An Autumn War 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, we can now see the Long Price Quartet is very much an evolving tetralogy. It begins as a hard-nosed look at the cotton trade in one city state and, although we’re introduced to the underlying magical construct, its presence is actually as a rationalisation for suicide and murder, rather than as the primary dynamic in a fantasy novel. In the second book, there’s even less magic and the primary emphasis is in the nature of treachery and the full meaning of trust. Now we burst out of the mundane shackles and get into the magic proper with An Autumn War by Daniel Abraham (TOR, 2008). More interestingly, we finally get to meet Balasar Gice, a Galt general and he proves to be one of the most interesting characters so far in this series. From his point of view, the military problem is easy to define. If you attack a Khai city state containing an Andat, you will lose. More importantly, if the Khai of that state or, indeed, the Khai of any other state with an Andat wishes, the whole of Galt could be wiped out. In the Prologue, our General explores the Wastelands and sees, first hand, the results of Andat action. He only just survives the experience. But he’s able to bring back the seeds of an idea and, when he manages to recruit a disaffected poet shaper, he sells a plan of attack to the High Council. Having played at the margins for so long, the Council decides to take a chance and approves the plan. Indeed, such is the level of deviousness that, should the attack on the Andats fail, the army can pivot into Plan B as if that was always the intention, and sweep up new lands for the Empire. Nothing will be lost through this campaign.
The motivation of Riaan, the defector, is particularly interesting. In the previous two books, we’ve seen existential unhappiness as the cause of “treachery”. This man falls physically ill and, in turn, this produces a mental change. Observing him, the Dai-kvo decides it would be unsafe to allow him to create an Andat and the intention is quietly to sweep him under the carpet. But the extent of the mental instability means he does not go quietly and, when the Galts make him an offer, he cannot refuse. Meanwhile, the original team reappears. Otah Machi defies convention and continues in a monogamous relationship with Kiyan. Whereas multiple wives produce the children expected to fight for the right to be Khai, he has only produced Danat, a son who is less than fit, and Eiah, a daughter. Maati Vaupathai has continued his studies, becoming one of the foremost authorities on Andats. Both men are distracted when Liat comes to Machi with Nayiit, her son. It’s obvious that Otah is the father, but this cannot be admitted because he would then potentially have to kill Danat to become Khai. Cehmai and Stone-Made-Soft work as directed. The one novelty is that Otah has been training a small army under the control of Sinja. When this becomes the source of complaint from the other Khais and the Dai-kvo, he sends them out as mercenaries to learn the fighting trade. As Sinja moves south, he accidentally runs into the newly landed Galt army and, as is perfectly rational for a mercenary, he prefers to be “on the winning side”. So his small force is absorbed into the larger army. Many of his men speak Galt and can act as interpreters. All loyalty potentially changes with the wind if survival depends on it.
When Riann succeeds in creating a new Andat, Balasar sets off against the Khais. He can move fast because of the steam wagons. This is an ironic advantage. Because the Galts have had no magic for centuries, they have developed technology. When Otah leads the men out of Machi to defend the land, it falls to the women to keep things running, forcing change in the patriarchal structures. Fortunately, Kiyan and Liat are equal to the task. Even Eiah becomes fascinated by the lowly trade of doctoring. Her emerging skills as a physician and her ability to see past the immediate injury to what lies in the future offers us hope.
Thematically, the book is asking a very simple question. If war is designed to buy victory, is the price always destruction? The end of a war can be the appearance of peace but, if we ignore the dead, not everything that’s still and unmoving is going to be sympathetic to the winning side. When the victorious army sacks towns, kills innocent citizens and rapes the women, the survivors will be resentful for decades. Why should anyone still living actively help the conqueror? During the war and after it, there will be sabotage, revenge killings and terrorist attacks. How many traitors should the occupiers execute to suppress the terrorism and impose order?
Slightly shifting the question to those who control armies or the events following a declaration of peace, do only good people possess self-reflection or the conscience to worry whether they have failings? Perhaps so, but in this ending, we have the longest price paid so far. Who would have thought that the price to be paid for kindness shown in the Prologue to A Shadow in Summer would turn out to be so terrible. Or may be that’s not quite right. Perhaps the dispassionate way in which the world pays the price is the only possible outcome that could actually lead to long-term peace. It’s left nicely poised as everyone considers how to react. Alexander Pope makes a relevant contribution in the thought, “To err is human, to forgive divine.” In the three books so far, we’ve been allowed to watch a series of mistakes grow to have ever wider consequences. Of course, nations don’t go to war because of individual errors. It takes a steady accumulation of errors over time to produce the right conditions in which one state will feel justified in attacking another. Even the most self-righteous of states relying on notions of exceptionalism does occasionally feel the need for an excuse to intervene in the affairs of another state or invade. Simply being an aggressor for its own sake is not constructive in world affairs. So the balance of power between the Galts and the Khais has been shifting for centuries. Indeed, were it not for Otah’s ability to forgive the Galts their early trespasses, they would not have survived to make this attack. It’s therefore particularly ironic to see how mutual destruction actually means mutual dependence. Today, enough people died in Machi that there would be enough food to carry the survivors through the winter. Who knows whether the survivors will react divinely tomorrow when they have had time to consider their positions.
An Autumn War is magnificent in the way it moves on to a more epic scale with a military invasion by the Galts and the resistance of the Khais organised by Otah. The careful way it maintains the balance between the individuals and the broader context for their actions is masterful. And the emotional impact of the different prices paid by those individuals generates real power. This is the best book in the Long Price Quartet so far. I’m hopeful this high standard can be maintained in the final book.
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.