A Betrayal in Winter by Daniel Abraham
This review continues the minor retrospective into the work of Daniel Abraham. Thanks to the good work of Mark and Cindy Ziesing in laying in first editions, A Betrayal in Winter (TOR, 2007) is the second in the series titled the Long Price Quartet. Continuing some fifteen years after the first episode, the plot is an inverted crime story, i.e. from the outset, we know the identity of the traitors in the city state of Machi so, when we repeat the pattern of a key insider conspiring with the Galts to bring down the status quo, we can watch the planning of the crimes and how the parallel investigation proceeds. We’re told early on that the cotton trade has now failed at Saraykeht. The mass of people fear the unknowns when required to respond to a change in circumstances and, more often than not, respond with inaction not action. It was perfectly possible to comb out all the seeds from the raw cotton and there were some workers prepared to do the work. But with the majority of weavers refusing to co-operate, the result was a high-profile failure. Something unthinkable can only happen once. If it should happen again, it’s no longer unthinkable. This manufactured collapse of the cotton trade was a blow to the certainty underpinning public confidence. The individual principalities have lived so long with the expectation the trade specialisations based on the Andats would continue indefinitely. To see one fail along with all the rumours of how it happened, has produced stirrings of fear that, sooner or later, war with the Galts will come. Now the action shifts north to the Machi who depend on mining for their prosperity. However, we also shift to a different cultural phenomenon.
This world is a highly structured patriarchy. Each city state is run by a Khai, a male from the ruling family who surrenders his identity to become the ruler. The custom is that, in each new generation, the sons of the current Khai must either renounce their pursuit of the role or, when the peer group is old enough, fight each other for the right to succeed their father. The surviving son becomes the next Khai. It may be bloodthirsty, but it ensures each new ruler is unsentimental and practical. If there are no sons of the full blood prepared to fight, each branch of relatives nominates young males whose fitness to rule is judged by a council representing the interests of the most powerful families in the relevant state. Self-evidently, this is a public spectacle with each state watching with interest to see which son will emerge as the next-in-line. In Machi, there are four sons who have not renounced their claim including Otah Machi from the A Shadow in Summer. He’s now working under his cover identity of Itani as a courier and spy for House Siyanti, one of the southern trading houses. When one of the Machi sons is poisoned and the two pubic survivors disappear, this creates political uncertainty and the trading house sends its best couriers north to find out what’s happening. This takes Otah home.
In the village base of the Dai-kvo, Maati Vaupathai is called to a meeting with the two Machi sons. Neither was responsible for the poisoning and they want to know about Otah. Maati tells them that his friend would not interfere in Machi politics. This suggests that someone else is manipulating the usual selection process. Maati is sent north to see if he can find Otah and discover the truth of the matter. After some difficulty, the two meet up and, having exchanged news, Otah is arrested on Maati’s orders. There are times a man wins by running away, but truth can never be revealed when cowards refuse to defend themselves in public.
Once again, our hero comes unstuck by telling his lover his identity. It’s all back to this problem of who anyone can safely trust with secrets. Indeed, this becomes a matter of honour for Otah. He might even prefer to sacrifice his own life rather than place an innocent life in danger. The contrast is with Cehmai, the local poet and his Andat Stone-Made-Soft. He also takes a lover and, in his innocence, trusts her with secrets that should not be shared. As in all relationships, there’s a price to be paid when you are too honest or indiscreet. Sometimes, payment of the price when demanded will be welcome. Other times, payment will be painful.
A Betrayal in Winter lacks some of the gritty realism that made A Shadow in Summer such a success. It certainly moves the story along but it does so by changing from a complex plot rooted in the basic economics of survival to one more linear in form and superficially political in nature. There’s very little to enhance our understanding of the magic system based on the Andats, but the mystery element works quite well with Maati slowly working out who must be responsible for the betrayal. It’s interesting to consider why people so well placed in these city states might want to collude with the Galts. From the little we see, this Empire lacks sophistication and is incompetent in exploiting the lands it holds and acquires. I suppose the general run of traitors in the better governed lands are motivated by short-term greed and the prospect of higher status in a militaristic culture. But the key players seem to act more out of perversity or emotional self-interest. The price of their betrayal tends to be personal satisfaction, i.e. the sense that they are, for once, able to be recognised for what they are on their own merits and to get what they deserve.
Taken overall, A Betrayal in Winter is an emotionally satisfying book where, for the most part, the proactive people take the right decisions because they have virtues of loyalty and honour. Their friendships transcend all minor inconveniences, even down to thinking about the welfare of innocent children. All we have to wait for is the moment when Otah finally understands the longer term price he must pay to survive. It’s really only a matter of taking responsibility but, for him, that’s a big step. As a matter of background thought, we should also consider the underlying morality of the Andats. At the command of the local Khai, the Andat under his control could effectively wipe out enemies. No action is threatened against the smaller states because each has its own Andat and there’s mutually assured destruction as the deterrent. But any one of the smaller states could significantly damage the Galts if given a reason. So far, no Khai has felt the need to retaliate against the Galts, but there may come a time. . . Although this is slightly less satisfying than A Shadow in Summer, it’s nevertheless a superior piece of writing. You should make the effort to find and read A Betrayal in Winter — an omnibus of the first two in the quartet is being published under the title Shadow and Betrayal (Orb Books, 2012).
For reviews of other books by Daniel Abraham, see:
Abaddon’s Gate written under the pseudonym James S. A. Corey with Ty Franck
An Autumn War
A Betrayal in Winter
Caliban’s War written under the pseudonym James S. A. Corey with Ty Franck
The Dragon’s Path
The Incident of the Harrowmoor Dogs
The King’s Blood
Leviathan Wakes written under the pseudonym James S. A. Corey with Ty Franck
The Price of Spring
A Shadow in Summer
The Tyrant’s Law.