An Autumn War by Daniel Abraham
This third novel in Daniel Abraham’s LONG PRICE QUARTET is even more exciting than the first two novels. In the first book, A Shadow in Summer, we saw the Galts (the enemies of the city-states of the Khaiem) destroy the industry of the Khaiem’s most glorious city, Saraykeht. In the second book, A Betrayal in Winter, the Galts attempted to get control of the city of Machi by killing off the Khai’s sons and installing their own man as Khai. However, the failed poet Otah, the youngest son of the Khai, managed (with the help of his old friend Maati) to uncover the plot and become Khai in Machi.
Fourteen years later, the Galts have not given up. That’s because they still suffer from the way they were treated by the Khaiem generations ago when the Khaiem’s andats destroyed Galt and turned part of their land into a vast wasteland. They Galts know they can’t stand against the andats of the Khaiem and that they are vulnerable as long as the andats live. But if they can discover a way to cut off the power of the andats, they’ll be able to invade and conquer the Khaiem because the Khaiem feel so secure that they don’t even bother to maintain an army. The Galts’ goal is not to expand their territory, but to make sure that the andat will never again lay waste to Galt.
Balasar, a Galt man who has spent most of his life seeking a way to destroy the andat, has traversed the dangerous wasteland created by the andats long ago to find a lost library and recover books that may hold the answer to destroying the andat. After much study and after recruiting a disgraced poet from a Khaiem city, the Galts now think they have a clever way to destroy the andat. If it works, not only will they get revenge, but they will conquer the Khaiem and be assured that they will never again be at the mercy of the andat.
It is easy to be outraged at the treatment the Galts have received (it really was horrible) and to hope they can stop any future threat from the andats. The problem for the reader, though, is that we don’t actually know any of the Galts. Instead, we know and love some of the people of the Khaiem, including the very poets who are responsible for creating the andats. What are we supposed to do here? Who are we supposed to be rooting for? The people we know and love, or the powerless people who’ve been wronged and continue to feel threatened. This story doesn’t comply with the typical good vs evil fantasy scenario and presents an ethical dilemma for the reader. It also presents a more realistic situation which more closely mirrors the world we live in.
Our characters have some ethical dilemmas, too. Otah is now a family man who is trying not to follow in his father’s footsteps — an admirable goal. However, when Otah had no family he was willing to kill one man in order to save thousands (which he did at the end of A Shadow in Summer). Now that he has children of his own, he finds that he is willing to let those same thousands of people die in order to protect the few he loves. Is this commendable? Otah doesn’t know, and neither do I. Maati is trying to make his craft safer for future poets, but in doing so, he creates the potential for more weapons that can be used against the Galts.
I was conflicted nearly the entire time while reading An Autumn War. I enjoyed feeling this way and thinking about the analogies in our own world — advances in technology that have military applications, the creation of weapons of mass destruction, the doctrine of mutually assured destruction, expansionism, and the loser’s perspective of war. There is plenty to think about.
Besides all this, the personal stories of our favorite characters progress in An Autumn War. Characters I was hoping to see again do indeed show up and participate in both the heart-warming and heart-breaking events. Unfortunately, some characters I loved from the last book (such as the librarian) are now gone. The end of the story is, again, exciting, fascinating, and tragic. I’m not at all happy that I have to wait until next week for book four, The Price of Spring, to be released in audio format. I’m enjoying Neil Shah’s narration and am so pleased that THE LONG PRICE QUARTET is now available in audio!
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.
Great review! My favorite part of the series is the aging of the characters by 15 years with each novel: the way that qualities which seem endearing or admirable when the characters are 15 can become liabilities as they grow older. Or the way that espoused wisdom, so easily dismissed at age 15, shows itself to perhaps be more worthy of consideration later. The characters’ personalities and concerns and inter-relationships age and evolve in believable, often poignant ways.
Good point, Matt. I like that, too. It occurs to me that Abraham gave himself the space to write novels or novellas or short stories that fill in those gaps. I wish he’d do that.