The Long Price Quartet by Daniel Abraham
Reviewed by Gwyneth Jones
13 July 2009
War is diplomacy, continued by other means . . . I used to find that aphorism puzzling. Diplomacy? Polite, carefully coded conversation with high-status accredited foreign agents, traditionally a cover for espionage; never allowed to become openly acrimonious. If the embassy is withdrawn or expelled then take cover: but does that say anything about the nature of war? Surely it's just stating the obvious: diplomacy has to break down before war can start. A while ago I finally decided I needed to read Carl Von Clausewitz's monumental Napoleonic treatise On War. I found the quote at once, it's hard to miss, but in my version the English word is policy, not diplomacy. Now I get it. War is policy: it's a tool used by the State, meant to achieve some previously determined, profitable end. Let's try to keep that in mind, shall we, sighs the expert. On War is full of memorable bullet points like that—statements that seem obvious now, because Von Clausewitz's opinion became the bible for generations of 19th-century career soldiers. War is essentially neither art nor science, it's commerce, a prosaic, utilitarian activity. Don't go to war if you can help it: wait for it to come to you. Total Force is actually kinder, don't try to be nice. Always have an exit strategy. Keep your communications lines short. Don't antagonise the populace. An invading force loses its advantage rapidly. The longer a campaign continues, the more you're in danger of seeing victory go to the home team, no matter how weakly they were prepared . . .
I can't exactly recommend On War. It's less fun than it sounds, the prose is very dry, and the fact that it's been adored by investment bankers for the past couple of decades doesn't inspire confidence. Still, it's interesting in parts, particularly for a student of SF and fantasy, where readers can expect organised violence to feature somewhat more often than not—a prediction that amounts to near-certainty in any epic fantasy. Life's a struggle, war's a metaphor. Sometimes the great conflict, implicitly or explicitly, is really a psychodrama about redemption, set in a dreamworld of the mind. The Pevensey children are washed in the blood of Aslan, Thomas Covenant and a host of other despised or misfit characters are suddenly transported, suddenly transformed into figures of mind-boggling significance . . . Sometimes the author is earthly-serious, and we're invited to learn something about the human condition or the mechanics of history. And sometimes it's just the world-builder's dilemma. If you want to signal that your main character is very, very important, in a Bourgeios Individualist Mimetic Novel, your choices are wide as the world. In epic fantasy you're probably going to end up with a prince—more likely a humble squire who turns out, in the hour of need, to be rightwise king—a princess, an Emperor-in-waiting. What do kings do? They go to war.
At the opening of Daniel Abraham's impressive Long Price Quartet, the Khaiem Empire has been dead for about three hundred years. The Khai cities, where the story will be set, were colonies founded on another landmass. They were governed by stewards who have become, in the absence of empire, hereditary rulers. Their power comes from the andat, magically embodied industrial concepts, captured and held in thrall by rigorously trained "poets." Their rivals and chief trading partners are the Galt, steam-engine technologists who may represent—but not too slavishly—the democratic "Western World," as opposed to the East Asian-style (mainly feudal Japan) culture of the Khaiem. The balance of power is unstable. The andat can be used, and have been used in the fairly recent past, to wreak awesome destruction on the Galt, who have no possible means of defence. The Westerners are always scheming, despite this Ultimate Deterrent, against the hegemony of the East. What the Galt don't know, and maybe don't even suspect, is that the andat system—never more than a fragment, a living fossil, since the Empire fell—is in terminal decline. One way or another, time is running out.
In the isolated Dai-kvo village the surplus sons of high ranking utkhaiem families are trained to become poets. It's a harsh, brutal, and dehumanising education. Only the very toughest will survive, to "bind" the precious andat for the next generation. Enter two boys, Otah and Maati. One of them's strong and flexible: he'll go far. The other is weak and stubborn: terrible combination. They are not friends, but they're very close: shadow and self. Otah, youngest son of a powerful Khai, grasps the koan of the Dai-kvo's unpleasant regime, decides he doesn't want the perverse glory he's being groomed for, and runs away to become a dockfront labourer. Before he leaves he imparts his secret and Maati, who is direly unfit for the work, joins the elite.
A Shadow In Summer has a few problems. When Otah and Maati meet again, in the great port and textile city of Saraykhet, the bleak pattern of their schooldays merely repeats itself in adolescent romance, and everything turns on a fragile, over-complicated Galtish operation involving "Seedless," the city's andat. Shaking the seeds out of raw cotton is its main line of work, but it has a sideline in "shaking the seed" out of human bodies, i.e. discreet second-trimester abortions. Heshai-kvo, the Saraykhet poet, is disastrously sensitive about the "sad trade," and this is the flaw the conspirators plan to exploit . . . The conspiracy fails, but (annoyingly for some readers), turns out it was needless anyway. By the end of the story the andat has been destroyed by much simpler means, Otah is on the run again, Maati is in disgrace and the barbarians are closer to the gates. Eventually we'll understand why "Seedless" is an important concept in this epic. For the moment, though some may find the action a little slow, a hole in the plot is a small price to pay for an imagined world of this quality: for a city as graceful and fascinating as Saraykhet, and for such persuasively human characters.
War is commerce, carried on by other means . . . Religion is science, as long as religion represents our attempts to manipulate and control the superhuman forces of nature. Abraham's trade war, still clinging to the skirts of peace in episode two, inhabits a feudal world that stands (in real history), at the point where religion and science go their separate ways—because, essentially, science has effective magic, and religion does not. It's a popular venue for mass-market fantasy, usually set somewhere vaguely resembling Late Mediaeval Europe: but the State-owned, industrial magic of the Khaiem—recalling the services rendered by Jonathan Strange to the Duke of Wellington, in Susanna Clarke’s one-of-a-kind Napoleonic fantasy of 2004—is no kind of fuzzy, feelgood alternative to science. There are no homely, minor andat, no wisewomen who will invoke Mend-My-Shoes for you on a street corner. There is only the horribly intimate relationship between a fallible, conflicted human being like Heshai, and a monstrous ectoplasmic creature that takes human shape, wears clothes, plays games (but does not breathe); and is always, every moment, viciously fighting to be free, to be void again. To be a poet is a terrible fate, and though the official line says only the best candidates make the grade, that's not what we see. On the contrary, just as in the real world, it often seems to be the worst candidate who wins the "prize."
As magic, this is definitely the shade known as Black. As a way of thinking about Big Science, it's a very dark commentary. Our powers over nature hate us and mean us harm. They are the worst of ourselves, given form and savage purpose.
At first it's a disappointment when A Betrayal In Winter plunges into palace intrigue, setting the andat issue aside: but there are traditions to be observed. The boy-of-destiny must attain the throne, and it must be a difficult passage. Years have gone by. The Khai-Machi, Otah's father, lord of the great mining city in the north, is dying. His surviving sons must now try to murder each other—a grotesque arrangement decreed by the Dai-kvo, apparently to prevent civil wars. The last brother standing becomes Khai. The killing begins, someone isn't playing by the rules, deadly suspicion falls on the vanished Otah. Nobody gives a thought to Idaan, the Khai's strong-willed, rebellious daughter, and her merchant prince fiancé—which made this reader restless, because I never heard of a feudal system where princesses are discounted in a contested succession (they have husbands, don't they?); and because in every other context Abraham reminds us that a Khai's daughters are highly significant as marriageable chattels. Never mind, Idaan is an excellent character: not so much a Lady Macbeth as a tormented "Macbeth" herself, goaded by her ambitious partner, horrified by her own actions, intelligent and moral enough to know her reward for the family bloodshed will be a living hell—yet unable to turn back. Of course, it's all a Galtish plot, and the merchant prince is in the pay of the enemy. Needless to say, Otah is torn from the modest, happy life he's made for himself. Needless to say, when he has suffered a number of satisfying adventures, and Idaan's guilt has been discovered, he's the last sibling standing. Whereupon the boy who rejected the whole dreadful system, long ago, turns into someone different and far less wise. The new Khai-Machi issues an ultimatum. One more underhand trick like that, the andat will be unleashed and every Galt will die.
Most reports are false . . . The charm of Abraham's Khaiem cities resides, as in all good world-building, in a scattered mass of detail. Food is a vital element—regional dishes, roadside breakfasts; a bowl of dried apples with the spiced wine. The language of poses (which made me think of the mie of Kabuki theatre); the significance of different coloured robes. Traditional festivals, scraps of old children's stories; throwaway references, that need not be explained, to cultural icons like the "Galtic Tree," and the "Sigil of Order and Chaos." The effect can become mechanical—yet another closely observed snack, yet another subtle, ritual gesture—but it's mainly very successful. Likewise, the strength of the human drama is in Abraham's willingness to build a hopeless psychological impasse by degrees, stone by stone. Happy people are not this writer's forte—the enduring romance between Otah and his wife Kiyan is a pedestrian affair—but given the nature of the andat, that's not a problem. Tainted, sad, and broken relationships match the sickness of the system. But all this detail and resonance is about to be swept away.
The third episode prologue finds Balasar Gice, a maverick Galtish general, returning from a perilous expedition into the poisoned deserts of the Old Empire. He's the man who refuses to believe that the andat are untouchable, and his defiance has been rewarded, at a terrible price. He's bringing back ancient texts that will help him to overthrow the arrogant Khai cities . . . This was the one point in the whole epic when I felt I needed more of this. The desert's "indescribable horrors" seemed like a missed opportunity, in an epic that's short on extravagant thrills. Later on, when Balasar is busy demonising the enemy, and the irony is that for once this attitude may be justified, it would have helped if I'd shared his first-hand experience of the Pit. Still, the point is made. Balasar is a driven man: there'll be no more half-baked meddling, no more futile conspiracies. Operation Total Force is about to be launched.
Years have gone by. Otah the Khai-Machi, having invited the enemy to come and get him, has quietly been building a militia. The all-powerful Dai-kvo won't stand for this, no city is allowed to maintain an army. He's obliged to send his volunteers out into the wilderness, under the command of his great friend Sinja, a mercenary captain who became Otah's ally in the last episode. Sinja finds Balasar already in the field, moving through Eddensea and Westlands (neighbouring countries added to the map so that Galt and the Khaiem aren't hanging in a void). He's trapped into maintaining his cover, he enlists his green soldiers as mercenaries under the Galtish general, and for reasons that were not entirely clear to this reader most of them, especially Sinja, settle down to give the enemy good service—although the cynical captain appears to be trying to kid himself he hasn't really changed sides. When Otah learns of the invasion by other means, he's puzzled by the Galts' rash confidence. Then the mining city's andat Stone-Made-Soft suddenly vanishes, and soon the awful truth dawns. The Galt have cracked the code.
Some of Daniel Abraham's fans must have breathed a sigh of relief when An Autumn War came out. At last! A proper fantasy conflict, with bloodsoaked battlefields, crushing defeats, cunning strategies, victories against the odds . . . In practice, although it's certainly closer to conventional genre fantasy, I found this the weakest of the three books. The long-awaited Galt don't get much development. Otah and Kiyan have become a little boring, more like a harrassed CEO and his nice homemaker helpmate than characters in exotic make-believe. Old wounds are reopened, unhappy consequences revisited, as Abraham deftly introduces new readers to the Long Price situation, but there's nothing new going on—unless you count the retrofitted authorial rumour about Otah's jealousy and Sinja's passion for his lord's wife. Which didn't work for me, because there are no such scenes in the previous narrative. When Otah goes to war, things become distinctly ordinary. First the Galt win a lot, and behave like brutes. Then, at the darkest hour, Otah starts winning, starts to be seen as a saviour, oooh maybe a new Emperor . . . It's fine, as standard epic fantasy fare goes, but after all the build-up, this is not a fascinating war. Right until the shock ending there isn't an unexpected move or an un-hackneyed emotion in sight.
Maybe it doesn't matter. An Autumn War is still a page-turner, and arguably the whole man-born-to-be-king story is a sideshow. Maybe this epic is about the andat, and about Otah's shadow, the "failed poet"—whose time has come.
In any novel, especially a long one, plot and characters will take on a life of their own and throw up helpful ideas the writer gratefully embraces. Was Otah's sister Idaan, rehabilitated but still subject to the double standard that condemned her as a vile monster in A Shadow In Summer, always meant to return in the last episode, as her brother's confidante? Maybe, maybe not. We can fairly sure, however, that the grotesque fate that overtakes the opposing nations, at the close of An Autumn War, was always on the agenda. Long ago, Maati was sent to Saraykhet to train as Heshai-kvo's replacement. In the Galt crisis, desperately trying to recover andat power, he's forced revert to his old work on Seedless, there's no time for a brand new thought experiment. Fatally, he also incorporates an untested safety mechanism. The price of a failed binding is bizarrely appropriate death for the poet concerned: Maati has figured out a way to get round that. It seems like a good idea: he can't afford for his first attempt to be his last. When he fails to bind "Sterile," the weaponised version of "Seedless," the first andat designed as a weapon since the fall of Empire, the deflected punishment falls on the Galt and the Khaeim. In an instant the men of Galt and the women of Khaiem are graphically and vindictively rendered infertile—and the policy behind this war story, the predetermined end that Daniel Abraham always had in mind, is achievable at last. All that remains is for the crude fusion of two peoples, a costly recipe for peace, to be implemented in episode four.
Once more, at the opening of The Price of Spring, years have passed. No child has been born for fifteen years or so. Otah is Emperor of a dying nation. Maati has vanished into the landscape. Women have joined the professions, and become far more prominent in supporting roles. The Emperor's daughter, a fully-fledged physician, is appalled by Otah's plan to cobble together the broken halves of Khai/Galt fertility. She sees this mass political marriage as an atrocious insult to Khai womanhood . . . Arguably, it's Eiah who's being insulting. Otah simply wants his nation to survive, he's not going to make Khai women give up their new-found careers. It's Eiah who's saying women are nothing if they can't have babies. But never mind that. Otah works on the Galt High Council, Eiah watches out for weird, gruesome corpses. She's guessed what her beloved "uncle Maati," is getting up to. Soon she's tracked him down and joined his outcast, forbidden school of trainee poets. He's recruiting women (never allowed to train as poets before), in the hopes that they might have a different approach. Everything cycles back to the beginning, as the little band settles in the ruins of the Dai-kvo village. Will Maati's weak, stubborn wishful-thinking be as efficient as the tyranny of the old Dai-kvo? Will he succeed in undoing the harm he did? Or will he only drag the Khaiem and the Galt further into hell? If you were in any doubt, your first meeting with the extremely sinister fake-baby andat, Clarity of Sight, will set you right.
In The Price of Spring Abraham plays to his strengths again, especially his uncanny ability to make unsympathetic characters fascinating, and bad decisions engrossing. Once more, the grand scale is pushed to the margins and the drama is about the characters, squeezed together in a remorseless vice. It's a shame for affirmative action that this "women's special" had to be shrouded in a tension close to despair, and that darkness, literal and metaphorical, is only relieved when the women return to their proper domestic sphere. Nevertheless this is gripping, fantasy-tinged horror, and when the healing twist that Tolkien called the "eucatastrophe" of a fairytale is mediated by Eiah, the woman poet who is also a physician, it's a fine Aha moment of resolution: both unexpected and inevitable.
The result in war is never absolute . . . Despite the plot glitches, and sometimes a sense of authorial arrogance, I was sorry to turn the last page of The Long Price. As a reader, I've had an experience on the cusp between good and great, and I'm glad to see that each of the books has done very well with the critics. What will be the fate of the work as a whole? At 1200 or so pages, The Long Price is a lot more tightly packed than most moderately-conservative, stirring-yet-soothing fantasy trilogies. Is it too bleak and dense for the mass market audience? Too careless—on several levels—to gather a serious reputation? Time will tell. Meanwhile, if you like genre fantasy with a dose of horror, and you enjoy believable, exasperating characters, I promise you solid entertainment. Recommended.