Daniel Abraham has been a kind of King-in-Waiting in the fantasy genre for the past few years. His brilliant The Long Price Quartet received great critical praise and yet flew under the radar for many in the fantasy community. He's been nominated for the World Fantasy Award, the Hugo, and the Nebula, and rightly lauded for his amazing short fiction, which won him an International Horror Guild Award. He's also collaborated with the likes of George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois.
Now he's back with an epic new fantasy series, Dagger and Coin, that might indeed put him on the throne. The first book, The Dragon's Path, has just been published by Orbit. The novel received a starred review in Publishers Weekly, which noted that "this rich, exciting, and fresh epic fantasy series opener [starts] in a fairly standard fashion: an orphaned girl and a once great general escape from a city under siege with the help of a traveling theater troupe. But that's where the clichÃ©s end"¦an enjoyable and genuinely innovative adventure story."
Amazon.com caught up with Abraham to talk about his old work, his new work, and the conventions of heroic fantasy.
Amazon.com: How is The Dragon's Path, the first book in your Dagger and Coin series, different from your previous heroic fantasy series The Long Price Quartet? Is there a different animating impulse, slant, or...?
Daniel Abraham: There is. The Long Price Quartet books were built to challenge a lot of the expectations of the genre. The structure of the novels across the character's lives, the non-European setting, the relatively low profile that traditional war played, the economic influences of magic. I wanted to do something really different. And I'm really pleased with how that all came out. I'm proud of those books. But I've already done them, and I'm not interested in doing them again. The Dagger and the Coin books are built to lean the other direction by looking at the strengths and expectations of the genre and trying to act within them. It's still the kind of story I like to tell, and there are some things I do that aren't the genre standard, but I want to do them all as accessibly as possible. It's kind of the difference between karate and aikido; I started off trying to break the conventions like splitting a board, and now I'm trying to take them redirect their energy.
Amazon.com: There's been extensive debate in the SF/Fantasy community over what I would call the issue of realism. Escapism has come under fire as being an easy way of ignoring social, cultural, or religious issues. How does your new series engage in this conversation?
Daniel Abraham: I haven't made sense of the escapism versus realism argument yet, but I get the feeling we're fighting against our definitions. If you take Lord of the Rings as the foundational modern fantasy story, you've got a profoundly moral, profoundly engaged story about the futility of war and the nobility of disarmament and personal sacrifice (with really problematic racial subtexts). John Grisham, for instance, doesn't have orcs or elves or walking trees: by any measure that makes his stuff more realistic. I'm not sure it makes it less escapist. Also there's a trap when you try to address real social problems: you can't take on everything. Books are smaller than real life, and whenever you simplify, things get left out. You can make something so complete and realistic and authentic that it becomes unreadable.
Hopefully The Dragon's Path doesn't feel like a sermon. There are some issues that I'm thinking about in The Dagger and the Coin books about the relationship between doubt and certainty, but I think you can miss that and still enjoy the story. I didn't intend to directly address racism, but it's been pointed out to me that it's pretty central to the books too. Sometimes I try to get a well-rounded, authentic-feeling world and I overshoot.
Amazon.com: I'm curious about how you approach action or battle scenes. Joe Abercrombie mentioned studying military history, for example. What goes into a good scene of this sort, as opposed to something where the reader is left confuse or not caring?
Daniel Abraham: I've gone ahead and gotten the military histories and read about individual battles and tactical and strategic discussions. The thing is, they don't turn my crank. I was never a tabletop gamer. Back when I played things like Starcraft, I was more interested in the resource allocation and building part. Then I'd save up enough force that I didn't have to think much about battlefield finesse. The good news is I have a pretty deep bench on that kind of thing. I can run my scenes past folks like Walter Jon Williams and S. M. Stirling, and they very graciously tell me where I'm getting it wrong. In a way, I think it works to my advantage. When it comes to the battle scene, I'm pretty much going to get bored and confused first. If the scene works for me, it's likely to work for most folks.
Epic fantasy--to be entirely too broad about it--is about war, and relationships to war, and consequences of war. And the parts of that conversation that turn my crank aren't "how do you take the hill" so much as "what about this is inevitable and what could still be changed."
Amazon.com: You've worked with George R.R. Martin before. As a fan of his fantasy, I'm curious if you learned anything from him, writing-wise?
Daniel Abraham: Oh, lots. George was actually one of my professors at Clarion West back in 1998. I co-wrote the novel Hunter's Run with him and Gardner Dozois. Now that I'm doing the scripts for the Game of Thrones comic books, I'm reading A Song of Ice and Fire very closely. Dragon's Path has borrowed structurally from Game of Thrones in some ways.
The big things I've learned from George are the places we disagree, though. He and I have pretty much diametrically opposed working styles. He calls it gardeners and architects. He's a gardener, immersing himself in the story and giving the book room to grow, sort exploring as he goes. I'm an architect. I outline and plan and have weird fetishes about wordcount and chapter length.
Knowing George has definitely made my writing clearer and helped me pay attention to the emotional lives of the characters, but really there are a lot of people who could have taught me that. The thing that I learned--that I think you have to learn if you're going to have friends and colleagues who are in his class of success--is that just because what he does makes him millions, it doesn't mean I ought to do it too.
Amazon.com: What's your personal take on the relationship between reader and writer? How much do you owe the reader, and does that differ from what you owe yourself as the writer?
Daniel Abraham: I've been thinking about that a lot recently. What do I owe the reader? I owe her my best, honest effort. I owe her my respect. I owe it to her that I take my work at least as seriously as I expect her to take it. What I owe myself is work that I enjoy and that helps me become a better craftsman. The good news is that Venn diagram has a lot of overlap.
Amazon.com: How do you manage the personal and the epic in your fantasy? There's always a danger of pulling back too far or being too in close.
Daniel Abraham: You make something epic by getting in close. You get a character who you genuinely like and care about, and put them at a moment that changes the world. Every time there's ever been a moment like that in the real world, there have been people present, and all of them have had stories. You could have a short story about a soldier trying to make sure his last letter got into the post before he stormed Normandy beach and it could still have that sense of epic scale. Samwise and Frodo and Gollum walking into Mordor is a pretty small, straightforward story, and it's huge. The trick is to show those moments where someone's intimate, personal story is at the fulcrum of history.
Amazon.com: You've now been around the block a few times in this weird business we call publishing. What's the key to success?
Daniel Abraham: Accept the fact that writers are professional gamblers. Good books will fail, terrible books will succeed. Everyone I know who's been in this business for more than a few years has had their career crap out once or twice. Sometimes they made bad calls. Sometimes they just rolled snake-eyes. Don't take it personally and keep showing up. That's the best I've got.
Amazon.com: Finally, can you give us some insight into the next books in the Dagger and the Coin series. Any sneak previews?
Daniel Abraham: The good will suffer, the evil will rejoice. People you care about will do things that are petty and noble and heartbreaking. Someone will be betrayed. Someone will die stupidly, someone nobly. A dangerous scheme to save the world will be put in place, and go awry. I'll ask you to forgive the unforgivable. The dragons will speak. The war will come. The end will be bittersweet.
No reason to be ashamed of it. It's what we come here for.