One of the more interesting things about the latest Daniel Abraham novel, An Autumn War, is the cover blurbs. Both George RR Martin and Jay Lake talk about the book deserving to be a finalist for major awards. That would be remarkable enough in that neither man is greatly given to hyperbole, but this is volume 3 of a four book series that we are talking about. Middle books in a series never get nominated for awards, do they? But then there are a whole load of other blurbs talking about how this book is the best in the series so far. And it is a very good series.
Last week I was talking about one of those boringly predictable attacks on genre fiction by the literary establishment. Part of Benjamin Kunkel’s theory is that because of the focus on plot, and the need to provide a predictable and comforting ending, genre fiction is inevitably less morally complex than Literature. That’s clearly nonsense, because simply removing the plot from a novel can’t guarantee moral complexity. Indeed, if that were the case, the silly feminists who go around claiming that plots are phallocentric would produce fabulously moral books, which of course they don’t. They just produce boring books.
The simple truth is that what you need in order to produce a complex and thought-provoking book is not a particular setting or structure, but an intelligent and ambitious author. So yes, Abraham is writing fantasy. His books are set in an alternate world and contain supernatural beings. They also tend to have driving plots. An Autumn War, in particular, builds up the tension masterfully. But the ending is anything but predictable, and of absolutely no consolation to the reader, or to many of the characters. It is, after all, about a war, and wars do not have happy endings for most of the participants, no matter what Hollywood might tell you.
Wars are, however, made by people. In this particular case the war is made by Balasar Gice, a Galt general who has become convinced that the andat, the magical beings on which the cities of the Khaiem base their economic wealth, are a menace to mankind and must be destroyed. Conveniently, he has come across a means of doing so. Gice is well aware that although the andat are generally used only to create wealth, they can also be used to wreak destruction. They are, in effect, weapons of mass destruction. His masters on the Galt High Council want the andat for themselves, but Gice’s plan will remove the monsters from the world forever. Naturally he sees himself as a hero.
The actual hero of the books is Otah Machi, who in the last book inherited his father’s throne primarily by staying out of the way while his siblings killed each other. He has been ruling the city of Machi for many years, but is not popular with the people due to his general refusal to puff himself up as a Khai ought to, or to support any particular faction in city politics. He has found out that the more you try to rule fairly, the fewer friends you have, because people don’t want you to be fair, they want you to side with them.
And now there will be war, at least of Otah has anything to do with it. He is one of the few Khais smart enough to rumble the Galt plot early on, and decisive enough to do something about it. He has to turn the tradesmen and merchants of his rich and lazy city into an army and head out to face the hardened professional troops of the Galtic legions. His first task is to rescue the Dai-kvo – the head of the college of magician-poets who are only people who know how to command the andat. After a few days on the road, one of Otah’s aides confronts him:
Otah leaned forward, his hands taking a questioning pose.
“They’re afraid of failing you,” Nayiit said. “It’s why no one would come to you and complain. I’ve been keeping company with a man named Saya. He’s a blacksmith. Plow blades, for the most part. His knees are swollen to twice their normal size, and he wakes before dawn to tie on leather and wool and swing sticks with the others. And then he walks until he can’t. And then he walks farther.”
Nayiit’s voice was trembling now, but Otah couldn’t say if it was with weariness or fear or anger.
“These aren’t soldiers, Most High. And you’re pushing them too hard.”
“We’ve been moving for ten days–”
“And were coming near to half way to the Dai-kvo’s village,” Nayiit said. “In ten days. And drilling, and sleeping under thin blankets on hard ground. Not couriers and huntsmen, not men who are accustomed to this. Just men. I’ve spoken to the provisioners. We left Machi three thousand strong. Do you know how many have turned back, how many have deserted you?”
Otah blinked. It wasn’t a question he’d ever thought to ask.
This is fairly typical of the sort of trap Abraham constructs for his characters. Otah isn’t Khai Machi by choice. He wasn’t even put there by fate. He tried hard to avoid inheriting the throne, and got there only because of the greed and selfishness of his siblings. Nor did he want war with Galt. But he has all of these things and more. He is a war leader now, and if he makes mistakes, hundreds of his people will die.
And that’s only the half of it. I haven’t even mentioned all of the domestic problems dating from Otah’s youthful indiscretions that have come home to roost, or the difficulties of raising teenage daughter who happens to actually be a princess, not just think she deserves to be one.
The thing that kept running through my mind as I was reading the book (other than wondering, and failing to guess, how it was going to end) was, “this guy could be as good as Dorothy Dunnett.” And for the most part he doesn’t even have to invent moral ambiguity for his characters to do it. He’s cleverer than that. Whereas Dunnett generally leaves it open as to whether her lead characters are good people or not, Abraham makes it very clear that most of his characters are trying hard to do the right thing, and then when things go wrong has other characters come up with the alternative explanation that makes those who made the mistakes seem like bad guys.
And you know, I think that’s more realistic. The world is not full of Machiavellian geniuses like Francis Lymond. It is full of people like you and me who, for the most part, try to do good, and do not always succeed. It is the passion of human beings for conspiracy theories that fills the world with villains. Daniel Abraham understands this, and his books do not make that mistake. Consequently they have exactly the sort of moral complexity that Benjamin Kunkel is asking for, despite having a fabulous fantasy setting and a rip-roaring plot.