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Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Price of Spring: Well Paid

This is an impossible review to write. I don't even feel like I can go with a simple plot description, given that the events in The Price of Spring by Daniel Abraham are so dependent on the ugly climax of the last book, a climax I do not want to spoil for those readers who eventually might get around to this series. I guess I'll just blather a bit about the general trends in these novels as a group. 

So, high fantasy, yeah? The Long Price Quartet takes place in a mildly medieval mildly Asian setting - farms and courts and no electric lights. (But no elves or dragons.) You just kind of accept this, as a reader, because, hey, why not? And the costumes are sweet. But there is this very tiny piece of magic in the mix, a very careful, deliberate magic, so careful and deliberate that it blows my mind here in the last book. The magic is embodied in creatures called andats, who are called into being by poets; the embodiment of concepts. Once a concept has been bound - and this binding takes physical form in something that looks human - it cannot be bound in the same way again. In the beginning, many, many generations before the start of this book, poets bound and released andats almost playfully not realizing there would be a cost down the road. A binding gone wrong - one that is too close in grammar to one already done - will result in the death of the poet.

So that's where we are at the start of A Shadow in Summer, which details the plots of some failed poets, some not failed poets, women, and empires. I said this in the review for the first book, but the magic, the andat, is an almost-allegory for technology, a sort of nuclear power that can light up a thousand homes, or murder an entire culture. Take, for example, Seedless, the only andat we meet in Summer. He (and this pronoun is off - these are not gendered humans, but more on that later) can be called Removing That Which Continues, and this bound idea mostly works to remove the seeds from cotton - a cotton djinn. (Ba-dump-tss.) But he can also remove a gestating child, and he could, through his magic, cause every woman to miscarry in the enemy state of Galt, who, unlike the city-states of the Khaiem (in which these events occur), have to rely on the more mundane magic of steam ships and clever technology.

But the stories of these four books mostly follow the fortunes and misfortunes of two men, Otah and Maati. I'm sitting here staring at the cursor, trying to will an easy encapsulation of their relationship into being. These books occur at roughly 15 year intervals, so Otah, Maati, and all of the other players age and change, not just in the books, but in the interstitial periods between them. We met them as boys, and here they are men, old men, dealing with their failures and horrible successes, trying to salvage their lives, their legacies, and the inescapable fact that more of the candle has been burned than not. A lot more. 

The last book dealt with a war, and while it was not a civil war in the strictest of senses, it has become intimate in the aftermath and reparations. Civil in the sense of of or relating to citizens and their interrelations with one another or with the state. Again, I'm not saying this is Tolkien's dreaded allegory, but this last book got me thinking abut our own American civil conflict, and the Reconstruction period just after. The andat - and these creatures view themselves, and are, slaves - are out of the world, the books burned, the poets put to the knife. The societies in question have to put the world back together, have to build an economy and a shared civil identity that isn't predicated on that slavery, and they don't like it at all.

And why would they? I sat there, as a reader, wanting to shake everyone. Maati, oh god, what you are doing is going to end in tears - and what he is doing is trying to build a women's grammar to bind a new andat. (Of course, in this semi-medieval setting, women's rights do not figure, and poets have always been men, which is dealt with so amazingly well that I amaze.) I mean, this is a personal tick of mine, but I believe strongly that fantasy, and especially high fantasy, almost always trades in nostalgia of one stripe or another. That nostalgia often works out to this faux medievalism where the ladies wear dresses and are chattel, but it's okay, because harvesting grain and being pretty is so rewarding, yo! Not here. Abraham is so much better than this, and he addresses the gender imbalances, calls them into question, makes gender both the question and the answer. The good ole days were good because of slavery, so they weren't good for everyone. It's seriously awesome. 

As much as I wanted to shake Maati, at least when I wasn't covering my eyes knowing that what he was doing was going to end in horrors, I was wanting to shake his friend/enemy, Otah, for doing things that have a terrible, necessary purpose on many levels, but were absolutely sickening. Otah, oh god, you get to take the high road in your own mind, but that's such total bullshit. And the worst part? He even knows it. They all do. And they do what they do anyway because it makes sense. Because people are people. Because we all pine for lost countries, ones we even lived in, and want to make our perfected memories into perfect futures. The whole thing is bananas. 

All this blather I've been making about society and gender and stuff - ignore this. This is not why you should read this. You should read this because it has some of the most careful, beautiful character sketches, sketches that move through time, that build, that allow characters to make bad choices and be assholes, characters that try to do the right thing, who fail and burn and regret. I love that we see whole lives in this series, from young lovers to regretting widowers with bad knees. 

And another thing I say about fantasy: the land is character, the cities and places. There's a moment in here where some characters (no spoilers) are in a ruined city, and they have this reverie about the food carts that used to ply the overgrown streets, how with your food, wrapped in careful paper, you would also receive a collection of seeds in a twist. After eating, you threw the seeds on the ground, and the birds that came to eat the seeds were a divination tool: a thrush for luck, a crow for bad omens. It's throwaway, but it's beautiful, and it's careful. It's a moment for a place that never existed, but never existed in a way that had its own customs. Omigod. Go read this series now.

(And the previous book, An Autumn War, and this can be found in the omnibus edition called The Price of War. So good.) 

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