Saying Goodbye: Daniel Abraham’s The Price of Spring

All things must end.

Through three books and sixty years by the Khaiem calender, Daniel Abraham has brought us into a world of power, magic, family, and pain, through summers of youth, winters of sorrow, and the horrors of autumnal war. Here, in the final book of the Long Price of Quartet, Abraham takes us one last time into a world of strife, through a season when all hopes wilt and die and bloom anew, toward the realization that only at the end of our lives can we look back and see clearly the prices we paid along the way.

Welcome to The Price of Spring.

Minimal spoilers to follow.

The war with the Galt has been over for fourteen years, and still the world is reeling. Fourteen years since Maati made his monstruous mistake and deflected the price of a failed andat binding—a price the world around him was forced to pay instead. The malevolent andat Sterile, born of Maati’s self-doubt as a father and the fear in his heart, left the women of the Khaiem unable to bear children and the men of Galt unable to father any. The two countries haven’t had any new births in almost a generation and must come together if they’re to survive at all.

Otah, in his late sixties now, is the Emperor of the Khaiem that remain after the devastating war with the Galt. Whole city-states were burned to the ground, homes destroyed, families decimated; there’s no one who wasn’t affected, who don’t look at the Galt with anger and sorrow. And yet Otah must reach out to his old enemies and find a way to work with them, convince their daughters to intermarry with the sons of the Khaiem so that both countries can survive.

Meanwhile, Maati has been skulking in the shadows of the Khaiem, fueled by self-loathing and pain. He’s been working to recreate the grammar of the poets, finding new students among the barren women he helped create, and hoping to discover a way to right his wrong. He’s trying to bind the andat again, even after all his books have been burned. He does so with the help of Otah’s daughter Eiah, now an adult and a doctor, who has broken with her father over his seeming disregard for the barren women of the Khaiem. Eiah supports Maati in secret and hopes to use her medical knowledge to undo the work of Sterile in a new andat.

The world that Abraham paints is a bleak one: swing sets sit abandoned, and homes are empty of young laughter; every border with enemy nations is being tested, and still, despite the risk of dying out entirely, people remain selfish and cruel and scared. Otah and Maati both are feeling their age. Otah wanders the palace alone, Kiyan having died years ago; he writes letters to her and looks back over his years with regret and love. His son Danat is a young man of twenty now, and the stark differences between him and the Otah of the first book are subtle and heartbreaking. Abraham uses Danat to show how Otah has changed, having taught his son the lessons learned from his own mistakes. Meanwhile, though Maati has grown used to loneliness over the past decade or so, he’s placed all the bitterness, anger and blame for Sterile, the loss of his son, the loss of his books squarely at the feet of Otah, and allowed it to simmer for years. He tries to fill his loss by teaching, devoting himself to his female pupils, and does manage to find some measure of solace in their learning even as it hurts him.

Four books into the series, it’s impressive how Abraham still manages to find new angles from which to examine how the magic of the andat operates. For centuries, only men were allowed to be poets, thanks to the repressive values and strictly-enforced gender roles of the Khaiem. With his books lost, and the grammar developed by male poets burnt, Maati works with his female students to create a women’s grammar, an utterly unprecedented move.

Throughout the book, Abraham illustrates how the perspective of women changes the fluidity and form of the andat when being considered and brought into the world. He also uses it to heartbreaking effect, as a means of demonstrating the terrible grief and madness that has come of Maati’s machinations. When Vanjit, one of Maati’s students, successfully binds her andat, Clarity-Of-Sight, she holds to her chest a baby with skin like white stone, eyes black and bottomless, instead of an adult andat as we’ve seen before. Vanjit makes real her desire for a child, and even though it is a thing without a heart that wants to escape her, she yearns for it and wills her love into it.

When Eiah binds her andat, the thing is an adult, but its form is mutable: its eyes change color, its hair grows in length and varies in hue. Several times throughout the novel, the women’s grammar is seen to be less about binding an iron-clad idea and more about capturing the various possibilities, leaving room to make the concept more or less real. It’s fascinating stuff and when paired with Abraham’s exploration into the psyche of his characters, it makes for some extremely compelling reading.

Vanjit is the character through which readers can most fully understand the experience of growing up in this new and silent world Maati has caused. The Galt slaughtered her family in front of her eyes when she was six, and after the killings, they torched her entire city-state—the rivers, towers, and homes being swallowed in flame. After losing her family and the ability to have children, she’s a veritable cauldron of fear, rage, and earnest hope—a reflection of Maati in some ways. In Vanjit, he sees too much of himself, but deludes himself into thinking that she’ll be strong in ways he was not. But holding the andat, her little baby made of stone and hate, is too much for her, and the strain inside of her finally breaks when Vanjit holds her child who is not a child.

Another key aspect of the andat is that they not only embody their ideal, they also embody its reverse, and are able to withdraw their influence. Maati comes to know this all too well—as does an entire nation—when Vanjit channels her andat and causes everyone she hates to go blind. And, of course, she hates Galt most of all. She illustrates the nightmare consequences that can occur when the balance of poets goes wrong, and how a poet cannot be stopped by any normal means once an andat has been bound. The worst of it all is that Maati empathizes; he knows exactly what she’s going through, why she’s lashing out. What he has to come to grips with is his own part in it, and he only does so at the very end, still trying to use his bitterness and self-righteousness as a flimsy shield against the world’s judgments.

This book is one of exhaustion. After so many, many years of pain and war and broken hearts, everyone is simply tired and worn down. Otah just wants to see his wife again. Cehmai wants to live with Idaan, away from everything. Maati just wants to fix everything, at long last. Eiah wants to bring life back to the women of the Khaiem. Tall orders, all, and yet each hope is presented as just the one last thing to be done before everything will be all right again.

And yet, nothing will be—at least not how they want it. The world is changing and they must change along with it. Steam-powered engines and cars are the norm by the end of the book, with plans in the works for steam-powered ships, too. Paved roads and transportation infrastructure are being built all across the continent. Marriages between Galt and the Khaiem are becoming regular occurrences. There is no more magic, though people are always looking for it.

There’s a passage at the end of the book that sums up the main message of the series quite well. Danat says, “We say that the flowers return every spring, but that is a lie. It is true that the world is renewed. It is also true that the renewal comes at a price, for even if the flowers grow 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 with the spring flowers, so it is for us.” The Price of Spring ends with the smoke of a funeral pyre, a son holding a torch, eloquence failing him in the face of an empire he’s inherited; he falters, and says simply, “I loved my father . . . I miss him.”

He lights the pyre. Above him, pink petals fall, signaling the return of spring, the return of renewal. All is not lost, can never be lost for long, even though it seemed so, so close to happening. Abraham’s final message is one of hope, though not devoid of pain…life ends, but life also goes on. I can think of no better theme to be gleaned from The Long Price Quartet then this: even after youthful summers, cold winters, autumns of war, and springs filled with change, life goes on, even if it is new, and scary, and different, and wonderful.

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, 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 barrel-aging beers are kick-ass, tips on how to properly mourn Parks and Rec, and if you have any idea on what he should read next, and you’ll be sure to become fast friends.


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