A Betrayal in Winter by Daniel Abraham
“Constant struggle is the price of power.”
A Betrayal in Winter, the second book in Daniel Abraham’s LONG PRICE QUARTET begins about 15 years after the events of A Shadow in Summer (which you probably should read before beginning A Betrayal Winter or before reading this review).
Maati, the poet of Saraykeht, was disgraced by the disappearance of the andat Seedless and the subsequent downfall of the cotton trade in Saraykeht. He and Liat had a baby boy, but Liat left Maati years ago because he seemed to be going nowhere and didn’t seem wholly committed to his family. Maati hasn’t seen them in years, and he has also not seen his former friend Otah since that fateful night when Seedless disappeared. Maati’s life is dull and somewhat meaningless.
Things get a lot more interesting, though, when someone murders the son of the ailing Khai of Machi and Otah, the missing younger son, is accused of the crime. According to rumor, Otah is planning to kill all his brothers so he can be Khai. When a delegation from Machi arrives in Saraykeht to ask Maati to help them find Otah, Maati agrees to return with them to Machi where he’ll look for Otah. There he meets a young poet who struggles to control an andat called Stone-Made-Soft who is the secret behind Machi’s successful mines.
Meanwhile, the country of Galt is still scheming to destroy the andats and the political structure of the Khaiem. They are working behind the scenes, just as they were in Saraykeht before its cotton industry was toppled. They might even be involved in the plan to kill Otah’s brothers….
I loved A Shadow in Summer, but A Betrayal in Winter is even better. It’s intense, mysterious, unpredictable, and utterly tragic. This story almost has it all — political conspiracies, a murder mystery, unthinkable betrayals, an original magic system, touching reunions, men and women looking for redemption and/or power, and serious ethical dilemmas for everybody. I say “almost” because there aren’t any female characters that I like and, partly for that reason, the romances are unsatisfying. Also, the love triangle in this story is too reminiscent of the previous books’ love triangle. (But the romance is only a minor part of the plot and doesn’t really need to be satisfying, I suppose.)
There were some secondary characters in A Betrayal in Winter that I really liked, most notably the librarian of Machi — I thought he was hilariously pathetic. There were a couple of characters who get so deeply tangled in their dastardly intrigues that I actually felt sorry for them, even though I thought they were getting exactly what they deserved.
As with the first novel, I am fascinated by the magic system, which is based on poetry. The andats are not human — they are powerful concepts made flesh — and they don’t appreciate their enslavement to human poets. I can’t wait to see where this goes in the next novels. I’m also hoping to discover what has become of a couple of characters from the first novel who are merely mentioned in A Betrayal in Winter.
I continue to listen to Tantor Audio’s production of THE LONG PRICE QUARTET which has just been released. As I mentioned in my review of A Shadow in Summer, I’m not crazy about Neil Shah’s voices for the female characters, but otherwise I like his narration. I thought he did an especially good job with the librarian in A Betrayal in Winter.
Bill’s review of the first three books in the series:
I often fall into the temptation of wanting to rush out and review a new book in a series immediately. It’s fresh, it’s out there, let’s let people know. But then I find myself three or four books in and wondering if readers should have bothered starting that first book, no matter how good it was.
So when it came to Daniel Abraham’s THE LONG PRICE QUARTET, which began with A Shadow in Summer, as much as I enjoyed the book, I thought I’d hold off until we saw where he went with it. Having just completed An Autumn War, the third book of four, I feel confident in telling readers, “jump on in; the reading’s fine.”
The series is set in a world where there are basically two competing forces. One is the Eastern-tinged independent “summer cities” of the Khaiem. Rich, sophisticated, plush cities whose power is predicated upon a single magical concept — Andats. Created and controlled by “poets” (one poet to an Andat, one Andat to a city), Andats are ideas/metaphors made real and in humanoid shape. Each Andat has a single power that can be applied in multiple ways. For instance, the andat of Saraykeht, “Removing the part that continues,” more familiarly known as “Seedless,” can separate seeds from cotton, a huge advantage which allows the city to become a mercantile power. Seedless can also be used, however, to separate human seed, either on a one to one basis as an abortion (called the “sad trade”) or on a much wider basis, wiping out hundreds or thousands or hundreds of thousands. This threat would clearly make another power think twice about taking on the city.
Creation of an Andat is life-threatening, and control of one is a constant strain, as the Andat is bound to the poet (indeed, is in some ways made of the poet) but has its own personality and its own agenda, including a desire to be free. Andats can be kept and handed off from one poet to another over generations, though it is always a risk and always gets harder, meaning there is constant fear by the cities of losing their Andat.
Opposed to the summer cities, though not overtly (due to the power of the Andats), are the Galts, a more technological, more military-based civilization who covet the riches of the summer cities and — even more than the riches — the Andat themselves. A Shadow in Summer introduces the setting — a conspiracy by Galt to break the power of Saraykeht by freeing Seedless — and the major characters: Amat, a merchant woman who uncovers the conspiracy; Itani (later called Otah), a common laborer who once trained to be a poet; Liat, Amat’s assistant and Itani’s lover; Heshai, the poet who controls Seedless; and Maati, Heshai’s pupil who is training to eventually take over Seedless.
Book Two, A Betrayal in Winter, is set 15 years later and shifts to a more northern summer city — Machi. Here, the Khai (each city’s ruler is called the Khai) is dying. The tradition is that the sons of the khai enter into a kill-or-be-killed competition until only one is left alive to take the throne. It turns out that Otah (Itani) from book one is a long-forgotten son of the Khai who had been sent away as a child to train as a poet, a training he turned his back on for the life of a laborer until the events of book one. Once again, Otah is caught up in a complicated conspiracy, this one involving the succession of Machi. Also involved are Machi’s poet Cehmai Tyan, his andat Stone-Made-Soft, Maati, and the Khai’s daughter Idaan.
Book Three, An Autumn War, set over a decade later, presents a much broader threat. The first two books focused on a single city. In An Autumn War, we meet a Galtic general, Balasar Gice, who sees the Andat as a threat not only to Galt, but to the world (deep history offers up some reason for this belief). Having come up with what he believes is a successful method of destroying the Andat, Gice marches an army on all the summer cities, aiming for Machi as his last conquest. Otah, now ruler of Machi, must find a way to stop not only Gice’s army, but also his plot against the Andat and poets, aided by his fellow characters from the previous two books along with a few important additions.
Except for the latter half of An Autumn War, which follows Gice’s march on the summer cities, these books are not action-oriented. There are almost no battles, no quests, no swordsmanship, etc. The books are driven more by intricate conspiracies that must be either put into place or unraveled (depending on which characters we’re following at the time) and by the characters and their relationships. These are, for the most part, richly complex characters (A Betrayal in Winter is the weakest in this regard) torn by conflicting desires and struggling with major ethical questions. Seedless can be read as a simple villain, but he is enslaved to the poet’s will and this garners him much sympathy. As does his multi-faceted personality, able to be sinister and charming, to hate and to like. Gice, as well, can be simply read, but while his means are brutal, his intentions are noble and hard to fault on many levels. The characters’ complexity also is displayed in the changes they undergo over the many years spanned by the three books; they are not the same people in book three as in book one and their differences are utterly believable. Daniel Abraham’s characters are probably the best thing about THE LONG PRICE QUARTET, and enough on their own to warrant reading.
The Eastern-influence of the setting is nicely different. And it’s also refreshing to have a magical system that is so limited and has a stark cost associated with it, as opposed to the wave-of-the-hand magic we see so often. I would have liked a greater sense of the whole world, and especially more on the Galts, but this was a relatively minor flaw. As mentioned, A Betrayal in Winter suffers from somewhat weaker characters than the other two, but not to any major detriment and if anything, its plot is more focused and the writing tighter, so the character issue is somewhat balanced. An Autumn War’s subplot about a possible turncoat never really rings fully true, but luckily it’s only a subplot. Abraham’s use of formalized gestures as complement to conversation adds to the wonderful sense of difference, though I’m not sure it was mined for its full potential. I wouldn’t have minded a bit of humor leavened throughout. But again, these are all relatively minor complaints and all outweighed by the richly compelling characters, the brilliant premise of the andats (what reader can’t root for a book where poets — poets! — have so much power), the careful layering of plot points that lead inexorably to the current point, etc.
Having read three-quarters of the way through this series, I eagerly await its conclusion in book four (The Price of Spring). THE LONG PRICE QUARTET is a compelling fantasy that won’t feel to readers like the same old same old epic fantasy. Nor do they need to worry that it will tease them into a series with a good opening than steadily deteriorates (you know who I mean). Plus, it has the added advantage of having each book happily able to stand independently — no cliffhanger endings here. So as I said at the start: jump on in, the reading’s fine. Highly recommended.
So glad you’re enjoying these!
Bill, right now I’m writing my review for book 3, which is even better!!
When Kat gives something 4 or 5 stars, I pay attention. And I can pretty much assume that the book is good and I will like it. Good review! I’m putting A Shadow In Summer on my TBR list now.
Thanks, Beau!! That makes me feel warm and useful! Book 3 is even better. That review posted about an hour ago. Please let me know how you like these books.