Underground Reading: The Long Price Quartet by Daniel Abraham
Monday, September 12, 2011
There's a pattern to reviewing your average-to-good book. There's something praiseworthy in just about everything and, equally, there's something flawed. Balance the two, throw in a personal anecdote about growing up in Kansas City, poke fun at the cover art and - bamf - revoo.
Bad reviews are a little trickier. Don't get me wrong, they're a lot of fun, but you know they're going to come back and haunt you. It is all well and good to start minting the lolcat legions, but, sooner or later, there will be discussion involved. They're more work because, I suppose, they're born out of the strength of conviction. And, therefore, they need to be right.
The hardest of all (and thus the meandering introduction. Hey, did I tell you about growing up in Kansas City yet?) is reviewing the great book. The occasional work of brilliance that surfaces all too rarely. Gushing objectively is, as far as I can tell, impossible. And, good lord, what if I drop the ball and actually discourage someone from reading it? With the Kitschies, Anne and I have a defined set of criteria to help us examine the year's top offerings. In bog-standard everyday reviewing, there's not even that sort of structure to hide behind (thus my personal history of writing mediocre blog posts about the best books).
So, it is with a great deal of trepidation that I introduce Daniel Abraham's Long Price Quartet. The series began in the US in 2006 (from Tor) and started in the UK (with Orbit) from 2007. Now it is available as a pair of mega-tomes, Shadow and Betrayal and Seasons of War. At approx 600 pages each, these are the sort of doorstop size that should reassure the modern fantasy fan that they're getting something suitably epic.
Mr. Abraham's world (appropriately called "The World" on each map) is divided into two regions: the baroque city-states of the Khaiem and the proto-industrial nation of Galt. Both are the children of a shattered ancient Empire, the wastelands of which lurk on the far side of the world. Galt is an ambitious power with huge legions, vast wealth, enormous trading companies and early steam technology - coal-fueled war-wagons and the like. In comparison, the cities of the Khaiem are like decadent relics. The people of the Khaiete are wrapped in millennia of painstaking traditions and complex rules that have a distinctly dusty air. They have no armies, no navy and their trading houses - although powerful - pale in comparison to the infinite resources of Galt.
The Khaiem, however, have the andat. And with them, they rule the world.
Mr. Abraham's unique system of magic is based on a single premise. Skilled ritualists known as Poets can distill abstract thoughts into physical beings. The process is dangerous - deadly, in fact. The andat are omnipotent and vicious, Mephistophelian figures with a lust for both freedom and destruction. But the power they offer is too good to refuse. The city of Saraykeht, for example, has one andat captive - Removing-The-Part-That-Continues, known colloquially as "Seedless". Every day, Seedless helps the city with the painstaking labor that is removing the seeds from cotton. As a result, their trade thrives, the center of the textile trade. Seedless is also Saraykeht's ultimate defense. Who would attack a city when they have the power to render an entire nation infertile at will?
The price for this power is constant vigilance. Seedless is bound to his Poet, Heshai, and the two dance in an endless routine of hate and devotion. They're tied together by bonds that the rest of the world cannot understand, but can only support. Poets live lives of celebrity and unease. They're the most valuable men in the land, but they're under constant pressure from their struggling andat.
Mr. Abraham sets the adventures of the Long Price in these lands, with Galt used as the 'far-off menace' - the faceless adversary of the early volumes. Already this makes for an unusual series. Galt is the Western analogue that provides the usual fantasy stomping ground. The lands of the Khaiem have no parallel, a completely unique culture. With their social stagnation, eldritch ways and mysterious sorceries, these city-states would generally be the home to the villains of any traditional sword and sorcery tale. You can practically see Conan scaling the tower of the Khai.
The complex culture of the Khaiem infuses the book, down to its language. Mr. Abraham creates an elaborate and eloquent system of poses - physical inflections used by both speaker and listener. It means that every line of dialogue is, in essence, two lines: the words written and the speaker described. Mr. Abraham freely admits that he "stole it from a Walter Jon Williams short story" but hastens to add that "it's ok, he knows I took it and is cool with it."* (The humility is actually quite charming.)
The poses are, initially, a very difficult thing to read. The layered dialogue isn't 'natural' to any reader outside of the fictional Khaiem. As the series progresses, however, it becomes easier - both to read and (presumably) for the author to write. When the rare Galtish gentleman arrives and takes (gasp) the wrong pose, the reader immediately understands their shame. The added layer of complex etiquette in everyday speech only enhances the overall appreciation of the culture of the Khaiem: they are ancient, complex, arrogant and very, very old. On one hand, it is a beautiful ritual. On the other, it is exactly the sort of meticulous ceremony that signifies the Byzantine self-indulgence of an empire's final days.
(As a cruel aside, the use of poses in the Long Price only increases my disdain for the Adem 'hand-language' in Patrick Rothfuss' The Wise Man's Fear. Mr. Abraham uses the poses as an additional layer of communication. Mr. Rothfuss uses it as a replacement for dialogue. Similarly, the scene in which the Adem neck a few beers and 'forget' to use their hands now seems increasingly ridiculous. Language makes a crap icing. Either bake it into your world or leave it off entirely.)
Mr. Abraham has built a beautiful world, but it is an intentionally alien one. The author gives no background and few cues, leaving the reader to sink or swim from the series' disconcerting opening lines. While the reader struggles with the dual dialogue, the odd names and the strange customs, they cling to one thing - the characters. And, for all the wild glory of the World, it only truly serves a single purpose - that of a stage.
In the first book, A Shadow of Summer, Mr. Abraham introduces his main characters in their youth. Maati is a young Poet in the city of Saraykeht. He's been sent to learn the ways of Seedless and to, someday, inherit the andat. He's not actually very good at it (that is, 'Poetry"), something that will haunt him for his entire life. Itani is a young laborer in that same city, although he comes with a complex past. He is both politically and poetically significant. He's neither "lost prince" nor "child of prophecy", Itani's someone that's been sneaking around outside the strict conventions of society and is doing his level best to live a long life shifting crates on the docks. Itani's actually quite good at (and enjoys) being unremarkable - this will haunt him as well.
The two young men swiftly become connected, both to one another and to an insidious plot to destroy the city and its andat. There's also a bit of romance involved, some financial manipulation and a disturbing magical crime. Although the stakes are of imperial significance, Mr. Abraham never lets the reader forget that it all comes down to minuscule - almost fractional - moments of human connection. Nowhere is this more evident than with the Poets and their andat, in which limitless power is held (reluctantly) in human hands.
The quartet follows Maati and Itani (although that's not his real name, that's still how he thinks of himself) through an adventure that redefines (or, more precisely, correctly defines) 'epic'. Each of the books is a decade apart, showing how the two men have grown and established (or ruined) themselves. Other characters are introduced as the series progresses, resulting in a final volume that weaves the full sum of the men's lives into a series of climactic moments. Every decision that Maati and Itani makes is of significant value and, despite the gaps between volumes, the reader feels like they know the characters intimately.
There are a few rough patches - not stumbling blocks, but slightly weaker moments. The female characters are still, largely, overshadowed by the men. This is largely a function of the two protagonists both being male, as most of the minor characters are female and they all have exceedingly strong plot lines that don't (mostly) revolve around men. Mr. Abraham is very clear about demarcating the institutional sexism of the World, but tries to populate it with female characters in revolutionary roles. This is a world where only men can be soldiers or take the throne but, over the course of the book, we see women plot for power, rule their husbands, create trading houses and become the first female doctors (and more). Throughout the Long Price, Mr. Abraham paints a picture of a culture toppling, its rules and strictures coming undone. The progression of women is one facet of this, and allows for iconoclastic female characters that don't feel like tokens. That said, Itani and Maati made me choke up like Field of Dreams, whereas none of the other characters (male or female) had that kind of impact.
This is particularly nit-picky, but there's also an awkward tension between Maati and Itani at the start of the fourth book that goes largely unexplained. In that, it is explained, but the explanation never truly satisfied me. For plot reasons, the two need to begin that book with different points of view (not quite cross-purposes, but close). It is a small thing, but given the trials and tribulations the two undergo in the first three books, watching them snarl at one another took tiny chips out of my heart. That again re-emphasizes the series' power. Despite the breath-taking brilliance of the world and the complex mysteries of the plot, Mr. Abraham grounds everything in the connections between people.
On the elemental level, this is the fantasy to end all fantasies. A sprawling cast that spans nations and generations. Tales of ascension and salvation. Magic that cracks the world and flattens mountains. Lost secrets from ancient empires.
But all that is window dressing. This is a story about two young men, a rubbish Poet and a very good porter. Neither one desires to be extraordinary, but it happens to them anyway. Between them, they save and destroy nations, fall in and out of love and become, largely against their will, both the greatest heroes and the greatest villains the World has ever known. There are no good guys or bad guys, everything happens for a reason and you'll never scoff at poetry again.
*From the author interview in Shadow and Betrayal (Orbit, 2010).