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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.

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.

A Betrayal in Winter by Daniel Abraham

May 12, 2012 2 comments

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.

Daniel Abraham — it’s only his second novel so still no extravagance on the clothes front

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

A Shadow in Summer by Daniel Abraham

This review signals the start of a minor retrospective. Thanks to Mark and Cindy Ziesing, I’ve laid in a few early titles from a couple of authors who have recently struck me as interesting. I’m going to start off with the Long Price Quartet by Daniel Abraham. After publishing several impressive short stories, A Shadow in Summer (TOR, 2006) was the first novel and it shows what have become the trademark signs of a great author. For me, the key features of Daniel Abraham’s work are his willingness not only to create credible worlds, but also to people them with rounded characters. The contrast with most published books is actually quite depressing. The majority of authors make do with cardboard stereotypes in formulaic scenarios. In this novel, we have a fantasy world still at the level of Mediaeval European city states or principalities. As usual, small economic units cannot achieve independence. They must trade or, if they have the military might, force a consolidation into larger units of production. In turn, trade becomes an active form of diplomacy. Sometimes states really only negotiate with each other out of economic necessity. When the need arrives, it’s left to those with the right skills and connections to make the deals or the conquests. In the end, it’s all about the perception of success or failure. When status is high, a state’s power and influence is acknowledged by its peers and inferiors. It’s always galling when the superior states refuse to take lesser states seriously.

The theme of the tetralogy is, as the name suggests, one of price and may be put simply: when the only coin you have to spend is cowardice, you cannot buy yourself out of Hell. For our purposes, we have to assume a culture in which rank and status potentially lock people into a fixed position in society. It can be formalised through indentured labour, or people who fear change stay in their allotted roles and make the best of their lives. Indeed, levels of submissiveness are built into the language with a complex system of gesture and poses to acknowledge rank or add layers of meaning to words used. A Shadow in Summer focuses on those who are sufficiently proactive either to change their own situation or to force a more widespread and so disruptive change on to large numbers of citizens around them. In becoming agents of change, these individuals are, of course, paying a price, but it’s one they choose to pay because of the value they believe it returns. This “profit” can be purely for them as individuals or the motive can be utilitarian, i.e. bring the greatest good to the largest number of people.

Daniel Abraham dressing down as a first-time novelist

The story starts with the young Otah Machi who learns that mixing toughness and compassion can be liberating. Except he chooses to use that freedom in becoming indentured for a short period under an assumed name, Itani. It’s part of the price he’s prepared to pay to ensure his own physical safety. Marchat Wilsin is a merchant who has traded very successfully but, when it comes to politics, takes the line of least resistance. He relies on Amat Kyaan, an experienced woman who has worked her way up through the ranks to a trusted position. In other circumstances, they would have become lovers, but rigid social etiquette gets in the way. Liat is young and naive, but has the relative good fortune to have Itani as her lover. And then there’s Maj whose role is to become a victim and later, perhaps, something different. Finally, offstage and seen only through agents, we have the militaristic Galts who plan for world domination through destabilising the smaller states and absorbing them into the emerging empire.

The magic that underpins this culture depends on a rather interesting skill. Imagine yourself a poet with the task of capturing the perfect metaphor for a work you hope or intend will be your masterpiece — the one signature poem that everyone around the world will always associate with you. That’s quite a terrifying challenge and not the kind of thing a shrinking violet should attempt. Only someone with a cast-iron ego, absolutely confident in his or her poetical abilities, should even think of attempting such a task. Now let’s come to the actual process underpinning this world’s economy. Our magicians are actually makers or shapers in that they take a concept or idea and make it incarnate, i.e. they have to describe the idea with such startling clarity that it takes on a human form called an Andat. In a way, I suppose, it’s a variation on the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea, the famous sculptor who fashions a statue out of ivory and then falls in love with “it”. When Venus feels the strength of his love, she animates the statue and the couple live happily ever after. Well, things don’t necessarily run quite so smoothly when all you have to play with are imprecise words and the shifting meanings of sentences. The incarnate can turn out with all the flaws of their creator which is, to put it mildly, a high price to pay when slave and master are so intimately bound together.

The dynamic of the novel concerns the relationship between the Andat Seedless, the poet Heshai who created him, and Maati Vaupathi who arrives as the young apprentice who may assume the control of the Andat when Heshai dies. Maati went to the same school as Otah. When they meet again some years later, they immediately trust each other and that trust may save the city when Heshai is attacked.

So here’s a slightly different question for you. If a city is wronged, what’s the right price for the wrongdoing city to pay as compensation? Indeed, can a price ever be put on justice or is revenge the only thing that satisfies? For more than a thousand years in our culture, money has been the key to avoiding blood feuds. It’s the idea that a value can be put on a life. In Anglo Saxon times, if the killer can pay the sum assessed, the family of the innocent victim must accept payment and keep the peace. If no money is forthcoming, the killer must give up his or her life. It’s like a commercial transaction, an exchange of value. Even the Bible goes in for equivalence with an eye for an eye as in a bargain. But if we come back to a city wronged, how many innocent lives might be sacrificed in the aggressor city as the compensation for the losses to the victim city? Cities have leaders and, by virtue of their roles, they might represent the city they govern. Some leaders may be guilty of various crimes, but the mass of the people they govern will be innocent of any complicity in the wrongful attack. Put another way, does the loss of one innocent life ever justify the loss of another innocent life? As a final question, does love necessarily imply trust? If the partners have secrets, does the relationship only survive if each knows the secrets of the other? Or who else should you trust with your secrets?

A Shadow in Summer is a wonderful first novel which is a somewhat unfair way of characterising a fine book. Whether it’s the first or the twenty-first is hardly relevant to judging its intrinsic merit. Except, I suppose, it becomes more impressive by being the first published. It’s as if the author is being born with fully developed skills and without having to go through the drudgery of learning his trade. Putting all this to one side, this is as good a fantasy novel as you could hope to read. It’s full of intelligent world building and interesting debate on the values we develop as individuals and societies. You should make the effort to find and read it — 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
Leviathan Wept
The Price of Spring
A Shadow in Summer
The Tyrant’s Law.

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