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The Price of Spring by Daniel Abraham

Thanks to the good work of Mark and Cindy Ziesing, we come to The Price of Spring by Daniel Abraham (TOR, 2009), the last book in this brief retrospective of The Long Price Quartet. The cultural battle lines are drawn. Do the women of the Khaiem Empire matter? In a patriarchal structure, the men might say a woman’s only value lies in her ability to produce children. If she can’t have children, she has no value and a substitute must be found. In this instance, the only substitutes are to be found in the Galt Empire. Yet the women there may already have formed relationships. The fact their men are not fertile may be sad, but it doesn’t necessarily change the strength of their love. So if the two nations are to come together, are the Galt women to be like chattels and sent overseas to become the comfort women of the Khaiem men? Should this forced exchange of the young and fertile not be a success, both nations will die of old age and the unaffected nations around them will fight over the land. So what price should the two old countries pay to become one? Pride, of course, will get in the way. The Galts have not spent a century and more plotting the downfall of the Khaiem states to happily concede defeat and provide their women. The Khaiem families, who for so long considered themselves the superiors of the Galts, must swallow their pride and learn the ways of an inferior militaristic culture. It’s humiliating on both sides. In such a situation, what role should the leaders play? Although they might feel some degree of duty to their people, nature always finds a way. There might be massive population loss through old age and fighting as land is conceded to neighbours, pillaged by pirates or annexed. But people will come together and produce children. That’s what people do. Naturally, without a forced breeding program, it will take many generations before numbers climb up again. Perhaps that time will allow everyone the chance to reflect on the mistakes of the past and build a better future.

Of course, there might be a different way. Two men with an understanding of the process for producing an Andat have survived: Maati Vaupathai and Cehmai. As a child and as a physician, Eiah has also gained a real insight into the theory of the process and, now, what would have to change physically for the balance of nature to be restored. Suppose at least two could come together and, through women rather than men, find the right words to produce a healing Andat. That would avoid the need for forced breeding. It would also have a sense of completing the circle. If magic could unbalance nature, perhaps it only needs a nudge to restore the balance. So, while Otah Machi is off to Galt to negotiate a treaty for the mutual exchange of breeding partners, Eiah is off in search of Maati. This leaves Danat in de facto control of the Khaiem Empire.

With his fourth book, Daniel Abraham wears a jacket and has a light attached to his head

With Cehmai refusing to help, Maati and Eiah enable a woman to produce an Andat. In theory, its function is to restore eyesight yet, as the woman discovers, it can also deny eyesight. When she unilaterally decides to blind Galt women, catastrophe looms and all the good work done by Otah to bring the two warring nations together is threatened. Now it’s a race against time. Eiah also has plans to attempt her own binding. Otah, his sister Indraah, his son Danat and Ana, the Galt woman who might become daughter-in-law set out to find Maati and repair the damage.

So here goes with a simple metaphor. As summer ends, all the flowers that bloomed in spring die away. When winter comes, stalks wither and branches are bare. When the buds come, this is not the old flowers growing back. This is a new crop. In other words, the price of renewal is death and, of course, each new generation starts out fresh and so is prone to making mistakes. Except, hopefully, there can be overlap between one year and the next to offer guidance. Sadly, there’s nothing in the rules to say that the new crop must obey the suggestions of those who bloomed before. The Price of Spring may therefore be seen as a transitional book where Otah sets the stage for his children to carry on the burdens of ruling the expanding Empire. Although it’s perhaps a trite way of describing the process but, in as much as a man can, he has to deliver the right set of circumstances to save everyone from themselves. This means there’s a great sadness pervading this final book. The women who are working towards becoming the next generation of poet shapers carry their own baggage. Unlike the men who went before them, there’s no process for positively vetting whether they have the right qualities to “birth” an Andat. They volunteer. They were born as women into a patriarchal society so, from birth, they were considered second-class citizens. Although the war reduced the number of men and so opened opportunities for many women of talent, the original volunteers are ordinary. Worse, they come scarred by their experiences and bitterly resentful of the Galt nation who precipitated their sterility. For such a woman to produce an Andat is asking for trouble. Yet, from Maati’s point of view, there’s no alternative. No-one else is available to repair the damage he caused.

This forces Daniel Abraham to send very mixed messages on the feminist front. The majority of his female characters are highly competent, easily the equal of the men around them if not, on occasion, their betters. Except for a few who, while initially well-intentioned, are actually dangerously emotional and unstable. Sadly, it’s these latter women who would have the destructive power through the new Andats. So it’s perfectly all right to give women “ordinary” positions of power and authority, but it’s desperately dangerous to give them the power of life and death over everyone. There’s also a certain lack of credibility over the treatment of some of the Galts. For example, how could Balasat Gice have survived returning to Galt? This is not a forgiving nation and if the author of their misfortune returned, he would likely have been through a show trial and executed. For the same reason, it’s equally unlikely that he would be accepted as acting regent when Otah and Danat take off to find the Andat. Just as the Galts would have hated Balasat, so the invader who slaughtered so many in the Khaiem cities would not be a success when told to rule what was left of them. However, there are also successes. Maati is interestingly bitter that Nayiit should have died trying to protect Danat, but eventually manages to achieve some degree of peace. Indraah also finds redemption and is rehabilitated as a member of the Machi family. In the old competitive days of sons killing each other in the hope of becoming Khai, bonding between siblings was fragile. Now everyone is more forgiving and supportive.

So The Price of Spring is rather melancholic as the old world of Otah dies away and the new generation takes over. All we have left is hope the new leaders will avoid some of the mistakes of the past as they fend off the inevitable disasters and plan for a better future based on technology rather than magic. Except there’s also a sanguine recognition that surrounding enemies know Andats can still be created and, in a weapons race, sooner or later they may succeed in creating their own. That, however, would be for a new tetralogy. This leaves us with this final volume the weakest of the four. That said, it’s still better than the average fantasy novel and the overall effort of The Long Price Quartet is spectacularly good.

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
Leviathan Wept
The Price of Spring
A Shadow in Summer
The Tyrant’s Law.

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