Tue
Apr 19 2011 5:06pm

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.

24 comments
Chris Hawks
1. SaltManZ
I'm frustrated that the SFBC doesn't carry the fourth book, though they have the first two in omnibus format, and the third as a standalone. I'd have bought them ages ago if it was available. That said, I will be picking these up at some point; I've heard way too many good things about the series not to.
Sam Weber
2. SamW
I'm so glad you posted about these books, The Long Price Quartet is easily one of the best series' I've read. They're worth reading for the world alone, although the characters and story by no means disappoint.
Pellegrina Stoat
3. Pellegrina
Yes, I picked up the first three as standalone MMPBs after reading JW's original reviews here, and was waiting for The Price of Spring, which only came out in hardback, or as part of the second omnibus in larger paperback format. So I am stuck until I find the second omnibus secondhand.
Aidan Moher
4. aidan
Yes. To everything you've said, yes.
Memory Arnould
5. xicanti
Yes. Such a wonderful series. I was pleased to see the same awareness of womens' choices crop up in THE DRAGON'S PATH, too.
Kvon
6. Kvon
I tried to read these, twice. But something kept kicking me out of sinking into these, and I'm not sure what it was--maybe my impression that it involves a lot of economics more than politics (neither of which I really like). I've certainly heard enough people that I trust praising the series. I'll try again with his new book.
AlecAustin
7. AlecAustin
While I do like these books very much, I kind of take issue with the idea that there aren't any villains. The Galtic commander in An Autumn War is sympathetic, and you get why he's doing what he's doing, but that doesn't mean that he's not essentially the villain of the piece as presented (well, right up until Maati does what he does at the end). And the girl whose name I have forgotten in The Price of Spring is a mostly unproblematic villain, in that the reader is never actually on her side.

(This is why I don't like The Price of Spring as much as the books that preceded it - I felt that a lot of the nuance that characterized the previous books wasn't as present.)
Kvon
9. TOS
I've just put all four on reserve at my library based on your recommendation. Thanks to your earlier post, I discovered "Paladin of Souls" -- I haven't been so delighted by a book in a long time. So I'm going to trust your good taste with this series.
Kvon
10. CarlosSkullsplitter
Not merely influenced by Asia -- it's a big continent -- but I think more specifically by the early modern history of what is now Indonesia and the Dutch East India company. The serial numbers are filed off -- although "andat" is close to "adat," a regional word corresponding to Greek "nomos" -- and the Galts are closer to filed-off English instead of Dutch in culture.

And of course the reversal in the power differential.

I like how Abraham has put thought into what defines an "industrial" revolution: Seedless is a direct parallel to the cotton gin, among other things.
Bill Capossere
11. Billcap
Couldn't agree more, been saying for some time it goes on any best of the decade list no matter how short the list (that includes lists of only two). And it doesn't just do the same old "better"--it's original and great
Iain Cupples
12. NumberNone
Certainly one of the best fantasy series around: completely original, brilliantly written.

I agree that the series makes demands on the reader that an adult would best be able to meet: there are complexities in the character relationships best understood by someone with experience of similar situations, and there's a distinct shift of emphasis away from battle scenes and towards personal, political and economic conflicts. But I'd have no hesitation in pointing a sufficiently mature 15-year-old at these.
Jo Walton
13. bluejo
NumberNone: A sufficiently mature 15-year-old is a grown up.

CarlosSkullSplitter: That's a bit of history I know very little about and didn't recognise as a parallel.

Incomprehensible spoilers!
Alec Austin: I think even Vanjit is sufficiently motivated and rounded as to exclude the characterisation of "villain", and as for Balasar, Otah says to him "I'm not sure you're wrong".
Iain Cupples
14. NumberNone
Jo: as I'm sure we've all found, though, there's a difference between an adult and a grown-up. ;)

But my point was that I think there's a lot that someone who is still in the process of growing up can learn from these books. There are realistic portrayals of relationships (romantic, familial and friendly), of dilemmas that adolescents are likely to face, even of the problems involved in realising your ambitions. YA they're not, but I think they could speak to someone at that stage.
Marcus W
15. toryx
I'm really glad you're posting about these books again, Jo. Daniel Abraham is my favorite new* fantasy writer and I really wish he were more popular. Someone with as much talent as he has should really have a much larger readership so that he can write as much as possible.

I've got his latest book on my kindle, but I'm waiting until I finish The Curse of Chalion (due to your post) before I start it.


* New being relative after a completed series, of course.
Chris Long
16. radynski
Jack Whyte's Camulod Chronicles series jumps through generations in the same manner you're describing. I haven't read them all but the first few were very good.
Kvon
17. CarlosSkullsplitter
Jo, it's not a slavish analog (the way I find Kay). One interesting thing that Abraham did was to move the region climatically to the north, and adjust the material basis of culture to fit, which is important in a novel that takes the economic consequences of its setting seriously. It was enjoyable seeing the tweaks Abraham made to the foodways, for instance.

There's something of the VOC and Japan in the setting too, and maybe Cabeza de Vaca and a bit of Albuquerque in the backstory to one of the characters, if I'm not mistaken.

And a whole lot of Fernand Braudel, but Braudel is one of those historians who will color everything you write forever, the way Gibbon did for Asimov, or Toynbee did for Poul Anderson (unfortunately) or Spengler did for James Blish (also unfortunately).
Lesley Mitchell
18. dkscully
Loved the first two of these, but deeply frustrated that I still can't finish the quartet without buying the hard copies from the US!
Brent Lee
19. Crim5onKing
I'm so glad that this was posted. I read about the first book years ago and have been trying to remember the title or the authors name for the past year. The only thing I could remember was that cloth was mentioned in the synopsis. Thank you!
Greg Morrow
20. gpmorrow
The Kindle price is the same as the MMPB price. This seems suboptimal, and makes me reluctant to try the series.
Kvon
21. Kathleen in Oakland
Great recap - thank you! I read the first book on a rec from Aidan Moher and really loved the whole series. Everything from the grand scope of the world-building to the tiny small details of the love and heartbreak between a parent and child. It really stayed with me.

and I really agree that there aren't any "villains". that is part of the brilliance.
Kvon
22. CarlosSkullsplitter
Just saw on Abraham's Twitter account that he's never read Braudel. If he's reading this again: Dude! I'm shocked. And impressed. You will love him, but I'm not sure how much more you're going to get from him.
Bob Blough
23. Bob
Jo,
I agree absolutely with your review - thoughtful, mature fiction about real people in a fantastical setting that resonates strongly in the real world of my brain.

Again, I am amazed at your proficiency in reading and the evaluation of so many novels - novels new to you as well as all your re-readings of significant texts.
Kvon
24. diony
Yes, yes, yes. I read them last year because of your earlier posts about them and thought they were pretty good, but the longer they sit in my brain, the more I realise how amazing they are. I'm glad he has a new novel out.

AlecAustin: I understand what you're saying, but I read The Price of Spring while nursing my 4-month-old daughter and I sympathised with Vanjit utterly and was on her side in spite of myself.
Kvon
25. Alice
I bought the first of these on the recommendation of your post here and I am SO glad that I did--these are excellent, thoughtful, powerful books! I just got the 4th and am going to read all night long. Thank you.

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