For obvious reasons awards have been somewhat on my mind of late, and while many of the things that happened in this year’s Hugos made me very happy, one big disappointment was that An Autumn War by Daniel Abraham did not make it to the final ballot for Best Novel. It finished equal 7th in nominations, tied with Terry Pratchett’s Nation and just 8 votes off a chance at glory. It isn’t on the World Fantasy Awards ballot either. It is, I suspect, suffering from being part 3 of a four-part series. Such books hardly ever do well in awards, no matter how well they are written. But I still think it is a shame, because I have enjoyed The Long Price Quartet more than the vast majority of fantasy books I have read.
What does Abraham do right? Well for me it starts with the world. His lead characters are not living in an idealized version of medieval Europe. They are not even white. It is the Galts, the bad guys for most of the series, who are described as pale-skinned and round-eyed. The people of the Khaiem are based on a variety of Asian cultures, and that comes through in the writing in a variety of ways, from their modes of speech to their habit of speaking through gestures. Abraham has painted a very different picture to that of the standard fantasy world.
Then there is the magic. The andat– ideas made flesh and bound by philosopher poets — may not be original (few ideas are), but they are certainly new to me. The whole system has been very well worked out, from the rigorous training that would-be poets have to go through, to the fury of the andat at being enslaved and the lifelong war they fight with their captors for freedom and revenge. Rarely has the price of sorcery been so clearly described.
Another excellent feature of the series is the fact that it tracks the lead characters’ lives over several decades. A lot is said and written about character growth in fiction, and it is perfectly possible to have characters change and grow within the confines of a story that only takes up a few days of their lives. Far more, however, is possible in an epic series that sees them grow from confident and ambitious youngsters to wiser and often regretful elders. In some ways The Long Price Quartet reminded me of Tolstoy’s War and Peace.
The key feature for me, however, is that Abraham eschews the traditional simplistic morality of the fantasy epic. In far too many fantasy books the bad guys are evil because they are Evil. The Dark Lord wants to conquer the world because he is a Dark Lord and so hopelessly corrupt that he cannot but wish ill to all living things. Look, Tolkien did it, it must be right.
Except that the real world isn’t like that, and the idea that one’s political enemies are not only mistaken in their philosophy, and perhaps unduly self-interested, but utterly Evil is making our world a much harder place in which to live. It is at root a religious idea, and Adolph Hitler and his cronies have a lot to answer for in terms of making Evil manifest, but we in the entertainment industry also have a lot to answer for. We lead people astray by offering easy answers. There is no magical spell that will solve the world’s problems, no single act of heroism that will banish Evil from the world for all time. A newly elected leader cannot put the world to right at a stroke. Daniel Abraham, at least, understands that.
So in The Long Price Quartet there is no ultimate Evil, no Dark Lord and his minions, only human beings. The Galts hate the people of the Khaiem, and seek their destruction, it is true. They hate them because they fear them. And they fear them because it is absolutely true that the Khaiem is in possession of weapons of mass destruction that could, if they chose to use them, put an end to Galtic civilization with a mere thought.
That the vast majority of the people of the Khaiem choose not to do so is irrelevant. It only takes one mad man, or woman.
Much of the evil done in The Long Price Quartet is done by people who, while acting out of greed or anger, are at least doing so because they can justify their actions to themselves as revenge, or balancing of prior iniquities inflicted upon them. In most cases, however, the very worst atrocities are committed by people who believe that they have identified something wrong in the world and are trying to do good by putting it right. Unintended consequences are a fact of life. That’s true whether you are bidding for a Worldcon, standing for political office, or starting an armed rebellion. Nothing ever goes quite as you planned. You will never please all of the people all of the time. Sometimes, no matter how much good you do, someone will end up hating you for what you have done.
All too often in fantasy, being a king is simply a matter of being born the right person, of committing a few heroic acts, and winning the occasional battle against the Forces of Darkness. Not in Abraham’s world. His hero, Otah Machi, might rise significantly in political power throughout the course of four books, but he always has to face the consequences of what he has done. He is forever faced with making difficult choices. Kill one man in cold blood, or allow hundreds to die though your inaction? Order the death of a close friend, or risk that person causing untold harm?
The series is perhaps at its most magnificent in An Autumn War. That book is certainly a hard act to follow. In some ways The Price of Spring is the weakest of the four books, in part because the level of magic use escalates through the series and in part because of the crushing weight of the readers’ desire for a satisfying (read “consolatory”) ending. Not everyone will be happy with the way that Abraham has ended the series. But then, what would Otah Machi have done in such circumstances? He would have asked himself, “What could I have done better?” I suspect most other endings would have worked less well, and made fewer people happy.
Besides, I’m looking at the series as a whole now, and I think it is a monumental achievement. Abraham has produced four fine books, each of which works well on its own, but which in sequence add up to something much more. He has crafted gripping plots, and a group of fascinating characters whom we grow to know and care for, if perhaps not identify with because in Abraham’s world no one is a fantasy archetype. Then, after four books, you finally get to the end, emotionally drained once more by what Abraham has put you through. You close The Price of Spring, and there, at the top of the blurbs on the back cover, you find this:
“Will keep you turning pages and break your heart in the bargain” — George R.R. Martin
Nothing more needs to be said.