List of books in original series…’A Shadow In Summer’; ‘A Betrayal In Winter’; ‘An Autumn War’; ‘The Price Of Spring’
There are some books you enjoy reading as entertainment, and once you finish them, they’re gone. There are some that have memorable characters or plot twists or settings that stay with you. And there are some that completely blow your mind, and haunt you for ever. For me, this series is in the last category. It has all the strong points I look for in my fantasy – believable characters, a simple magic system with profound implications, an unusual setting, an interesting political system and, above all, some depth beyond mere entertainment. I like my reading to give me food for thought.
It starts, as so many fantasy works do, with a prologue. Unlike most, however, this is not just a teaser for events to come or an excuse for a bit of breathless action before settling down into the body of the book. This prologue is the crux of the entire story. Virtually everything that happens afterwards is derived from the interaction of the two boys, Otah and Maati, their personalities and the decisions each of them make at this point.
The characters are a strong point of the series. The story follows Otah and Maati through their whole lives, each book a fifteen year jump forward, and even though there are one or two significant events passed over with little acknowledgement because they happened during these gaps, nevertheless the reader knows them well enough to understand all the decisions they make, and the reasons for them. But even the lesser characters are fully rounded, real people, with their own credible motivations. Who could not sympathise with the Galts, for instance, excluded and marginalised by the power of the Khaiem empire? Or Amat, a rare portrayal in fantasy of an older woman as a main character? Or Idaan, the disregarded daughter?
The magic system in the world of the Long Price is, so far as I know, unique. By an incantation, or poem, an idea can be literally embodied, brought to life as a manifestation of the poet’s mind, and bound to his will, although in a constant battle against such control. Once created, the ‘idea’, called an andat, can be used as magic whenever required. In the first book, the andat is Seedless, and his power is to remove the fertile parts, the seeds, from crops like cotton, a very profitable talent, although, as it turns out, there are other applications as well, including using andat as weapons of almost unimaginable power. The andat are hard to create, difficult to hold on to, impossible to recreate once lost and there are few of them, no more than one per city, but they give the city rulers vast power and wealth.
The ruling Khaiem have an unusual means of inheriting. Only the eldest three sons are retained, and the current Khai makes no choice of successor from amongst them. Instead, they have to kill each other, and the survivor becomes the automatic and undisputed heir. Unwanted younger sons are sent off to train from early childhood to be poets, and those who fail are branded, to ensure they never join in the fight for the succession. Then they have to make their own way in the world. Abraham doesn’t shy away from the implications of such a system. Daughters? No more than marriage fodder, and that situation too is addressed.
The empire of the Khaiem, powered by magic and slavery, is vast, stable and elegant. It has strict hierarchy and stifling protocol, awe-inspiring architecture created by andat abilities, art and music – even the beggars in the streets sing for their charity. Language is augmented by a system of poses which adds complex layers of subtlety to all social interactions. Saraykeht, the city seen in ‘A Shadow in Summer’, is a beautiful place, perhaps the only place in the fantasy universe that I would actually have any desire to live in. Beyond the empire’s borders, other nations struggle to survive or turn to technology instead of magic, but are unable to deal with the Khaiem on equal terms because of the incredible power of the andat, which could wipe them out – or worse – in a heartbeat.
For those who enjoy battles and outright war, ‘The Long Price’ certainly has that, and there is as much dramatic tension as anyone could wish for in the desperate race against time and weather as the war reaches its conclusion. But the series is about so much more than that. The characters, the decisions they make, the situations they create and the tragedies that unfold as a consequence are unforgettable. Beneath the story, too, are layers of subtle questions that Abraham raises without ever beating the reader over the head with his own opinions. Are the andat a force for good or evil? Is there any justification for the violent Khaiem succession principle? Which is better – static traditional ways, or innovation and change? Which is more important – family loyalty or duty? Should you toe the line or follow your own path? It is rare in fantasy to find so many thought-provoking themes.
These books are not perfect, of course. There are plotholes and implausibilities in places. Not everyone likes Abraham’s spare writing style. Some readers dislike the system of poses to augment spoken language. Despite the war which is a central point of the plot, the story is not as action-packed as many fantasy works. Nevertheless, it remains, for me, the pinnacle of what good fantasy should be about – taking a simple idea (the andat) and exploring in full all the implications of that through memorable characters. It remains the only book to keep me up reading almost till dawn, and then, after a minimal amount of sleep, carrying on to the end, because I simply could not put it down. It remains one of the most emotionally affecting works I’ve ever read. It is an extraordinary series, and I highly recommend it.
Reviews of Daniel Abraham
Expanse Series (Written as James S A Corey with Ty Franck)
The Dagger and the Coin
The Dragon’s Path
The King’s Blood
The Black Sun’s Daughter (Written as M.L.N Hanover)
Long Price Quartet