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Abaddon’s Gate by James S. A. Corey

September 7, 2013 Leave a comment

Corey_AbaddonsGate_TP

Abaddon’s Gate by James S. A. Corey (Orbit, 2013) The Expanse 3 sees us reaching the end of the first narrative arc (apparently the publishers are sufficiently impressed to commission more). Co-authors Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck have pushed on through all the tropes based on alien invasion, and now come to the BDO. For those of you not into acronyms, this is a Big Dumb Object that humanity is required to confront. As you would expect, this “thing” is really, really big and, for want of anything better to fear, we have to go and investigate to see whether it’s likely to exterminate us or ignore us. In most examples of this trope, a hand-picked team of scientists and soldiers gets to approach the object and, in most cases, find a way inside. There will always be at least one spy and/or saboteur and/or thief who’s out to steal as much of the advanced technology before attempting to destroy it so no-one else gets any of the high-tech gizmos. Think Ringworld by Larry Niven and Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C Clarke. For a closer match to this book’s object, think Spin by Robert Charles Wilson which introduces the Archway — a variation of the Stargate film and television series.

The new wrinkle on the gateway theme has the alien protomolocule turn its attention away from having fun on the surface to build a BDO out Neptune way. Not surprisingly, the three armed forces from Earth, Mars and the Outer Planets Alliance set up watch around the object and try to figure out what it does and, of course, prevent the other two from sneaking a march by turning it into a WMD capable of wiping out life on one or more planets. In a sense, everything has entered a period of stability in this version of a Mexican stand-off when a young thrill-seeker decides to sling-shot himself through the centre of the object. When his on-board cameras send back pictures of a rather large space inside, scientists are fascinated and military strategists are alarmed. So all available resources converge just outside the apparent reach of the object to discuss what should be done. Needless to say, this discussion hardly has a chance to begin before a large monkey-wrench is thrown into the diplomatic works and all the key players end up going through the gateway into the “space” beyond.

Daniel Abraham

Daniel Abraham

The essence of any good thriller, whether it be set on Earth or in some other place, is to take a small group of characters and put them in danger. In this case, we have representatives from the three formal groups at daggers drawn with James Holden and the crew of the Rocinante acquiring universal hatred. Even in planetary space, this would be likely to produce a shooting war but, when you take this trigger-happy group and dump them inside a BDO, they suddenly find there may just be something more dangerous than each other to confront. More importantly, this more or less completely dumb object gets the impression the warring humans are a threat to it and so it takes measures to protect itself. Since it controls the physics inside itself, this means a large number of people end up suddenly dead or seriously injured. This gives the other POV characters a chance to shine: Annuska Volovodov, aka Pastor Anna, Clarissa Mao aka Melba Alzbeta Koh who’s out for revenge, and Carlos de Baca aka Bull, an Earthman brought out of retirement to work on the OPA’s largest spacecraft as a professional soldier to counter the less experienced Captain and XO.

Ty Franck

Ty Franck

In a way, this is a story about redemption, not in the overtly religious sense even though one of the main POV characters is a Pastor. At different times and for different reasons, each of the POV characters has to make choices, moving out of their more usual comfort zones into unexpectedly dangerous circumstances. Pastor Anna, for example, has left her family behind to come on this trip but, until quite late into the plot, she’s never completely honest with herself as to her motives. For someone used to being supportive and mildly proactive in her religious role, she’s slowly forced to acknowledge the political context for the behaviour around her and to understand how little she’s done to interact with the crew in a way that might help them. She has a lot of catching up to do. Bull is the other way round. From the outset, he understands his role is highly political and that he needs to build support among the OPA crew. Sadly he can’t be everywhere and so the situation does get away from him. Now it’s a case of rebuilding and trying to recapture the lost initiative. Then there’s the trigger for this situation. Clarissa is on a mission to kill Holden which, morally speaking, sets her off on the wrong foot. Were it not for her, hundreds of lives would not be lost. But equally, it’s her action that triggers what may be Earth’s most important discovery.

The Big Object proves to be pretty dumb as readers might expect but there’s plenty of excitement among the humans as they flex their muscles and get down to mutiny and countermutiny. I’m still not a fan of the overlap in situational descriptions when switching from one sequential POV to another but, other than this, this is a very smooth piece of writing. I’m not sure it’s quite as good as Caliban’s War, but Abaddon’s Gate certainly does deliver real space opera style with a lot of pizzaz.

For reviews of other books by Daniel Abraham, see:
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.

Jacket artwork by Daniel Dociu.

The Incident of the Harrowmoor Dogs by Daniel Abraham

Balfour_and_Meriwether_in_the_Incident_of_the_Harrowmoor_Dogs_270_396

Nostalgia is a very strange beast. Many would have you believe that it’s a kind of sentimental attachment to the past — a romanticised and highly selective viewing of the past through rose-tinted spectacles. I would prefer to think of it as a mere acknowledgement of the volume of memories that occupy the mind. These are the times I’ve lived through, good and bad. When it comes to literature in the broadest sense of the word, I’ve been putting eyeballs to paper for more than sixty years and have seen stylistic fashions come and go. When I first began to take an active interest in fiction, some Victorian and a considerable volume of early Edwardian work was still very much in vogue. I suppose I cut my teeth on British adventure and American hardboiled when my reading really took off in the 1950s. Not that the two are even remotely compatible, but I still recall the highlights. At their best, there was an eerie blend of naïveté and violence. No-one stopped to think very hard about the morality of what was being done. Expediency and a stiff upper lip were the only requirements when deciding what was needed. I miss the uncritical simplicity of those days. Life was so much easier when you could shoot first and, if the mood came upon you, ask questions afterwards.

All of which brings me to The Incident of the Harrowmoor Dogs by Daniel Abraham (Subterranean Press, 2013), a novella featuring Balfour and Meriwether, two chips off the British block of Empire. For the record, this is the third in an emerging series which began with The Adventure of The Emperor’s Vengeance and continued with The Vampire of Kabul. Seeing two names on the tentpole, it’s tempting to characterise this as a Sherlock Holmes pastiche but that’s definitely not what’s intended here. Although there are books where Mr Holmes takes on Dracula, Dr Jekyll and divers other creatures of Earth, then moves on to fight the War of the Worlds and to crossover into Cthulhu Mythos territory, this does not feature a detective blessed with deductive reasoning skills with a sidekick companion for light relief. Rather this pair who share accommodation are more in the Allan Quartermain mould where the response to danger is to shoot it and, when the bullets run out, hack at it with a conveniently-to-hand knife. Although they obviously do think, it’s not what we’re supposed to be interested in.

Daniel Abraham using Victorian black and white photography

Daniel Abraham using Victorian black and white photography

So here comes a rather sly, tongue-in-cheek adventure story set in 188-, with a representative of the British Government coming to King Street to ask for a little assistance with a slightly delicate matter. It seems one of the men who work for the Empire has gone missing. He was supposed to make a simple journey to Harrowmoor to talk with an inmate of the local Sanitarium. Worryingly, there’s been no word of him since. Of course, since the British Government is asking, this can’t be a simple matter otherwise the local police force would be asked to investigate. With typical Britishness, Lord Carmichael doesn’t say what the problem is and our heroes don’t ask. When your country calls, you dare not refuse her. What follows is great fun as our pair ride a specially commissioned train to Harrowmoor. Having established a base in a local inn, one sets off to the Sanitarium, the other in search of word of the missing agent. In due course, they meet up for the big climax.

The essence of good fantasy is that you combine some level of credibility with a complete disregard for reality. As the White Queen fondly recalls, it’s good to be able to believe in six impossible things before breakfast, and having been fortified with plenty of food, rather more impossible things before lunch. So this is definitely not Baskervillian dogs nor are we into the Hounds of Tindalos. This is all pleasingly different and explains perfectly why Her Majesty’s Government might be a little reluctant to explain to our heroes what might be going on. I romped through this and now wait for more of the same. Even though it may be nostalgic in tone to me, this is sufficiently modern to pass muster for the new generation of readers. The Incident of the Harrowmoor Dogs is recommended.

Dust jacket illustration by David Palumbo.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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 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.

The Tyrant’s Law by Daniel Abraham

The Tyrant's Law

I suppose when it comes to awarding the mantle of the top fantasy writer, i.e. recognising the one who writes the epicest of the sprawling, rooting-tooting garden variety, many people would instinctively point to the R R Martin guy who’s been doing this really ace job of promoting his fantasy books on the small screen. But this rock star popularity muddies the waters and prevents readers from seeing how many other writers might deserve the mantle more. For example Brandon Sanderson has been building some very interesting worlds in which magic works and then letting people loose in them. If we were talking about classical high fantasy, I suspect he would get my vote. The problem with GRRM’s continuing saga is that it’s grown increasingly diffuse with multiple points of view drawing our interest hither and thither. This may work for a very narrowly defined narrative but creates too many distractions when you try to line up timelines in different parts of the world. That’s what makes Daniel Abraham the man to watch. He’s very ambitious in the story he wants to tell but very disciplined in the way he tells it. There’s a real epic quality in all his work but it’s rooted in the everyday lives of people. You can’t have a functioning society unless the people in cities can get food from the land. You can’t have trade to accumulate wealth unless you have a medium of exchange and an economy. You can’t have a state unless it has the power to levy taxes to pay for the necessary infrastructure and the defence of the land under its control.

The Tyrant’s Law by Daniel Abraham (Orbit, 2013) The Dagger and the Coin Book 3 features the four most important point of view characters. As the current head of state, we have Lord Regent of Antea Geder Palliako who’s standing in for Prince Aster until he reaches his majority. Clara Kalliam is the widow of the man who led an unsuccessful coup against Geder and now more quietly continues the resistance. Cithrin bel Sarcour is the banker who tries to keep the economy on track even though there’s a major war going on around her. And then there’s Captain Marcus Wester who’s off trying to find the way of saving the world from the mess it’s getting into. Looking at the technical side of the narrative, it’s difficult to get the timelines to match because Geder moves around to make himself appear a real leader, but his travels are nothing to the quest undertaken by Wester. In partnership with Kit, this duo see more of the world than anyone else doing jungle jaunting, back to city dwelling, and then off to ass-freezing on seashores. The two women, however, are residents of different cities for most of the book. So weeks or months pass as we drop in and out of everyone’s lives except Wester makes a fleeting visit to Cithrin who then has to decide whether to meet up with Geder. Meanwhile Clara stays on her own, hiding in plain sight while Wester passes through her city. That’s the strength of anonymity. When no-one knows you’re a spy, you can get a lot more done. For the most part, this all does fit together as the the politicking slowly percolates, the war progresses, and the searching for salvation tracks across the land.

Daniel Abraham

Daniel Abraham

In a way, this book is simply moving us forward. Daniel Abraham announced this as a five-volume epic so we need to be collecting all the pieces, moving them to the right places, and priming everything for the big climax at the end of book five. All this would be mechanical and boring were it not for the fascinating level of detail in the world and the increasing depth of the characters. In a way, each of the four POV characters has been seriously damaged. Cithrin was orphaned and forced to live on her wits from an early age. This book shows her finally managing to learn something about the true meaning of friendship and love. There’s still a long way to go but at least a start has been made. Wester is still trying to adjust to the loss of his family. He’s found some comfort in the support of people in his mercenary group, from the protectiveness he feels for Cithrin, and from the revelations made by Kit which give him a reason for embarking on his quest. Clara had a relatively quiet life until her husband was declared a traitor. He’d had the temerity to attempt the murder of Geder. Failure led inevitably to his execution. As a widow, she has to find a way of surviving and then decide what to do with her life. Which leaves us with Geder whose flaws have placed him in the role of tyrant. This is all a magnificent irony because he’s completely the wrong person to be in this position but, once he inadvertently satisfies the terms of the prophesy, the priests are going to push him into a position of power so they can spread across the land (again). Watching him is faintly disturbing. He often has the best of intentions for doing entirely the wrong things.

It’s useful we now have a hint as to the nature of the spiders. That was a most pleasing surprise. Yet the precise way the mechanism of infection works remains unclear (as perhaps it should). It seems there have always been apostates so, if the priesthood has to expand its numbers among a potentially sceptical population, perhaps there will be more who use the “power” for good rather than oppression. It also seems some of the races were created to be resistant to the influence of the spiders. Quite how this will play out given the awakening in the last chapter remains to be seen. But what we seem to have is a radical cult who literally are the thought police and, to ensure world domination, they have to eradicate one or more of the races. Whether we take our historical precedents as racial or ideological purity, this is another genocidal pogrom in action.

So things are nicely poised for the fourth volume which leaves me with just one further issue. I’m not against five-book series per se, but this volume has some elements of repetition about it. Cithrin is yet again apprenticed so she can learn some more about “banking”. Geder shows increasingly naive and immature responses to situations (again). Questing is always the same in fantasy books, particularly when the early part feels like one of the game-playing scenarios where the hero has to find the magic McGuffin to be able to move up to the next level. So I have the sense this story is slightly padded out. Everyone’s character is developing nicely but there’s a slight drop in the pace and the slightest hint of unoriginality about some of the situations. I think it would have been better if everything had been crammed into four books. Don’t get me wrong. As a book, The Tyrant’s Law is very good, i.e. distinctly better than average. But I’m slightly less convinced this series is going to turn out as good as the earlier Long Price Quartet which was wonderful. As always, you should not read this as a standalone. To get the best result, you should have read the first two, i.e. The Dragon Path and The King’s Blood.

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.

Caliban’s War by James S. A. Corey

September 4, 2012 Leave a comment

By way of introduction, I need to remind myself of the definition I use for space opera. When I was young, I read through an uncountable number of pages filled with “wow factor” fiction. That’s the technical term for essentially stupid things happening on a vast, not to say unimaginable, scale. It’s not due to chance that the opening words of Star Wars resonated with those of use who had grown up during the so-called Golden Age. “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….” Never mind the lack of any scientific explanation for what was happening. It was all Boy’s Own adventure fiction transferred to outer space where rampaging evil could be thwarted only by the gismos dreamt up by superscientists like Captain Future in their shiny laboratories or wunderkind throwing random stuff together in their bedrooms. This was all about “going out there” to confront foes unimaginable and still be home in time for tea. And therein lay the problem. When you’re placing your characters against a background of colliding galaxies and you only have fourteen hours to save the Earth, it’s difficult to come up with a plot that’s operatic enough to fill the stage and keep us occupied for however long it takes to read the book. Those of you old enough will remember there was a myth floating around the publishing houses that no author could write intelligent space opera. The moment people started actually thinking, this became serious SF and so no longer fun. To be space opera, like B movies, the work had to represent the lowest possible common denominator of old-style shoot-em-up Westerns transferred to outer space.

Daniel Abraham — regular guy and top-notch writer

Then along came Consider Phlebas by Iain M Banks, Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, Hyperion by Dan Simmons, and so on. This is a much more ambitious approach to the notion of what should constitute contemporary space opera. The books still ignore the laws of physics and lack realism, but continue with the “wow factor”. They are imaginative but have an underlying political context and economic logic. More importantly, they also have a certain optimism. Whereas steampunk looks to the past with a nostaligic eye and shakes its head in sadness that we didn’t have proper Babbage Engines crunching numbers for us back in Victorian times, new Space Opera reaches for the stars and thinks about the possibility the human race can set aside its tribal differences and built an interstellar culture. For all enemies may lurk in the darkness, we’re never without hope. No matter what the difficulties, we strive to overcome them. It’s inspirational stuff.

Ty Franck explaining how the books came to be written

All of which brings me to Caliban’s War by James S. A. Corey (Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) (Orbit, 2012) Book 2 The Expanse. I confess to being unimpressed by the first half of Leviathan Wakes. Yes, it was nominated for the 2012 Hugo for Best Novel but I’ve never been afraid to disagree with the masses. I was, you will understand, still sufficiently interested to read this second volume and I’m glad I did. If ever you needed a book to hold up to the world and say, “This is new Space Opera!” Caliban’s War is it. Although the action is limited to our own solar system (sadly, no colliding galaxies in this one) the threat comes from “outside” and is building up rather nicely. The feature that makes the book so entertaining is the predictable infighting between the different human factions, the most aggressive believing they can control the threat to make super weapons. This has to be the ultimate head-in-the-sand approach to fighting an alien invasion. First study the composition of the alien and, when you vaguely understand it, weaponise it and use the results to start a war. Obviously, when the different factions have finished fighting each other, there won’t be many left to fight the aliens but that’s not such an important factor in this pissing contest. Needless to say, the voice of sanity trying to keep the testosterone levels under control is a supergranny who pulls the strings inside the UN, while the self-righteous Jim Holden is once again going the best of three falls to decide the winner in his fight to save everyone from themselves.

Although there are two slightly overlapping interludes when point-of-view switches between characters, it’s less jarring than in the first volume and, more generally, the prose reads with a pleasing fluency. So what we have is a genuinely exciting read with the appearance of an alien monster setting the UN and Mars at each other’s throats, while the Belters look on with interest and whoever released the monster waits for the benefits to accrue. I have the sense that Ty Franck has settled into the team and is improving in the craft a converting a gaming manual into a novel. For once I’m probably going with the flow and rate this as one of the best SF books so far this year. It’s certainly up there with the Culture novels by Iain Banks as being one of the leading space opera books of the last decade.

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.

Jacket artwork by Daniel Dociu.

This novel has been shortlisted for the 2013 Locus Award.

 

The King’s Blood by Daniel Abraham

For the second time this month, I’ve come to a book that positively demands I read it slowly. This time, my close attention has been focused on The King’s Blood by Daniel Abraham The Dagger and the Coin Book 2 (Orbit, 2012), a book that’s showing great promise as an epic fantasy. To understand why it’s so good, we need to get back to the basics of storytelling. Although I find the level of extraneous detail excessive, one of the best early attempts at a fantasy trilogy was The Lord of the Rings by J R R Tolkien. The problem for any author when an individual or group threaten the well-being of a world is how to keep the narrative manageable. By definition, even an omniscient author cannot be everywhere showing us the detail of how everyone reacts to the danger. There has to be a careful selection of the points of view. Hence, we see the Fellowship form and watch its initial progress as a group. When the group breaks up, we necessarily follow different arcs but they are all co-ordinated and, of course, all concentrated on defeating the same evil. Conveniently, the source of this evil remains at the same geographical location, so the interested parties can complete the circle and all turn up at the right place for the climactic ending. Although it’s immensely popular, A Song of Ice and Fire by G R R Martin (notice the odd coincidence of the rolling Rs), currently standing at five books, seems to be an increasing structural failure because the different story arcs have separated too widely. When the story was primarily about the fight for the Iron Throne, there was some cohesion. But as the claimants in Westeros have developed separate campaigns, the threat from beyond the Wall has become more pressing and life goes on with the dragons in Essos, the fragmentation seems to be insuperable. Even if Daenerys crosses the Narrow Sea, that will still leave the the situation north of the Wall. This is not to say the new-commer R R cannot produce a reasonable way of bringing it all back together, but I’ve already started to lose interest.

In the first of this series, The Dragon’s Path, we have the basic scene setting and a cast of characters introduced. We also get to see a hint of the form the threat to the world will take. In The King’s Blood, we get real and significant character development and, more importantly, a clear sign as to the nature of the contagion. For now, the problem is contained in a single geographical location, so this episode has been about drawing up the potential battle lines and deciding which side everyone is going to be on. Even though people are moving around the landscape, there’s still only one cause and multiple effects. As and when all the different groups realise what they face, we can reach the final battles (probably drawing on what the two brave wanderers bring back from their quest) and deal with the aftermath which will require considerable mopping up. However, we’ve already been told something along these lines happened long ago. Curiously, one feature of dealing with the problem survives into “modern” times. All the key players for the defence have to recognise is how to apply it more widely to the current situation and then add one further, rather obvious element. I’m reminded of the wonderful moments in The Puppet Masters by Robert A Heinlein when the government orders everyone to walk around more or less naked — and women can’t carry big handbags.

Daniel Abraham looking justifiably pleased with life

In addition to the masterful handling of the narrative, the characters are also developing in fascinating ways. Cithrin Bel Sarcour not only has a different way of viewing the economics of the surrounding culture, but she also sees through to the essence of the people around her. The assessment she makes of Geder Palliako towards the end of this book is particularly pleasing. An equally interesting assessment of the man and those around him is made by Dawson Kalliam but, unfortunately, he fails to understand the full extent of what he faces. However, because of the semantic and emotional responses other people make when questioned, individuals like Clara Kalliam are able to move into more active modes. It’s going to be interesting to see whether they can grasp the common denominator that allows them this freedom. Finally, Marcus Wester has the most painful path to follow. He was so desperately wanting to rebuild his peace of mind around Cithrin but forgot she is her own woman and likely to make her own decisions in life. It’s always hard to give up dreams.

For once, I’m not going to say any more about the plot. This is something you should read and enjoy but, as with anything really good. . . If you have not already done so, read The Dragon’s Path first. The King’s Blood is not the right starting point. The maximum enjoyment comes from understanding how everything fits together and watching the characters struggle to survive — of course, not all do make it to the end of this book, but you should follow the roller coaster on your own, and see how and why they fall. All this leads me to a fairly startling conclusion. By my standards, Daniel Abraham is now in the top three of authors working in the fantasy field. If he continues in this vein, he should overtake George R R Martin. All he needs is for HBO to buy the rights and give his work the high exposure granted to Game of Thrones.

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.

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.

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.

Daniel Abraham — it’s his third novel so he can think about upgrading on the clothes front

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

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