Imagine a world where men can trap ideas, force them into consciousness, and use their power to reshape reality. Imagine a series of city-states, where the sons of the Khai murder each other in a time-honored tradition of bloody succession. Imagine a realm where body language is literal and magic fuels industry, staves off war, and holds a gun to the temple of the world.
Welcome to the world of The Long Price Quartet.
Daniel Abraham, well known for his space opera work as James S. A. Corey with Ty Franck and his current fantasy series, The Dagger and The Coin, first cut his teeth on The Long Price Quartet. Set in a world influenced by medieval Asian culture, Abraham forgoes the usual epic quests and Dark Lords for a series of four novels which focus on responsibility, economics, gender roles, parenting, magic, and the prices we pay within a lifetime of hard decisions.
Minimal Spoilers to follow.
The series begins with A Shadow in Summer, high in the mountains where the poets of the Khaiem train throughout their entire lives, learning how to control the andat—those ideas and concepts they work to bind into human form. Consciousness is unnatural and the andat struggle to escape their Poet at every moment of every day.
Otah, sixth son of the Khai Machi, has been sent to study as a poet. He’s twelve years old, clever, and miserable in an institution that hurts and humiliates him. It’s only when he takes matters into his own hands and plans escape from the school that he is recognized for his strength of will, and welcomed into the next level of training as a poet.
Upon donning his black robes, Otah is given power over the younger students, and at the behest of his teachers, abuses it; he only recognizes the cycle when he forces a young student to eat dirt for not working fast enough. Otah breaks down and cradles the student, apologizing over and over, crying, ashamed for having become complicit in the abuse which he had once abhorred. And yet he is not punished for his lack of will, but applauded for his compassion. Otah has, “won through,” and learned that while “a weak-minded poet would be destroyed by the andat… a cruel-hearted one would destroy the world. Strong and kind,” is the balance the Poets seek.
Despite their praise, Otah is disgusted, to know that his act of cruelty is seen as one of triumph, of honor. He rejects the poets and turns his back on the school, refusing to continue at an institution where pain and abuse is rewarded. He leaves after talking to Maati, the boy he humiliated, and explaining the traits the poets look for: will and compassion.
Ten years later, Maati and Otah find each other in the summer city-state of Saraykeht. Maati is sent there to train, so that he may hold the city’s andat once the current poet, Heshai, dies. Otah is living under a false name, in hiding from his brothers who would kill him. He’s become a laborer as well as the lover of Liat Chokavi, who in turn is an assistant to Amat Kyaan, an older woman with impressive business acumen who oversees the trading house of Wilsin from the country of Galt. Saraykeht is a thriving city, whose immense cotton industry only exists because of the enigmatic, cunning, and vicious andat named Seedless.
Self-loathing Heshai holds Seedless, though in many ways, Seedless is the one who holds Heshai: an andat is a reflection of the poet who binds it and in the binding of Seedless, Heshai created a creature that hates him as much as he hates himself. Seedless is his prisoner and tormentor and burden all at once. While Heshai longs to escape Seedless, he cannot break from him without disrupting the cotton trade and leaving Saraykeht defenseless, for Saraykeht and all of the cities of the Khaiem have an enemy: Galt, across the sea.
Galt has no andat and therefore feels the constant threat of those magical beings. How do you fight someone that can capture the idea of rain, then drown your lands and people? How do you stop a creature that can remove children from women as it does seeds from cotton? Galt’s desire to overthrow the poets and andat of the Khaiem is a running theme throughout the Long Price Quartet—in this novel, it is through the investigations of Amat, working for a Galtic trading house, that we get a glimpse into the conspiracy meant to destroy Heshai and release Seedless.
Abraham’s world is a fascinating place of language, conduct, and a reliance on magic over technology. One of the things I love about this series is the layer of nuance built into the Khaiem’s body language: a person can convey different meanings, emotions, and honorifics through the cant of wrists, posture, torso, head, and so on. At one point, in a particularly beautiful moment, Otah is saying goodbye to Liat after a painful conversation and with his hands and wrists he says goodbye in a way that conveys sorrow, apologies, and a plea for patience, all at once. It is this complexity of language that adds grace and subtlety to the world of the Khaiem, setting it apart—and the difference is accentuated even further when a citizen of Galt fails to speak in this tongue of wrists and bodies and triple meanings.
Another fascination of Abraham’s that carries through the series (to an even greater degree, arguably) is the war between magic and technology, and how the latter is ignored in favor of the former. Because the Khaiem rely on the andat to bolster and support their industry, there’s no need to innovate or experiment—Seedless can do the work of a hundred workers in the blink of an eye. Why create or learn to use an invention in order to accomplish a task when you have a magical creature that can do it for you? The clunky, inefficient, small steam-powered carts of Galt are utterly laughable to the court of the Khaiem. It is this attitude toward technology that will prove a turning point in the series, especially in the latter books.
But Abraham’s greatest strength lies in his impeccable characterization. The worldbuilding is wonderful and the magic fascinating, but they would all fall apart without his titanic grasp on the intricacies of people and relationships. Otah, who “always won by leaving,” time and time again, cannot deny the responsibilities thrust his way. Amat Kyaan knows that if she pursues the fraying thread of conspiracy she sees, she’ll put her life into risk, yet she must follow the truth. Maati, young and naïve, will always do the right thing, even if it hurts him. Liat will always hold Otah in her heart, but the doubt she has in herself and her life will cause her to seek joy elsewhere, in the arms of Maati. And Heshai carries a terrible hatred of himself, has given it form to follow and torment him, but he cannot give it up because to do so would be to condemn the entire world. Abraham expertly throws these rock-solid characters into narrative viper pits and it’s heart-wrenching to watch as they stay true to themselves, even through so much pain.
Abraham also makes a point of exploring the life of women in the Khaiem through the characters of Amat and Liat. While both enjoy a fairly comfortable life working for House Wilsin, it’s demonstrated time and again that for many women of the Khaiem, there is little choice in what they can realistically aspire to or achieve. Amat, for all her success, is always seen as working for someone else, an underling—and when she makes a bold move to take over a business, her actions are met with disbelief and aggression. Liat shows promise, but is so desperate to find a way to live well, that she latches on to anything that might guarantee her happiness; in a world where there are so few options for her, she has to adapt and compromise. To be born a woman in the Khaiem isn’t a crime, but it doesn’t help matters, and Abraham delves into this reality more extensively in the second book, A Betrayal In Winter.
What A Shadow In Summer comes down to is the weighing of costs and consequences and the choice between one kind of fallout or another, where fallout is always inevitable. When Otah is faced with the consequences of the knife, of whether to damn a city or damn his friends, he has to choose. “We’re the servants of what we have to do. That is all,” Amat says toward the end of the book, neatly summing up the crux of the series: There are burdens that can’t be put down and things that have to be done, even if it means suffering. Someone must have the strength to make those impossible decisions.
A Shadow In Summer celebrates the tragedy of the young, still learning that a rose has thorns and that growing up can be filled with pain as well as love. It examines the ugly truths of empire and finance and pain and suffering, and the awful cycles in which they move. There is love and loss and regret, repeating over and over again.
Abraham’s first journey through the lands of the Khaiem teach the reader that while this world can be beautiful, it can be brutal as well, where survival means deciding which choices one can live with and which prices are just too high to pay.
Check back on Thursday for a look at A Betrayal in Winter, the second novel in Daniel Abraham’s Long Price Quartet.
Martin Cahill is glad you paid the price and read his essay. A publicist by day, a bartender by night, and a writer in between, when he’s not slinging words at Tor.com, he’s contributing to Book Riot, Strange Horizons, and blogging at his own website when the mood strikes him. A proud graduate of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop 2014, you can find him on Twitter @McflyCahill90; tweet him about weird magic systems, imperial stouts, or how The Flash is awesome, and you’ll be sure to become fast friends. (Get it? Fast? Like, y’know, The Flash? Sorry, please come back.)