Agony in Autumn: Daniel Abraham’s An Autumn War

Welcome back to the world of Daniel Abraham’s Long Price Quartet. This is where it all changes.

For centuries, the Khaiem have used the threat of the andat to keep their enemies at bay, holding a knife to the throat of the world. In that enforced peace, they have thrived and prospered, putting aside any pursuit of technology and military tactics, because, honestly? There was no need.

By harnessing the andat, they exerted complete control over industry and production, and if anyone dared defy or attack them, they would sink their cities, boil their oceans, scar their wombs. The Khaiem bloomed in the shadow of the andat and the rest of the world had to hope that they would survive another day.

At least until Balasar Gice arrived.

(Note: You can check out articles on the first book two in the series, A Shadow in Summer and A Betrayal in Winter here on Tor.com)

Minimal spoilers to follow.

A General of the Galt military, Balasar Gice is a smart, quiet, soft-spoken man hiding a soul of iron resolve, steely skill, and a brilliance bordering on near-madness. Growing up in Galt, he heard tales of the andat as terrible legends and lived with the knowledge that he only breathed because the Khaiem let him. And so, when he comes across books from the Old Empire, found out in the desert wastelands where the ancient poets broke reality, and one half-mad poet turned turncoat, Gice drafts a plan that will not only bring the Khaiem to their knees, but also free the world from their tyranny.

Funnily enough, Gice is frequently described as a good man, a kind man, and a man who, if they weren’t enemies, Otah would call a friend. He’s charismatic in the best way, clever in the worst, and ultimately, for all his theatrics, doesn’t really wish to see any bloodshed at all. He knows death cannot solve the problem of the Khaiem and yet, it won’t stop him. You see, it’s simply not enough to take down their cities.

Gice knows how to get to the heart of the matter. He has a plan to rid the world of the andat. All of them.

Fourteen years have passed since the events of A Betrayal In Winter and in that time, Otah has gone from upstart to graceful, albeit non-traditional, ruler of the winter city of Machi. Though the people are fond of him, the nobility take incredible umbrage with his breaks with tradition. He only has a single wife, a single son, a single daughter, and has been training a standing militia, unprecedented in their time. He and Kiyan have made a life for themselves, while Maati has taken over the library of Machi, making a home for himself as well.

But the winds pick up. The leaves turn color. Liat Chokavi, now a successful overseer in Saraykeht, brings news of a missing poet and Galt amassing an army. With her is Nayiit, the son she had with Maati and took with her when she left, all those years ago. What follows is a novel of war and parenthood and responsibility, repercussions and agony… pain is a central theme to this novel, the most heart-wrenching book of the four.

Our characters are now approximately thirty years older than they were to start; gone are the days of burning youth and the swagger of early adulthood. Otah and Maati, Kiyan and Liat are all beginning to weather with age, growing older (though in some cases, not necessarily wiser). Otah and Kiyan have two children, their daughter, Eiah, and their son, Danat. Maati has gotten rounder in the belly, and Liat has more grey in her hair than not. When Maati and Liat find each other, they make love more carefully and more tenderly, with a greater understanding of the other’s heart. It is a treat and a tragic treasure to see the characters we’ve grown to learn how to love one another even as they face loss more fully than ever before. For the first time in three books, the concept of death is very, very real, even before the war begins; our characters struggle with its looming presence and begin to ponder their own legacies—not just for their families, but for their country and cities as well.

In that same vein, characters don’t just worry about the world they’re going to leave behind, but also the question of who will be inheriting it, as Abraham ferociously interrogates what it means to be a parent in times of upheaval. Some of the most touching scenes occur between Otah, Kiyan and their children; Otah reading Danat bedtime stories as he broods about the war in the back of his mind; Kiyan having Eiah work with the medics as the fighting comes closer to Machi. Maati and Nayiit tentatively finding each other anew, remembering they have each other.

Abraham also dives into the murky waters of whether family is defined by blood or by choice. Maati has always thought himself to be the father of Nayiit, and yet, once Nayiit and Otah are in the same room, there is no question of who his biological father really is. But Maati never renounces him, never goes wild with rage or sorrow. Nayiit is his boy, regardless of whose blood runs in his veins. With full knowledge of the situation, Maati claims Nayiit as his own, even if he is born of his friend. And even though it drives a thorn into his heart, Maati cannot give Nayiit up again—no matter the price he’ll pay.

Truly, nothing happens in this world without someone paying for it; nothing is given without something taken. For centuries, the pride of the Khaiem kept the world at bay, and that pride had a price. In the words of Otah, “They had taken it all for granted. The andat, the poets, the continuity of one generation following upon another as they always had… They had not conceived that everything might end.”

In one fell swoop, the andat are wrenched from the Khaiem, and Balasar Gice and his men came sweeping through the cities like a harvesting scythe, unleashing centuries’ worth of rage and indignity upon the Khaiem. The Khaiem are slaughtered; whole cities burn to the ground, and people are put into the earth with vicious abandon. Where the Khaiem played at magic, the Galt come in roaring with steam-powered tanks, upgraded from the small toys Otah saw thirty years ago. Galt has embraced technology as their means of battle and the Khaiem, who used to laugh at their contraptions, now find themselves faced with machinery they’ve never imagined.

Otah and the other characters struggle to put together any measure of resistance, learning military strategy, soldiering, battle signals, and the demands of command and sacrifice all on the fly. It’s one thing to read about battles, but to stand before a host of men, thousands strong, who not only know what they’re doing when it comes to killing, but happen to be very good at it? It’s terrifying, and Abraham certainly doesn’t shy from the grisly details of war. Nor does he evade the senselessness of war, as character after character struggles and fails to understand why the slaughter, why the death. The first battle the Khaiem try to fight in is brutal and merciless. Over the next few encounters, Otah learns strategy here and there, but its only through clever maneuvering and sheer luck that he stays one step ahead of the Galt. Otah just barely holds everything together.

And yet it’s not enough…not enough to stop his well-intentioned but broken friend from perpetrating the single biggest failure in their history.

Abraham has made it no secret that Maati Vaupaathi was never supposed to be a poet. It’s only because of Otah’s intervention as a boy that Maati figured out the secret aims of their training, and rose in the ranks. Maati, for all his value, always lacked the strength and compassion necessary to be a poet. Some secret part of him knows this, knows he has no right to go tampering with the rules of the world, bending them to his will. And yet, for all his value, he’s driven by the same pride and fear that the Khaiem had been feeding on for centuries. He even went to so far as to design a trick in the binding of an andat, a way around the deadly price that comes of a failed binding.

And in his desperate gamble to bind a new andat, a weapon designed to decimate the Galt before they knock down Machi’s doors, Maati loses. A good man, with a weak heart and too much fear, he takes his old notes on the andat Seedless and attempts to bring it back as Sterile. But he fails in a new and terrible way: his new binding neatly deflects the price all failed poets must pay, and instead, inflicts it upon the rest of the world. Maati makes it so that everyone loses.

His greatest fear comes to light in the form of the cold and cruel Sterile, who seizes upon Maati’s ultimate nightmare: “I am the reflection of a man whose son is not his son. All his life, Maati-kya has been bent double by the questions of fathers and sons. What do you imagine I would do?” Sterile taunts.

In a single moment, the men of Galt are gelded on the spot, Balasar Gice among them; the women of the Khaiem are made barren all at once, Kiyan and Liat and even Otah’s daughter, Eiah, their wombs blighted in an instant.

Maati ruins two nations in a single moment because he was never meant to wield that kind of power. If this novel proves anything, it’s that no one really is. Otah, for all his understanding that Maati was trying to do good, has to send his old friend away, banishing him from Machi.

In the end, as with most wars, both sides end up losing. Through Maati’s deeds and the magic of the andat, neither country can continue without the peoples of the other. They’re doomed to die unless they work together.

War leaves the world changed, so much so that it can seem hardly recognizable when it’s all over. So Abraham leaves us at the end of An Autumn War; the Khaiem and Galt are irrevocably scarred and unless they can find a solution, the leaves of their lives will fall, and will not grow back again.

Check back Thursday for more on the final novel in Daniel Abraham’s Long Price Quartet, The Price of Spring.


Martin Cahill is glad you fought the war 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 how Donald Glover should play Spider-Man, how IPAs are fantastic with food, or how magic impacts technology, and you’ll be sure to become fast friends.

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