Fantasy for grown-ups: Daniel Abraham’s Long Price Quartet

The Long Price Quartet is a series of four fantasy novels that is complete, no more waiting required. They are, in order, A Shadow in Summer, A Betrayal in Winter, An Autumn War and The Price of Spring. They each stand alone, but contain spoilers for the earlier ones, so I recommend reading them in order.

These are books about love and death and power, about gender and cultural expectations, about parenting and fertility, about growing up and growing old. The more I read them the better I like them, and I liked them a lot the first time. They have wonderful complex characters, and while each book is a complete story, when you read all four together they make a continuing thing that is more than the sum of its parts. Abraham has a new book out, The Dragon’s Path, but it hasn’t got to Montreal yet, so I thought I’d re-read these four. Once again, they knocked me over with how good they are — they’re not afraid to take on the big issues and say interesting things about them. And they have a fascinating world that’s well thought through. And they don’t have villains — everybody is comprehensible, even when they’re doing awful things, so they have some of the best conflict I’ve ever read.

No spoilers. For those of you who have read them and want spoilers, here are my spoiler posts from the second time I read them. A Shadow in Summer, A Betrayal in Winter (with author comments on which betrayal he meant), An Autumn War and The Price of Spring.

The books take place fifteen years apart, so you see the main character age from 15, to 30, to 45, to 60 and an epilogue at 75. Characters born in the first book are major players in the third book, and children in the third book are major characters in the fourth. I can’t think of anything else that does quite this—there are certainly series books where the characters grow up, but not with controlled jumps and not covering such a span of time. (Miles is born in Barrayar and about forty in Cryoburn, and that’s the best I can think of.) One of the real strengths of these books are the protagonists for each book — in A Shadow in Summer, there’s Amat Kyaan, an older woman with a bad hip and elite accountancy skills. In An Autumn War we hear, thirty years later, what became of the venture she’s starting at the end of the book.

The world changes, in both large and small ways. The world changes as a consequence of the events of the books, and because of the time jumps, we get to see the consequences playing out. One of the things I love is the physical language of the Khaiem—people who can take poses with their bodies that express subtle shades of meaning. It lets you talk silently, and sometimes literally behind people’s backs, and it combines with actually talking, and people find it difficult not to do it with foreigners and blind people, or when they have their hands full—as difficult as you find not shrugging when you have a broken arm. It’s a tiny detail in a world full of tiny details like this. When the culture changes to include a huge influx of foreigners, the poses change and simplify and older people miss them.

In the Cities of the Khaiem, the Khai has many children, but only three sons are allowed to grow up as sons. The rest are sent to the poet’s school, to become poets, or be branded and excluded from the succession. The three sons brought up at home are expected to kill each other so that the best can become the next Khai. A Betrayal in Winter focuses on what it’s like to be a daughter in that kind of family.

The culture of the Khaiem is influenced by Asia—people eat beef and noodles with their fingers, or with sticks, and they find the food from Galt heavy and underspiced. They drink tea and rice wine. But it isn’t a slavish copy of any one Asian culture, the way that Under Heaven is of Tang China. It’s influenced by medieval Asian culture in the same way most fantasy is influenced by medieval European culture. And it’s quite explicitly stated that all of our central characters are brown-skinned with dark hair and wear robes, while the Galts, who are the enemy, are white and robes look girlish to them. There’s an interesting thing about the Galts being the enemy, which is that it’s a very simplistic position to take; once we get to An Autumn War we have Galtic points of view and we can understand what they’re doing.

It’s possible for poets to make ideas manifest in the world as andat. The andat look and talk like people, but they don’t breathe, and they have control over their thing. Stone-Made-Soft can make stone soft, Seedless can remove the part that continues. They hate being bound and want to escape, and are constantly fighting against the poets who control them. They can only be bound once with the same binding, and it has to describe them very precisely—and if the binding fails, the poet pays the price, usually by dying horribly. And the way the andat fit into the economy is wonderful—the cities are concerned with trade and creation of wealth, and they don’t have to worry about war because of the andat, whereas the rest of the world fights constantly. But the andat are also hindering progress in other directions. In the first book, we see a Galtic steam engine toy being laughed at in court, and by the third there are steam tanks. This gives you a very different angle on magic vs. technology.

And these are deeply feminist books. One of the central themes of the quartet is what choices there are for women, and what it means to have your choice constrained. In fantasy there are often female characters who are exceptional while everyone else is conforming to gender expectations, or else the world is made easy for women in ways that history never was. Abraham has women of all classes and backgrounds, and all kinds of personality, women with agency and women fighting to get it. One of the things that makes these books so great is that there are no easy answers. They go head on at difficult questions that most books don’t even acknowledge.

I’ve talked before about releasing my inner twelve-year-old to enjoy books. There’s nothing wrong with YA fiction and books intended for young people, and there’s nothing wrong with adults reading and enjoying those books. But these are books that aren’t aimed at your inner teenager, they are books that have the expectation of mature readers using their whole brains.

I listed these among the best books of the last decade in the poll, and I really think they are. I recommend them very highly. And I’m looking forward to reading Daniel Abraham’s new one as soon as it gets here.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.


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