Middle Novel Syndrome

Daniel Abraham’s follow-up to ‘Age of Ash’ doesn’t justify a trilogy

Blade of DreamSecond instalments are notoriously difficult. That’s true of sophomore school years, second seasons of TV shows or — as with Daniel Abraham’s new Blade of Dream — middle novels of trilogies. In the aftermath of a fresh, new opening, the pitfalls are numerous.

Abraham is too good a writer to fall into staleness, but there is a surprising lack of urgency to this second book in the Kithamar series. In Age of Ash, Abraham established the city of Kithamar as an almost living entity and the “thread of Kithamar” as an actual living parasite at its helm. In what feels like a steppingstone to the final book of the trilogy, Blade of Dream (I have no idea what the title means) follows the reign of Prince Byrn a Sal — the first ruler of Kithamar free of the thread for a millennium.

The story is mostly about the prince’s teenage daughter Elaine a Sal and her young paramour Garreth Left. This gives Abraham a chance to recount the excitement of first romance which, since Kithamar forbids it, comes with secrecy and dangerous trysts. Perhaps more eagerly, though, Abraham uses them to further the city professions, neighborhoods, and traditions of Kithamar. Through Left, he can outline the machinations of the merchant way of life. Through the princess he can show the process of a noble house becoming elevated to royalty and the majesty of Palace Hill itself. And, through the ensuing conflicts, Abraham can explore the relations between Hansch and Inlisc peoples as well as the law and the criminal underworld.

The young lovers spend most of the novel trying to find out what’s bothering the new prince and what is at stake for them and the kingdom. The trouble is, that with the reader also in the dark there is mystery but no real hurry to find an answer. The crisp, evocative prose ferries the reader around the city as effectively as one of the princess’ carriages, but the trips rarely seem to be vital: the lovers are disempowered, we almost never see the prince.

Abraham is desperately — and continuously — trying to impress us with the distinct diversity, the organic vitality, the cruel pragmatism, and the transmitted history of Kithamar. It doesn’t always work but, the young lovers at the heart of the novel show the various ways the city passes from generation to generation. They glean information and experience about the city through memory, traditions, lore, or history. Or theology.

In accounting for the ancient gods who play crucial roles in the ongoing chronicles of Kithamar, Abraham chooses to write an actual theology and put it in various mouths. Roughly speaking, gods appear as feelings and then gather substance as those feelings duplicate or consolidate locally until they become actual entities themselves. It’s an interesting metaphor but, as the basis for a major city, an unconvincing philosophy.

Ironically, perhaps, for a plot so centered on teens who are coming of age, the most compelling characters in the novel are older. Garreth’s elders at the House of Left have exigencies and nuanced histories that open his–and our–eyes. And the captain of the guard, Divol Senit, steals the scene whenever he appears. The most memorable moment of the book comes when he is moping in the tavern and Abbit, the taproom keeper gives him a pep talk. The exchange is salty but insightful and, in the end, pivotal. Throughout, Senit draws on a wealth of experience and acquaintances unavailable to the lovers and brings the most fascinating aspects out of the people around him.

While a pleasant read, there was little compelling about Blade of Dream, let’s hope the payoff comes in the third book. Arthur C. Clarke once said that “No trilogy should have more than four books.” The burden of proof still lies on Abraham to show that this trilogy should have more than one.


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Dan Friedman

Dan Friedman is the former executive editor of the Forward and the author of an ebook about Tears for Fears, the 80s rock band. He has a PhD from Yale and writes about books, whisky and the dangers of online hate. Subscribe to his newsletter.

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