Thursday, 14 August 2014

Fantasy Review: 'The Widow's House' by Daniel Abraham

The Widow's House (The Dagger and the Coin, #4)

Warning: this is the fourth book in a five-book series, and for anyone who hasn't read all the previous books, there will be spoilers ahead, so read at your own risk.

When I first saw the title of this book, I deduced that the widow was Clara, whose husband Dawson was executed as a traitor in a previous book. Clara had a walk-on part in the first book, and her own chapters thereafter, but now she finally takes centre-stage, not necessarily as a player in her own right (although to some extent she is), but more specifically as the mother of sons involved in different ways in the ongoing war. So, the widow's house: not a physical house, but house as in family.

Clara is one of four point of view characters, to cover the full scale of the war that's been gradually building since book one. The four are: Geder, the Regent and spider-priest-motivated driving force behind it; Cithrin, the banker opposed to him for personal as well as ideological reasons; Marcus the soldier with a long, battle-scarred history; and Clara herself. The book follows the Game of Thrones principle, where chapters from different characters rotate, although here the rotation is quite regular. This has the usual disadvantage: a cliff-hanger at the end of a chapter can't be resolved until that character's turn comes round again, usually four chapters later. Authors, please don't do this, it's very annoying. At its best, the plot flows seamlessly from one character's point of view to the next, but mostly there's that little hiccup of adjustment when you flip to a new chapter, that where-were-we? moment.

When Abraham pitched this series, he offered either a three book version or this, the five book version. This is the first point at which I'm tempted to say: three might have been better. The actual events of this book could be written on half an A4 sheet of paper, and not using an abnormally small font, either. The story doesn't sprawl in the way that some other, very expansive, series do (George R R Martin, I'm looking at you...), but it isn't tightly written, either. Now, in the hands of a master wordsmith like Abraham, this isn't a problem. A chapter curls around you like smoke, warm and comforting (like Clara’s pipe, if you want the full analogy), and it's only afterwards that you think: nothing very much happened there. This is particularly obvious with Clara's thread, since she's thrown into the role of an observer of the war and not much else. I like Clara, but her plotline was stretched very thin here.

The author's great strength (OK, one of his many great strengths - can you tell I'm a fan?) is the depth of characterisation and so it is here. All the characters feel fully rounded and as real as anyone you could meet in real life. Even Geder, or perhaps especially Geder. In many ways he’s a villain of the first order, but also a deeply insecure and uncertain man. And some of his moments with Prince Aster, the heir to the throne, show him as a caring, even compassionate man, with a certain wisdom. His care for the pregnant wife of his best friend (and possibly only friend) is both moving and slightly creepy in its intensity. The previous books were littered with horrifying 'Geder moments' like the burning of Vanai, or the summary execution of his closest advisers, with the result that you tiptoe through Geder’s chapters wondering when he’s going to explode. He still has no sense of perspective, and puts far too much trust in the spider priests who have an agenda of their own. The most worrying aspect of Geder, for me, is that I actually like him, or, I suppose, pity and sympathise with him. He's done some terrible things, but he's also an enormously tragic character, and part of me desperately wants him to find a happy ending, to settle down somewhere to a quiet, obscure life with his books.

Cithrin, on the other hand, irritates me. She always has, although her juvenile behaviour in the early books was at least understandable by virtue of her age and social inexperience. Her sole function seems to be to do incredibly stupid things for most of the book, or to lounge around in a drunken depression, getting into trouble and being rescued by everyone else, and then pull a rabbit out of a hat at the last minute and have everyone proclaim her a genius. Two cities have fallen solely because of her stupidity, and she's not done yet. Pah. Marcus I like a lot, although he's typical of the stoical, worldly-wise, slightly cynical warrior type, whose experience keeps him out of a lot of trouble. And keeps others out of trouble too. But then I have a soft spot for stoical, slightly cynical warrior types. And I do like sidekick Yardem. Especially his ears. It was nice to find out a little more of their dramatic history, and highly entertaining when the pair of them turned up at Carse to have everyone say: ‘Yeah, yeah, sure you’re Marcus Wester and Yardem Hale… Whoa!’

While we're on the subject of characters, I’m a big fan of Vincen Coe, Clara’s servant-turned-lover, but please, Mr Abraham, will you stop beating him up? However, my absolute favourite in this book has to be Inys (and if you don't know who Inys is, go back and reread book three, last chapter). Everything he says and does is entirely believable, given his history and his nature. Plus he has some of the best moments in the book. Him and the pirates. I mean, pirates and a dragon - what are you waiting for, folks? Go out and buy this book immediately.

There are a few minor grumbles. The cunning men (sorcerers, basically) become even more useful in this book, but there’s no explanation of what they do or how it works. Much of their capability is dismissed as mere trickery, put on to impress people, yet their talent for healing seems to be quite real and rather useful. A little more detail about them would be nice. And a surprising grumble: my Kindle version had an astonishing number of typos in it, far more than I would expect in a major release like this (and this wasn’t an ARC copy, it was the actual day-of-release version).

This book feels far more like a transition than the previous ones in the series. Everything is being put in place for the final confrontation, but there were no huge out-of-nowhere moments, just some nice little twists that made me smile. And somehow it felt repetitious, both in phraseology (fingers were repeatedly laced together, cotton was fresh from the boll), but also in plot terms - the Cithrin plan, the dramatic escapes, the out-of-nowhere attacks, yet I never felt that the main characters were seriously at risk. Even Geder was milder this time round, still creepy as hell, especially over Cithrin, but perhaps less likely to explode at any moment, channelling his energies into his best friend’s wife and baby, and a clever little piece of engineering research. However, the important factor in this book was the shift in attitude. From being an unstoppable force, Geder and the spider priests now have vulnerabilities, and the opposition have plans and weapons. And a dragon. Inys wasn't the get-out-of-jail-free card that might have been expected, but he's still a wild card. I have no idea how this is going to end, but I can't wait to find out. Four stars.

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