Jul 27 2009 1:06pm

Silent, upon a peak, in Darien: Daniel Abraham’s The Price of Spring

A lot of fantasy, just as much as science fiction, is about worldbuilding, and when we talk about fantasy series a lot of what we talk about is the way the world works. Tolkien mentions that The Lord of the Rings became the story of the world’s end and passing away before the beginning and middle had been told. While Tolkien has been copied in many things, few other fantasy authors have copied this. Maybe they want to write sequels, or perhaps they love their worldbuilding too much. Abraham’s work is about as unlike Tolkien as you can get within the same genre. I find myself thinking of Shakespeare more often. But in this he has taken from Tolkien’s model: he isn’t afraid to set out his world and show it profoundly broken, changed, becoming something else.

What can I say about The Price of Spring? Specifically, what can I say about it that isn’t a spoiler for the whole of the rest of the series? Maybe only this: this is one of the best and most satisfying endings of a fantasy series that I’ve ever read. I can say that the boy protagonists of A Shadow in Summer are in their sixties in this volume, and that there are protagonists of all ages. I can say it’s about hard choices and without villains, and that the choices have the inevitability of the things the characters would choose, and yet it’s a hopeful book, not a despairing one.

Or maybe I could quote a little bit, and that would give you a feel:

“We say that the flowers return every spring,” Danat said, “but that is a lie. It’s true that the world is renewed. It’s also true that the renewal comes at a price, for even if the flower grows from an ancient vine, the flowers of spring are themselves new to the world, untried and untested. The flower that wilted last year is gone. Petals once fallen are fallen forever. Flowers do not return in the spring, rather they are replaced. It is in this difference between returned and replaced that the price of renewal is paid. And as it is for the spring flowers, so it is for us.”

I think this volume would stand alone, but you should nevertheless read these books in order to enjoy them to the utmost. (Discussion from here on contains series spoilers.)

It’s fifteen years after the end of An Autumn War, and the destruction of the war and the doom wished on the world by the andat Sterile is still unresolved—the women of the Khaiate and the men of Galt are sterile, and after all this time it’s still proving difficult to have any kind of reconciliation. Otah, now emperor, is working hard on one that involves marriages, and Maati, poet in exile, is working in secret on a women’s grammar for binding new andat.

It’s a real achievement to find a satisfactory happy ending from this point, and I was delighted at the way Abraham pulled it off. This is the fastest moving and most exciting of all the volumes. The first time I read it I raced through in one day, and I put off starting it this time until I knew I’d have time to settle down and read.

I love the way the story reaches back to when Maati and Otah were boys, and I love the way the new generation, Eiah and Danat and Ana, want to focus on the present and the future. Abraham understands that both these things are important. I love the way that the andat Clarity-of-Sight, made by childless Vanjit, is a baby rather than an adult, and yet how it is still an andat plotting for its own freedom and to mess everyone up. One of the points of An Autumn War is that the andat are actually a terrible idea, and that is reinforced here.

One of the wonderful worldbuilding touches in the series is the gestural language of the people of the Khaiate, the way they can take poses asking for clarification with an undertone of resentment, or irony, or whatever nuances they like. This is a tiny part of the books, but part of what gives the world so distinct a feel. I also liked that the Galts don’t do this, that they have to learn them and do them clumsily and without nuance. And I thought it was utterly appropriate that by the end the poses were passing out of use.

I can’t think of anything I’ve read for a long time where the conclusion was so appropriate and satisfying, in the manner and inevitability of tragedy but without being tragic.

F. P.
1. F.P.
I think that if a writer tells the end first, a fundamental part of the reading experience is destroyed: the mystery of the overall story. People probably keep turning pages for many reasons, but I believe "the unknowns" of a story (especially the plot) are the primary reason, even though this may happen on a subconscious level only.

I think most writers in whatever genre are aware of this, and that's why they don't often structure their fictional worlds end--or death--first.

Maybe Tolkien's LOTR writing works for many readers anyway because it typically contains lots of endearing little details? If these are given all along, they can become part of a reading experience's mystery--like "What will he describe next?" goes through the reader's mind. And then the details have effectively been operating AS the plot. (I've read The Hobbit in its entirety, but only parts of his other books. So I'm not sure if those others operate in a details-as-plot way overall.)

But, personally, I don't like when endings are told first. I want to be seduced toward a climax. If the climax happens early, why should I bother reading anymore? The story's spent.

Jeff Soules
2. DeepThought
@FP #1 --

That's not really how these books work. It's not that they give away the climax first and then you spend the rest of the book reading a flashback or something. The series is about a world, and some events that happen that greatly change the structure of that world and leave it in a permanently changed state. In one sense, it's the end of a world; but in the same sense in which, say, The Belgariad is about the end of a world: the world doesn't stop, the climax doesn't come first, it's just that by the end, things aren't back to the status quo ante.

That said, I don't really agree with Ms. Walton's impressions about this book. For instance, while I agree that Abraham is arguing very hard that the andat are an unsalvageably bad idea, I think that Ms. Walton's review of An Autumn War showed a lot of the specific flaws with the reasoning there; the andat are not a terrible idea, just a very dangerous one: one that requires great care and strong institutions in order to be used safely, and that can be very harmful in the absence of those institutions, but that's a nuance that the characters don't seem to perceive. As to the present book, I think the end ultimately was satisfying, but the process of getting there (from near the end of book 3) was quite unsatisfying, and I had some strong disagreements with some of the choices the author made (by way of his characters). I haven't yet found an appropriate forum to share them, though, because sadly I don't know anybody who's read these books, when really LOTS of people should be reading them. Geez, they should be standard reading for political science classes, in addition to being widely loved by fans.

Overall, I thought that Abraham is an amazing writer, with some of the most thoughtful, mature books I've read in ages. The story is *not* a standard quest narrative, and it's very character-driven without succumbing to navel-gazing or tediously relating thoughts. It's just that there are certain perceptions that the books seem to favor that I don't think are justified, and others that are dismissed too easily, for me to be entirely satisfied. But these are very ambitious books that for the most part squarely hit the mark, and I'd recommend them to anyone.
Daniel Abraham
3. DanielAbraham
FP: Well, it's not like I said in the first book "oh, and here's the plot of the whole thing." At least I hope I didn't.

But even with that said, I think we are coming to the question from different directions. I (like Jo) enjoy rereading some books. I could tell you the whole plot of Tevis' Queen's Gambit, but it would only make me want to go back and read it again. I really liked Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany, and he really told you straight out what the end was going to be.

Not speakin' as a writer, the thing I find myself really remembering in the books I love reading are the characters and a few individual moments. I love Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, and even though I've read Gaudy Night probably a dozen times over the years, I don't groove on the precise order of events as much as the moment when Peter chides Harriet for saying "it was from you and it was beautiful" instead of the other way 'round. Worrying about what's going to happen is a lot of fun the first time out, but the best works can tell you everything without giving it away.

Deep Thought:

I'm glad you liked it as much as you did. I'm sorry for the parts on which we disagree. As far as the institutions that kept the andat in check making them safe, we may disagree.

Even apart from being just too damn powerful, they're magic. Seedless could have been replaced by a cotton gin, except that the first person in Saraykeht to come up with a cotton gin would have been found face-down on the river because it interferes with the Khai's monopoly. The andat are, among other things, profoundly anti-democratic.

Also, going back to Jo Walton's discussion of Autumn War, the system of poets under the Dai-kvo have kept things steady for nine generations, but if you look *ten* generations back, the track record isn't so good. ;)
F. P.
4. F.P.
Deepthought, I was responding to Jo's general statement/characterization here: "Tolkien mentions that The Lord of the Rings became the story of the world’s end and passing away before the beginning and middle had been told. While Tolkien has been copied in many things, few other fantasy authors have copied this."

--I assumed that was an accurate description of LOTR, as I've heard it described that way before. But I was discussing this idea more in a general sense. Maybe I shouldn't have gone off-topic somewhat.

But within the bounds of her description, which is supposedly the author's, Tolkien's description, that sounds like what I described above. To me an ending is equal to the future of a story. Endings typically have a climactic feel, even when they're duds. But if an ending's "pasted" into the beginning of a story, some mystery is gone, so is the main dramatic drive to keep reading. There's no way around that. However, other aspects of the story can contain mystery.

But maybe Tolkien's wrong about his own story's structure? He may have intended it a certain way but that doesn't necessarily mean the story came out that way. DT, I don't really understand what you're describing, especially in the last sentence of your first paragraph.

If in the very beginning of a book readers find out a world will be permanently changed by the book's end ("book's end" meaning the last words written on the world because the REAL logical ending to the STORY is now at the book's beginning), that's a climax(es) giveaway, that's an ending giveaway. HOW the world winds up changed may not have been revealed, so the how-details can contain some mystery. But THAT the world is ultimately changed in a major way has already been revealed.

Stories structured like this usually fall flat for me; maybe it's largely a personal preference thing. What can I say?
F. P.
5. F.P.
Daniel--I wasn't discussing your book at all! I was referring to Jo's comment about Tolkien. I like the excerpt she posted from your story--that's very fine writing.

But if you mean your book is structured end-first--I honestly didn't assume that from Jo's post as she said your work is unlike Tolkien's shortly after she described his statement. I thought she may have been implying your book didn't have the end-first structure. I didn't read all of her post because I don't like spoiling and I was afraid there would be.

Some end-first stories work very well, but they are rare, in my opinion and experience at least. I didn't mean to offend anyone with my picky ways (lol).
Jo Walton
6. bluejo
FP: Tolkien said it was the story of the end and passing away of a world, not the end of a story first. I'm sorry I confused you. Neither _The Lord of the Rings_ nor _The Long Price Quartet_ are told end first.
Jo Walton
7. bluejo
DeepThought: This is behind a spoiler warning, I think we can talk about it. (Also, please call me Jo.)

The books begin by showing us Otah walking away from the system for training poets because it's so harsh and horrible, and I think it's very clever how it's revealed over the course of the books that it is nevertheless the minimum necessary to control the andat. Maati didn't learn the lessons he was supposed to learn -- he didn't ever learn them, he hasn't learned them by the end -- and he doesn't try to pick people who can learn them, except Eiah, and he didn't pick her. Nine generations of making it work, mostly, without destroying the world any more than it was destroyed ten generations ago...
Jo Walton
8. bluejo
Daniel: One of the ways in which fantasy generally tends to follow Tolkien is in the belief that magic is inherently superior to a cotton gin. It's refreshing to read something arguing the other position.
M Linden
9. mlinden
One thing I love about this series is the ambiguity of who the "heroes" really are, or if there are any heroes at all.

I have a vaguely-formed thought that the Andat themselves were the heroes of this story. Their very existance was a Bad Idea, and every institution that arose surrounding them was inherently flawed, unfair, totalitarian. In their nihilism, they brought about the change in the world. Tragic figures with great power, that use their power to help end an unjust system? If you squint just right, it almost starts to look like a hero. Like I said, it's only a half-formed proto-thought...

That's why I really like these books: they're thought-provoking. Maybe you don't agree with the choices people make, but they're worth thinking about. Thanks, Jo for the reviews, and thanks, Daniel, for writing them in the first place!

...thanks in general, I suppose, for putting up Shadow in Summer as a free e-book in the first place, because I might never have discovered this series otherwise.
Jeff Soules
10. DeepThought
Okay, lost most of this in a crash. Looks like the new version isn't any shorter, alas... :(

@ DanielAbraham, #3--
Finally, someone I can talk with about these books who won't worry about spoilers! :) I hope you won't mind my temerity here (or be bothered with the long basically fan-mail...)

What gets me about the andat is that from a world-political perspective they don't seem distinct enough from steam wagons--disruptive technologies with primarily commercial application, but whose power poses an existential threat to everybody without them, and which are very dangerous to use. Steam wagons don't actively struggle, but I had the impression that a stably-bound andat like Stone-Made-Soft would not be impossibly dangerous. Maybe I wasn't paying enough attention there.

But this equivalence totally recasts Balasar. He thinks he's sincere, which is brilliant; he doesn't even realize that his argument is not "no one should have the power to end nations" but "no one else should have the power to end nations." But to claim the andat impermissible because of their destructive potential is remarkably one-sided from a man who razes all in his path with a tank-powered blitzkrieg, and it bugged me that Otah didn't acknowledge this (emotional distractions notwithstanding).

And Cehmai at the end of Spring seems to say (if I recall correctly) that it's still only a matter of time before another nation binds an andat--only again, without the Dai-kvo to filter candidates for poet, and to place limits on the andat's uses.

Seedless could have been replaced by a cotton gin, except that the first person in Saraykeht to come up with a cotton gin would have been found face-down on the river because it interferes with the Khai's monopoly.

I totally appreciate what you're saying here (and what Balasar said in Autumn), but while it's true, it doesn't feel as iron-clad to me. What about the first person in Chaburi-tan to invent a cotton gin? Perhaps that would mean civil war, Dai-kvo or no; but then the message reduces to "people cannot be trusted with power," which seems a statement about people more than andat. And I can't imagine the Galts wouldn't react violently/genocidally to protect their monopoly on steam wagons. That's the nature of power imbalances and monopolies.
Even so, Biitrah shows that many problems remain to be solved by ingenuity. Stone-Made-Soft obviated dynamite, but not the steam pump (which could've led to the development of the railroad in Machi just like it did in Britain--especially absent Horse-That-Doesn't-Tire).

Of course, it's terribly presumptuous of me to quibble with you about your own world. I just loved how carefully thought out that world was, and I enjoyed it so thoroughly that I want to interact more with it--worlds are complex places, and if people can disagree over the meaning and significance of events in ours, we're bound to do the same for others.

Something unrelated I just have to know: the idea of the Khais' three sons killing each other for the throne, was that inspired by the Incident at Xuanwu Gate?
Jeff Soules
11. DeepThought
@bluejo, #7 --

Sorry, Jo! I was trained too much as a child to be overly polite, and still use honorifics until invited to do otherwise.

I kind of felt Maati got a bad rap. He obviously didn't learn all the lessons he should've--but he got thrust way over his head; he was never picked to attempt a new binding, he was just thrust into that situation due to circumstance. Maati wasn't cut out to be Dai-kvo by a long shot, but you invent a women's grammar with the Dai-kvo you have... (Again, I blame Balasar :) And he was kind of right about Otah; no matter how badly Otah screwed up, he always landed on his feet, while poor Maati just couldn't get a break.

I think Otah was both right to reject the school as it stood, and wrong to do so without fully understanding it. He didn't appreciate the function of its pedagogy; but there had to be a better way to evaluate personality than that setup; and don't people change an awful lot after the cutoff age for making poet or getting tossed out?

@ mlinden, #9:
Their very existence was a Bad Idea, and every institution that arose surrounding them was inherently flawed, unfair, totalitarian.
Flawed and unfair, certainly--but I'm not convinced that the structure of the world that replaced them was so much better on that score. It comes down to the people. Maati was a crap Dai-kvo; Danat will make a good emperor (but who knows about his great-grandson); Eiah could be trusted with an andat, where Vanjit could not. Part of the brilliance of these books lies in showing us that flawed people can still be good people, and that flawed institutions can still have their merits.
12. litg

I'm a little late to the party here based on the other poster's quote dates, but I just wanted to thank you for the series. It was actually a series that grew on me with each successive volume. I think because it is so different than anything else I was reading when I started, it took me a while to restructure my brain to interpret it properly. But I thought each book was better than the last. How many series can you say that about?

I was moved to tears several times during The Price of Spring, and that's a very rare thing for me in reading. I've never read a book that so encompasses (for me, though I'm still not quite 30) the price that age exacts, not just physically, but in looking back on all you've done, and despairing that you didn't live your life a different way. Or, in another instance, that even if you had lived your life differently, you would not have escaped. Ms. Walton was right: to end a book on such a hopeful note after so much despair is quite a feat.

Keep writing! I, for one, will keep reading!

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