24 June 2008

Locus Magazine's Nick Gevers reviews Daniel Abraham

from Locus Magazine, June 2008

An Autumn War, Daniel Abraham (Tor 978-0-7653-1342-3, $25.95, 366pp, hc) July 2008. Cover by Stephan Martiniere.

With its third installment, An Autumn War, Daniel Abraham’s Long Price Quartet moves from relatively quiet patterns of intrigue to large-scale violence, and the power of the series, considerable before, becomes quite formidable. The nature of the "Long Price" itself grows clearer and clearer, and its menace is awesome. Yet Abraham, one of the most gifted newer fantasists, keeps his material under tight control, and by this cool restraint if anything magnifies the tension of his narrative.

The first two volumes, A Shadow in Summer (2006) and A Betrayal in Winter (2007), had as their chief theme Consequences — how customs, institutions, and personal actions by their very natures elicit payback, in a constant balance of cause and result. In Abraham’s imagined world, there was once a mighty empire, which, reliant for its authority on magic, courted collapse by turning that exorbitant magic against itself. In the post-imperial era, the great trading city states ruled by the Khaiem (hereditary overlords) and kept in prosperity by the utkhaiem (mercantile nobility) have inherited the empire’s sorcerous system, by which adepts known as poets force into physical, human, form abstract attributes that can then be manipulated at will. These reified forces, the andat, are employed by each city both to facilitate industrial and commercial operations (for example, in the state of Machi, the andat Stone-Made-Soft makes mining much easier by reducing the resistance of rock) and to act as a doomsday deterrent against invaders (Stone-Made-Soft might cause the ground beneath an enemy’s feet to collapse). So the Khaiem govern securely, with the equivalent of a nuclear arsenal, need maintain no armies, and engage in strife only when a Khai dies and his sons must annihilate one another over the succession. But in this carefully woven fabric, a price is implied — someday, the andat will cease to be useful, or the fate of the empire will be repeated. All the chickens will come home to roost. The Khaiem are hated by jealous outsiders like the Galts, who will strike as soon as the defenses are down. And against this background, the first two books have sketched numerous smaller, more immediate, chains of price — the love triangle of Otah Machi, eventual Khai Machi; Maati, the flawed poet who is his ally; and Liat, who comes to head a trading family: a triangle that radiates strife and misunderstanding in several directions: the imperfect binding by the poet Heshai of his andat, Seedless, and the andat’s cunning revenge; the conspiracies of the Galts to undermine the Khaiem, which rebound on the perpetrators; the old Khai Machi’s willingness to let three of his sons dispute his throne while he is yet alive, with all the bloodshed and treachery that results. Consequences always follow, directly or deviously. What is more, the complex language of gestures and demeanors that supplements verbal communication among the Khaiem and their people — a masterful creation by Abraham — underscores an awareness of consequences at all times. The slightest nuance expressed may carry events who knows where....

So prices are short and long term. Until An Autumn War, the shorter term has largely applied. But now the phenomenon of the andat is ready after centuries to extract its hideous Long Price, which Abraham unveils with somber, suspenseful intensity. A Galtic general, Balasar Gice, travels into the deserts left by the ruin of the empire to unearth certain ancient books. A poet named Riaan has defected to the Galts, and Balasar intends to use him, with the assistance of the books, to bind an andat whose archetypal quality — liberation — will free all the other extant andats at once, at a stroke depriving the poets and the Khaiem they serve of their power. Then the Galts will move in, sacking the cities, carrying off their wealth (the text encourages one to visualize the Galts as Occidental barbarians, Goths maybe, or Vikings, or Normans, while the people of the Khaiate country are perhaps more East Asian). This plan unfolds swiftly, and the Khai are taken by surprise. The andat vanish. Scenes of slaughter and plunder proliferate as the Galts move forward. In the end, the only state equipped to defend itself at all is Machi, in the far north. Here the characters from the previous novels are gathered: Otah, ruler of Machi, his wife Kiyan, Maati (who vainly imagines he has found a way to sidestep the price of binding an andat), Liat (who brings the first intelligence of the Galts’ intentions), the poet Cehmai, the warrior Sinja. Sinja leaves before the crisis begins to head a mercenary company in the neighboring Westlands, where he ends in company with Balasar, theoretically serving him as an allied commander but in secret hoping to warn his compatriots in Machi of what is to come. While Balasar and Sinja engage in contests of wits on the road north, Otah and the others must awake to their peril and organize an army of their own. The admirable qualities of all of them are drawn out, as well as tensions, resentments, misapprehensions; Abraham continues to pay careful attention to every detail of his human tapestry, its intricate workings not overshadowed by approaching Armageddon (and thus lesser prices continue to be demanded). And when battle is joined in the streets of Machi, an event occurs, Biblical in tone, horrifying in detail, which signals that the Long Price has come due. This is a narrative masterstroke by Abraham, which turns all the certainties of the text upside down.

Which is to say that An Autumn War is in its closing stages heartstoppingly surprising and exciting. Rarely does the penultimate volume in a series carry such a charge of its own.

Read more! This is one of three dozen books reviews from the June 2008 issue of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe or buy the issue.
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