An Autumn War
It has been over a year since I read the first two entries in Daniel Abraham’s Long Prince Quartet. Both A Shadow In Summer and A Betrayal In Winter are subtle, complex novels light on action but high on character in world that is wonderfully complex and refreshingly different from your everyday fantasy world. While each of the previous novels have primarily been about several deftly drawn characters and their personal relationships each novel has grown increasingly involved with examining how these characters’ actions affect the world at large. As in the previous two novels Otah and Maati remain central characters and it is the ripple of their actions in the previous two books that play an integral role in the threat unveiled in An Autumn War. Some spoilers from the previous two books ahead (no more than what you’ll get if you read the jacket though).
The opening scene of An Autumn War is a bit of a tease from Abraham; almost a jibe at your traditional quest fantasy. In that scene we are introduced to General Gice, a Galtic war hero who has just emerged from the twisted deserts of the Old Empire, with only two his company left but with several important texts about the Andat; the bound aspect-deities that form the basis of the Khaiem cities’ strength. Tantalizingly, Gice recalls the vague horrors and strange encounters in their quest for these important books and it is that moment, particularly the notion that Gice’s initial quest would likely form a large portion of another books main plot, that hammers home how different Abraham’s work is here. Instead Abraham leaves us with the intent behind Gice’s quest, his quiet sadness and his deft hand in soothing the emotional strain on his remaining two men. This opening is powerful, conveying an ominous drone that sounds throughout the rest of the novel.
As the novel moves forward we return of Otah, now the Khai Machi, has taken the first tiny steps towards creating the necessary infrastructure for life without Andat; his experience with Seedless revealing just how dangerous complete reliance on the fickle beings can be. Meanwhile, Maati works as librarian for Khai while translating his experiences with Seedless and Stone-made-soft (and their poets) into what he hopes will a be a means to avoid the price paid for failing to properly bind an Andat. Both Otah’s and Maati’s positions reflect their growth as characters and, more than either of the previous two novel, An Autumn War, is very much a confluence of the events and actions from the previous two books.
At the same time An Autumn War is about perspective. Otah’s concerns regarding Andat are based on his perspective from within the Khaiem while General Gice’s concerns regarding the Andat are based on his perspective from Galt. Both come to similar conclusions about the stagnation of society given their use, but the tone and tenor of those conclusions about the danger represented by the Andat is where the true difference, and ultimately most tragic difference, lays. Otah’s early conversation with Sinja reveals the motive behind his decision to build a militia:
“Every generation finds it harder to bind fresh Andat. Every one that slips away becomes more difficult to capture. It can’t go on forever. There will come a time that the poets fail, and we have to rely on something else.”
Gice, on the other hand has an entirely different motivation behind his quest into the wastes on Galt’s border since, as his tutor taught him:
…there were only two legacies left by the fall of the God Kings—the wastelands that bordered Far Galt and Obar State, and the cities of the Khaiem where men still held the andat….Balsasar had understood the implication as clear as if it had been spoken. What had happened before could happen again at any time and without warning.
That conflict of perspective, a threat versus a crutch, adds a certain amount drive to the narrative. Furthermore, Otah’s goal is long term while Gice’s actions are driven by a need for expediency become facts that quickly grow integral to the brewing conflict. By and large though the most fascinating aspect of An Autumn War is that Otah and General Gice are two very similar men with the same goal: the protection of their people.
While An Autumn War definitely increases the scope of the threat Abraham also manages to simultaneously maintain his focus on the characters we have come to know over the previous two novel. Indeed the emotional involvement of the reader is predicated on a preexisting attachment to these characters as each confronts various parts of their past. Indeed, for all the fact that An Autumn War is big epic fantasy, the novel contains few big set pieces and Abraham tends to lean on his character’s responses to the events around them rather than long action scenes. Abraham’s approach to action scenes is different from other authors. It isn’t something I can put my finger on precisely, but the way he describes things takes on a poetic tinge and sense of horrific wonder given the citizens of the Khaiem cities unfamiliarity with far. Otah’s observations in one of the novels few battles in particularly are beautifully written: “Now that he knew to look, he could see the thin, dark shafts. They rose up from Galtic mass, slowly as if they were floating. His own archers let fly, and it seemed that the arrows should collide in the air, but then slipped past each other, two flocks of birds mingling and parting again.” There is a simplicity in the description that lends the passage a certain elegance that in less skilled hands could have easily turned into something far more overblown. While some might say that the battle scenes, particularly the one quoted above, are somewhat underwritten I think that Abraham’s somewhat sparse language in these cases in perfectly suited to a culture whose experience with war is more or less nonexistent. It works wonderfully at expressing a first encounter with full scale battle while also reinforcing the culture of the individuals involved.
As I’ve said in my previous reviews of the Long Price Quartet it is almost criminal how little attention that this series has gotten. Abraham’s exhibits an almost unique ability to introduce new elements to his world in subtle and surprising ways while simultaneously giving the impression that this is the direction things were always going to go; it isn’t really something I’ve seen often. Abraham has continued to provide believable and emotional stirring characters on both sides of his conflict without managing to paint either side as a hero or a villain. Even as the threat in An Autumn War grows to epic proportions with far ranging and long lasting effects on whole societies Abraham somehow manages maintain a focus on the personal reactions and relationships of the characters. I honestly can’t recommend this series enough, it stands out from back as something truly unique and is definitely worthy of more readers. While exited to get to The Price of Spring I am loathe to see this series end and am already counting the days until Abraham’s The Dragon’s Path finally sees print (April 2011).