Feist have made good fists of it, whilst it is a minor but important driving point in conflicts in both A Song of Ice and Fire and The Wheel of Time. In The Dragon's Path Abraham deals with the economics in a more direct fashion, making one of the main characters a banker and one of the most powerful institutions in the world a bank. He avoids tedium by showing how the bank's activities impact on the wider politics of the world, though I suspect this will be more critical in subsequent volumes.
Abraham's prose is enjoyable to read, though perhaps a tad more prosaic here than in the more lyrical moments of The Long Price. The book isn't as fast and furious as his other 2011 release, Leviathan Wakes (under the pen-name James S.A. Corey), but is still well-paced, laying out the world and the stakes alongside the characters and politics.
On the weaker side of things, there are some moments when each of the four main characters loses the reader's sympathy (one of them never gets it back, but remains a fascinating protagonist). Intriguing side-characters get less page time than might be wished (Dawson's wife, Clara, has a solid subplot of her own and is one of the more interesting characters in the book). If you've read interviews with Abraham about what his influences were on the series, there are a few moments when those influences become a little too apparent (especially the parallel between Geder and events in a certain SF series; not Firefly). More problematic is that Abraham, having established thirteen different branches of humanity, doesn't give us much info on what these differences are, reducing them to just names, though in fairness Abraham has acknowledged this issue and promised to put more information in the sequels and on his website.
Overall, however, The Dragon's Path (****½) is a winner. The characters are engaging and well-motivated, the plot intriguing despite some surface familiarity, and events are resolved enough to not make the wait for the second book, The King's Blood, too painful. The book will be published on 7 April in the USA and on 21 April in the UK.