Cold Decisions: Daniel Abraham’s A Betrayal in Winter

Summer is gone and with it, the warmth of young love, fresh sorrow, and golden sunlight. Replacing it is an implacable juggernaut of cold; the air as icy and unforgiving as a knife in the back. Welcome back to the world of the Khaiem, the andat, and the Long Price Quartet, with A Betrayal in Winter.

(Note: You can check out a post on the first book in the series, A Shadow in Summer, here.)

Minimal spoilers to follow.

Fifteen years have passed since the death of the Poet Heshai and the loss of his cruel andat, Seedless. Fifteen years since Maati almost killed himself trying to bring Seedless back, fifteen years since Otah fled from Saraykhet, running from his sins. Now, a decade and a half after their failures, the two friends find each other once more in the northern city of Machi, the place of Otah’s birth. Both are drawn there for the same reason: the bloody battle for succession has begun. Except Biitrah, the first son of the Khai to be murdered, has not died at the hands of either of his brothers, Danat or Kaiin.

Even though they haven’t seen Otah, their youngest brother, in more than twenty years, Danat and Kaiin know he’s out there. He never took the brand denouncing his claim to the throne. He’s whispered about as a ghost, an unseen but potent threat to the sons of Machi, should he ever reveal himself and make a claim for the black chair. Otah’s specter becomes all too real with Biitrah’s death.

Meanwhile, Maati has returned to the poet’s school, a disgrace in the eyes of his fellow scholars. Worse yet, he brought back with him Liat, his lover (once Otah’s), and their son. By the time the novel opens, however, they are ten years gone from his life. The way the passage of time is handled is one of the many truly satisfying aspects of this novel and series as a whole—Abraham deftly underscores that a lot can happen in fifteen years and more importantly, he’s not going to tell us all of it. After his family leaves him, Maati putters around the poet’s village, seen as a failure for not binding Seedless again. But by the start of A Betrayal in Winter, he is given a chance to redeem himself in the eyes of his colleagues: their leader, the Dai-kvo, sends Maati north to Machi in search of Otah. The disgraced poet is one of the only people in the world who knows how Otah acts and what he looks like, so it falls to Maati to find his old teacher and determine if he’s the true killer of Biitrah.

Otah has spent his fifteen years running, as he always does. After becoming part of the messengers guild, he’s traveled to every city of the Khaiem except Machi, never staying in one spot for very long—all the better to avoid his paranoid family and keep his ghosts well behind him. He has fallen in love, though, with an innkeeper by the name of Kiyan, a no-nonsense but sweet woman who loves Otah even though she doesn’t know his place in the succession. She’s no wilting wallflower, and openly calls out Otah on his crap, all while loving him with an honesty he knows he doesn’t deserve.

On the complete opposite end of the spectrum from Kiyan stands Idaan, Otah’s sister. Clever, deadly, and furious, the only daughter of the Khai Machi is one of the most important new characters introduced in the novel, and certainly one of the most complicated characters in the series overall. Forbidden to take the throne because she’s a woman and continually crushed down by the strict gender politics of the Khaiem, Idaan is the Lady Macbeth of The Long Price Quartet, a strong-willed, at times malevolent woman, willing to pay any price for the chance to take control of her own fate. But where Lady Macbeth is traditionally seen as lusting after power for power’s sake and little else, Idaan exhibits a level of complexity and awareness of herself and her actions rarely seen in any villain. She, along with her collaborator and husband, Adrah, take increasingly greater risks to secure her place on the throne, from conspiring against her brothers to plotting the death of her father, and even manipulating the poet of the city, Cehmai.

Yes, Machi has a poet as well, and just as Maati was going to take over for Heshai, young Cehmai has already inherited the andat of his predecessor, the massive, mountainous creature called Stone-Made-Soft, who with a thought can turn rock to liquid, carve tunnels for mining, and collapse whole cities into the earth. Where Seedless was openly hostile and vicious to Heshai, Stone-Made-Soft and Cehmai actually get along, as well as one can get along with a demi-god bound into flesh form and held prisoner in your mind; they’re more grumpy roommates than eternal enemies. Cehmai falls for Idaan, even as he knows she is betrothed (and even as he begins to suspect her true actions…)

All of these characters collide with one another inside the winter city of Machi. Maati and Cehmai become friends as they begin their search for the true murderer of Biitrah. Idaan conspires in the shadows with Cehmai, Adrah, and the enemy nation of Galt in order to further her cause and earn the right to live her life the way she wants it. Otah wants to do noting but run south as fast he can—and yet, if he doesn’t go to Machi, everyone he’s ever met (including his new love, Kiyan) will be put to the sword faster than he can blink to ensure that he will not take the throne.

If A Shadow In Summer was about the rash choices made in the bloom of youth, A Betrayal In Winter goes a step further. Abraham’s characters have grown in the fifteen years we left them: they’re wiser, stronger in some ways, weaker in others, and their hearts have been worn in and become used to pain. Things have happened that we haven’t witnessed—Maati still struggles to recall the feel of his son in his arms; on Otah’s right side, there is a spiraling black tattoo, the beginnings of a marriage mark from the eastern islands. They may not be better men then they once were, but they’re older and more experienced. When thrown up against the actions and decisions of Cehmai and Idaan, you can see just how much they’ve grown since the events of Saraykhet.

Each in their own way try to keep the mistakes they made before from being repeated. Maati sees the way Cehmai is enraptured by Idaan, recalls the bitter sting of Liat’s leaving him and his own betrayal of Otah, and yearns for the younger man to break it off. Otah comes before his father for the first time in thirty years, and speaks to him as no one ever has, demanding compassion and strength from a weakening father and the city he governs. Otah has seen firsthand what happens when leaders refuse listen back in Saraykhet, and feels in his own heart that he must atone for what he did to Heshai all those years ago.

Even though “betrayal” is right there in the title, the sheer number of turncoats, backstabbers, and double-crosses at work in the novel leaves my head spinning. As always in Abraham’s work, you have the sense that every character leads a complex, full life on the page and off of it, each pursues his or her own ends. In a war of succession, there is no one you can trust, though in the end that’s what everything comes down to in this book: to win through, you eventually have to trust someone. You have to trust that the people around you will see you for who you are and not who they want you to be. You have to trust that the sacrifices you make will be worth it. You have to trust that the price will ultimately be worth it.

Abraham continues weaving in threads from the first book, as well: the country of Galt and its conspiracies are back in a big way, with their Khaiem contact and assassin Oshai lending his men, money and support to Idaan, and encouraging her manipulation of the Poet. As always, their aim is to undermine the power of the Khaiem and do their best to get rid of the andat, which are a constant threat to their way of life. The actions of Galt are not so cloak-and-dagger as they once were; the nation and its agents are growing desperate, throwing their weight around wherever they can. Galt is getting scared, and that fear will lead us directly into the third book, An Autumn War.

Meanwhile, Abraham continues to dissect the culture of the Khaiem in this book, focusing predominantly on the gender politics of the world he’s created. It is through the experiences of Idaan and her sisters-in-law that we explore the enormous cultural gap, in terms of rights and privileges, that plagues the women of the city-states. Forbidden to inherit, forbidden to fight, to choose anything for herself, a woman is viewed as a prize of her father’s. In a city that truly believes that “the will of the gods has always been that woman shall act as servant to man,” it’s no wonder that Idaan holds so much rage in her heart. More than that, the ways in which people approach her and react to her tell us everything we need to know about her position in this world: she’s treated like a figure of glass, delicate, untouchable, and cold, never seen as anything more than a treasure to be passed around. In fact, one of the reasons Idaan succeeds in her treachery so well is that no one in Machi—hell, no one in the Khaiem—can even fathom the idea that a woman could be capable of such actions. In a telling moment, just moments from killing another unsuspecting heir, she thinks to herself, “She was the one with courage. She was the one who had the will to act. What was he after all but a mewling kitten lost in the world, while she . . . She was the upstart who had earned the Khai’s chair.” Their perception of what a woman can and can’t do works in Idraan’s favor, and many don’t see her coming until it’s too late.

After a lifetime denied any autonomy, Idaan goes against every restrictive norm, and is willing to resort to any means—treachery, infidelity, murder—to win herself the chance to live a life of her own; no one else is going to do it for her. She’s fully aware of her faults, the horror of her actions, and yet, she refuses to stay her hand. To live free and haunted is better than nothing at all. Abraham goes all out with Idaan, crafting in her one of his most truly memorable characters. She steals the show every time; she’s a rattlesnake with whom you feel empathy, even as she lashes out at anything coming her way.

In the end, of course, in order to save his friends and a city he barely knows, Otah must accept the role he’s been running from his whole life. Faced with a city tearing itself apart, and the prospect of his mad sister and her broken husband taking the throne in the name of Galt, Otah becomes who he has to be, and makes his case for leadership. And with the gain of the throne, he loses a piece of himself.

But, as they argue, the price is worth paying.

Check back next week for more essays on Daniel Abraham’s Long Price Quartet!

Martin Cahill is glad you withstood the cold and read his essay. A publicist by day, a bartender by night, and a writer in between, when he’s not slinging words at, 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 Andrew Bird, Saga, or how funny the Arrow sounds when his voice goes all gravelly, and you’ll become fast friends.


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