The Price of Spring: Well Paid

This is an impossible review to write. I don’t even feel like I can go with a simple plot description, given that the events in The Price of Springby Daniel Abraham are so dependent on the ugly climax of the last book, a climax I do not want to spoil for those readers who eventually might get around to this series. I guess I’ll just blather a bit about the general trends in these novels as a group. 

So, high fantasy, yeah? The Long Price Quartet takes place in a mildly medieval mildly Asian setting – farms and courts and no electric lights. (But no elves or dragons.) You just kind of accept this, as a reader, because, hey, why not? And the costumes are sweet. But there is this very tiny piece of magic in the mix, a very careful, deliberate magic, so careful and deliberate that it blows my mind here in the last book. The magic is embodied in creatures called andats, who are called into being by poets; the embodiment of concepts. Once a concept has been bound – and this binding takes physical form in something that looks human – it cannot be bound in the same way again. In the beginning, many, many generations before the start of this book, poets bound and released andats almost playfully not realizing there would be a cost down the road. A binding gone wrong – one that is too close in grammar to one already done – will result in the death of the poet.

So that’s where we are at the start of A Shadow in Summer, which details the plots of some failed poets, some not failed poets, women, and empires. I said this in the review for the first book, but the magic, the andat, is an almost-allegory for technology, a sort of nuclear power that can light up a thousand homes, or murder an entire culture. Take, for example, Seedless, the only andat we meet in Summer. He (and this pronoun is off – these are not gendered humans, but more on that later) can be called Removing That Which Continues, and this bound idea mostly works to remove the seeds from cotton – a cotton djinn. (Ba-dump-tss.) But he can also remove a gestating child, and he could, through his magic, cause every woman to miscarry in the enemy state of Galt, who, unlike the city-states of the Khaiem (in which these events occur), have to rely on the more mundane magic of steam ships and clever technology.

But the stories of these four books mostly follow the fortunes and misfortunes of two men, Otah and Maati. I’m sitting here staring at the cursor, trying to will an easy encapsulation of their relationship into being. These books occur at roughly 15 year intervals, so Otah, Maati, and all of the other players age and change, not just in the books, but in the interstitial periods between them. We met them as boys, and here they are men, old men, dealing with their failures and horrible successes, trying to salvage their lives, their legacies, and the inescapable fact that more of the candle has been burned than not. A lot more. 

The last book dealt with a war, and while it was not a civil war in the strictest of senses, it has become intimate in the aftermath and reparations. Civil in the sense of of or relating to citizens and their interrelations with one another or with the state. Again, I’m not saying this is Tolkien’s dreaded allegory, but this last book got me thinking abut our own American civil conflict, and the Reconstruction period just after. The andat – and these creatures view themselves, and are, slaves – are out of the world, the books burned, the poets put to the knife. The societies in question have to put the world back together, have to build an economy and a shared civil identity that isn’t predicated on that slavery, and they don’t like it at all.

And why would they? I sat there, as a reader, wanting to shake everyone. Maati, oh god, what you are doing is going to end in tears – and what he is doing is trying to build a women’s grammar to bind a new andat. (Of course, in this semi-medieval setting, women’s rights do not figure, and poets have always been men, which is dealt with so amazingly well that I amaze.) I mean, this is a personal tick of mine, but I believe strongly that fantasy, and especially high fantasy, almost always trades in nostalgia of one stripe or another. That nostalgia often works out to this faux medievalism where the ladies wear dresses and are chattel, but it’s okay, because harvesting grain and being pretty is so rewarding, yo! Not here. Abraham is so much better than this, and he addresses the gender imbalances, calls them into question, makes gender both the question and the answer. The good ole days were good because of slavery, so they weren’t good for everyone. It’s seriously awesome. 

As much as I wanted to shake Maati, at least when I wasn’t covering my eyes knowing that what he was doing was going to end in horrors, I was wanting to shake his friend/enemy, Otah, for doing things that have a terrible, necessary purpose on many levels, but were absolutely sickening. Otah, oh god, you get to take the high road in your own mind, but that’s such total bullshit. And the worst part? He even knows it. They all do. And they do what they do anyway because it makes sense. Because people are people. Because we all pine for lost countries, ones we even lived in, and want to make our perfected memories into perfect futures. The whole thing is bananas. 

All this blather I’ve been making about society and gender and stuff – ignore this. This is not why you should read this. You should read this because it has some of the most careful, beautiful character sketches, sketches that move through time, that build, that allow characters to make bad choices and be assholes, characters that try to do the right thing, who fail and burn and regret. I love that we see whole lives in this series, from young lovers to regretting widowers with bad knees. 

And another thing I say about fantasy: the land is character, the cities and places. There’s a moment in here where some characters (no spoilers) are in a ruined city, and they have this reverie about the food carts that used to ply the overgrown streets, how with your food, wrapped in careful paper, you would also receive a collection of seeds in a twist. After eating, you threw the seeds on the ground, and the birds that came to eat the seeds were a divination tool: a thrush for luck, a crow for bad omens. It’s throwaway, but it’s beautiful, and it’s careful. It’s a moment for a place that never existed, but never existed in a way that had its own customs. Omigod. Go read this series now.

(And the previous book, An Autumn War, and this can be found in the omnibus edition called The Price of War. So good.) 

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An Autumn War: Anvils

I’ve realized something about Abraham’s writing. He shows you the anvil he’s going to drop on your head. There’s a sussurus of silk as he slowly lifts the cover away, a hint of jasmine in the air as you sip tea, growing cold the way everything warm does. You consider the anvil, the way it is dark and sits, anvil-like, unassuming as the inevitable. You watch it lift, slowly, and the servant that moves the pulleys pulls hand over hand, one fist in front of another. It’s beautiful, the way the lines stretch taunt, and then go slack, and then stretch taunt again. It’s like life in its consideration, a bowl going cold because you are too busy living to drink, and then you drink and it’s cold and regretful. 

And then the fucking anvil hits you on the head, and it’s not about how unassuming the anvil is, or its color or shape, but about how the expectation is not the same as the experience, and the experience is not the same as the aftermath. There are birds and little arcane symbols tweeting around your head, and you can’t understand how that damn black and metal thing hit you so hard because you knew it was coming. You saw it unwrapped, like a stiptease of your coming mortification. 

It took me forever to get through An Autumn War (The Long Price Quartet). I cheated on it with several other books, because I could feel that coming shock. This series is stagy like nobody’s business, and that is intentional, deliberate, one foot in front of the other, a chess move that moves the other pieces like a diagram. I don’t like military books, as a rule, because I’m a squirming girl who can’t handle glory. There’s no glory here, just ash and pain and a thousand bad and completely understandable choices that end in the worse and the incomprehensible. Good Lord, this anvil. It is hard and dark and made of metal. I will grope my way through the next book, but not right now. I’m going to lie down and consider the patterns on the insides of my eyelids for a while.

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A Betrayal in Winter

It pisses me off how good a writer Daniel Abraham is. It pisses me off more that you lot don’t seem to be reading him at all. I’m going to start buying his books and mailing them to you for your birthday, L. Ron Hubbard style. This is not an idle threat. 

 A Betrayal in Winteris the second in the Long Price Quartet. I always feel a little weird writing reviews for later books in series, because I’m going inevitably to drop spoilers from the first book. With that in mind, there may be mild spoilers for A Shadow in Summer, but that can’t be helped. (As an aside, I keep having to look up the names for these books as I write this review, which is a pretty serious problem, I think. I get how they work together thematically, or whatever, but they do not marry to their content well and are pretty forgettable. I never know who to credit/blame with titles – bad titles can be the fault of either writers or publishers, for different reasons – but these are straight up bad.)

A Betrayal in Winterstarts roughly a decade after the first book, in another city, with some cast changes. I really feel the absence of the character Amat at first, with her mashalled, gendered anger, but she’s found her corollary in Idaan. Maybe corollary is the wrong word; Idaan is more a cautionary tale. I keep getting surprised by these books, because they have this really sly, cutting gender commentary, and fantasy, Goddess bless it, often doesn’t. Come to think of it, books that deal with fantasies of one stripe or other often fall into gender ghettos. Fantasies for women play out one register of stereotypes; fantasies for men another. (Arguably, Fantasy with a capital F is fantasy for men. I do not say this to start fights.) When either kinds of fantasies play out in semi-medieval settings, I think you get a lot of sexist play-set action. Not so, here, at all. 

The plot is almost Shakespearean: the king is dying. There is no primogeniture; his sons will have to kill one another to determine succession. His daughters, well, they do not count. All of them are too old to start the killing game, but one of the four sons dies suddenly, of poison, in an opening gambit blamed on our Otah, our upstart, from the first book. This would probably have more frission with an Elizabethan audience, having just gone through the whole mess with, um, something historical that I have forgotten about? Scottish succession and what a total mess it was? Anyway, um, back to my point, which is that if I spend much more time outlining the plot, I’m going to make it sound like one of those court intrigue jobs that I have mixed success with. No. My Dad is fond of quoting the following aphorism: all politics are local. Then he winks and says: No, actually, all politics are personal. Sometimes I fall asleep when I’m reading court intrigue dramas because they forget the actors are people, and not just widgets in a system. At some point, one of the characters says, “We are all men under our robes,” which is beautiful and perfect, because they are, of course, when they are men. But sometimes they are women, and that makes a difference. That difference fuels some of the plot. 

There’s other loves for me in here. The first book set forward some fantasy mechanics that have deepened here. There’s the poets, who call into being andats – semi-living embodiments of an idea who are something between a metaphor and bound god. We met one in the first book, Seedless, and here we meet another, who changes our ideas of how the andats work, how metaphors work. There is still the gesture-language, not as fully utilized as in the last book, but one that puts a spin on the statements of characters in this book. And then there is the continuing metaphor of the sleeve, where people keep their correspondence, or have it spill on the pavement; the cloth that covers the wrist also conceals the heart, or reveals; the difference between the mask and the person, the clothes and the man. Or woman. Ah ah ah. 

I think this book could almost be read as a stand-alone text, something that makes me quake. I blame Tolkien’s editors for breaking LotR into three books when it should have been one, and giving later fantasists license to write a bunch of narratives that never culminate, never complete. I mean, sure, I like how Fellowship ends, with it’s downbeat incompleteness, but I can’t remember the break between Two Towers and King, and King is mostly appendix, and OMG, I’ll stop nerding out here. This book does not ramble to its end, to be begun again where it finished like after a nap. That said, there are things in Winter that tighten into the next arc, a late moment when I realized that the library is at the heart of the metaphors in a way that makes my booknerd soul become incandescent with glee. I’m really impressed, and you lot should get up off your asses and start reading Abraham right now. Now. 

(And this, and the previous book, A Shadow in Summer, can be be found packaged in an omnibus called Shadow and Betrayal. Get on that shit.) 

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A Shadow in Summer: The Cotton Djinn

Regularly, I spend maybe too much time agonizing about star-ratings, because they are dumb and evil and should be abolished. There’s a lot in A Shadow in Summerby Daniel Abraham to love – a lot – but I cheated on it with no less than three other books, profligate that I am, and usually when I get to cuckolding it is Not A Good Sign. But now, a week or so past when I finally finished this novel, I think the cheating was vital to my enjoyment. (Look at me justify the sluttiness!) No, seriously, this book is weird. It’s difficult to sum up the plot; the ideas are subtle, textured, and more intimate that the usual OMG SMASH SMASH of science fiction or fantasy.

And now, a random digression into genre. I fight Richard tooth and nail about the distinction between fantasy and scifi, because he’s always saying thing like, “I hate fantasy. All those godamn elves.” And then I point out that he totally hearts Neil Gaiman and Tolkien, so what is he talking about? And he says if it doesn’t have elves in it, it’s not fantasy. And then comes the name calling and taunting. When I went to class this book on my admittedly bullshit shelves here on GoodReads, I realized I’d internalized his hard line in the sand between genres – a book is either one or the other, with no meeting in the middle.

This book meets in the middle. There’s magic, but it is so tightly circumscribed as to be just a mind-blowing metaphor for the ways in which a technology encompasses a world view. Tolkien, in all of the snore-inducing extra-biblical writings about Middle Earth, re-writes God’s Divine Logos as a song, each life adding a note or chord into the chorus of history. Le Guin’s Earthsea books use word-magic, the idea of a pre-Fallen language, to sketch her ideas about the Tao. Even crappy young Christopher Paolini, not so much standing on the shoulders of giants as having a piggy-back ride, sees magic as resting in language, even if his magic is stupid and pointless.

In A Shadow in Summer, the magic is language-based, but language-based the way my computer is programmed. I have a really bad background in math, so I took a lot of logic classes in college because they count as math credit – it’s all, like, symbolic, man! So I’d translate an argument into a proof – all of those neat symbols adding up into incontrovertible proof of God’s existence one page, or His divine non-existence the other, and eventually that translation seemed as slippery as fish, as cold as fish, as fishy as fish. The proof is not proof, as they say. The argument can be watertight and wrong. “And” and “but” are both translated into the same symbol – & – but they do not have the same connotation.

Anyway, what I’m trying to get at is that in this book, a group of people called “poets” call into being beings called “andats” who are slippery folk, fishy folk, complex non-persons who embody an idea. Much of the plot of ASIS deals with the andat Removing That Which Continues, who is commonly called Seedless. He’s person-like – he walks and talks but doesn’t really breathe – but he was called into being by a poet for the purposes of continuing the monopoly on the cotton trade that his culture enjoys. The previous andat ripened cotton; this one removes the seeds. As an almost unintended effect, Seedless also presides over the Sad Trade, as abortion is called in this reality. The andat are called and bound by poets after long study, and the failure to bind the idea results in the death of the poet. Released after the death of their poet, the andat returns to the great-unbeing, and calling them up again becomes harder and harder for later poets. 

Ideas are tricky; technology, magical as it is, is tricky. The pocket watch made of gears is rendered obsolete by the digital watch, not only because digital information is more useful to culture – arguably, arguably – but because the pocket watch was invented to compute longitude, and that’s simply not a concern in the digital age, because the digital is an analog for the analog, and we’ve harness the digital to entirely different ends. And now I’m talking nonsense, but I’m sure there’s something to my nonsense. Abraham’s andats are technology manifest – the way a new invention, a new idea, insinuates into our history almost compulsively – reworking what we think about society and people and the order of those things. How much of our ideas of the nation-state are dependent on the Bomb, the machine gun? How did the printing press reorder Medieval notions of God – and would the Enlightenment have happened without it? 

I’ve been blathering pseudo-metaphysically, but the beauty of this book is in how careful the character sketches are, how concise the language is. There were moments when I would ah-ah-ah ah ah – the way Abraham would describe the skin on almost-frozen water, or the moment of revelation when you see the possibilities blooming like blood into water, and I would be stopped cold by the power of his language. I’ve got some problems with the multi-volume fantasy/sf “trilogy”, and this is no exception: the first half is almost inert, stagy, setting the players very carefully on the playing field like little green army men about to work out their inevitable battle. But (and?) then in the latter half the characters come to life and start moving unexpectedly – not in violation with their characters, but in the way people make stunning choices that make sense only after the fact. Like logic, Abraham translates a technology into a person, a person who speaks back, who schemes and plans, and his translation turns on the subtle distinction between “and” and “but” – the diction of culture. 

There’s other clever things in this story – Abraham alludes to a language of posture that exists in the culture he’s created – how someone can say something, and then raise their arms to mean welcome or irony or gratitude. This takes some getting used to, but this is subtly done, the way some characters use this body language easily, and others don’t – how any ritualized behavior has implications as to cultural status and placement. My most giggle-producing moment was when I realized that Seedless is a Cotton Djinn – sound it out – maybe this is funny to me and maybe just me, but I wonder even now if that’s what Abraham intended, this sly pun that turns on the way translation is both funny and sad, bound by language that is untranslatable.

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