On a remote mountainside stands a school dedicated to teaching the discarded sons of the nobility. Harsh as the school is, it represents the boys’ only chance at life, given that they would otherwise be murdered by older brothers eager to simplify the lines of inheritance. The students endure cruel punishments and backbreaking labor and hope, against all hope, that they might be one of the lucky few who rise through the ranks of the school to become Poets.
To be a Poet is to have freedom, power, and terrible responsibility, for as the few men able to capture a concept in words and make it do their bidding, they are the most powerful magicians in the world. They, and they alone, keep the trade flowing and the city-states of the Khaiem safe from invasion. The price of their power is a lifetime dedicated to serving their city and a relationship to a concept, or “andat,” that resembles that of a master to his slave.
For centuries, the Poet-andat system has kept the city-states safe and prosperous. But some are beginning to test the rules of that system. In the school of the discarded, a young boy, Otah, reflects on the beatings he received, and the day’s lessons. He thinks of his teacher’s description of hell, a prison without locks that works only because the cowardly spirits it contains are too afraid to leave. And Otah decides to run away from the school, even if it means his death.
Otah’s decision doesn’t quite have the result that he—or anyone else—expects. But that is one of the wonderful elements of Daniel Abraham’s excellent debut series: the choices of the major characters truly do drive the plot, spinning them off into unanticipated directions. In the case of Otah’s minor rebellion, his decision to run away proves less important to him than to another student at the school. Timid, earnest Maati is inspired by a brief conversation with Otah to change the course of his life. Years later, when Maati sets out to serve as an apprentice Poet in the glorious summer city of Sarayket, he carries with him shadowy memories of the boy who changed his life, the boy he hardly knew.
The events that overtake Maati in Sarayket are described in A Shadow in Summer, the first book in the omnibus, reviewed for Strange Horizons by David Soyka. I won’t comment much on the first volume, except to say that its conclusion is fairly abrupt. Reading it as part of an omnibus edition, where the novel is immediately followed by its sequel, makes for a more satisfying experience.
A Betrayal in Winter (book two of The Long Price Quartet, originally published as a separate volume) picks up Maati’s story some years after the events of A Shadow in Summer. The Khai Machi is dying, and his sons, following tradition, have begun to assassinate one another in order to prepare themselves for their ascension. Or have they? Both of the Khai’s established sons claim to be innocent of the murder of their eldest brother and instead point the finger at their discarded youngest brother, Otah, who officially disappeared years ago.
As a former friend of Otah’s, Maati is sent to investigate the murder and, if possible, find the Khai’s outlaw son. But the plot Maati uncovers in the Khai’s winter city stretches far beyond the politics of a single throne. If it goes unchecked, the forces at work in the North will plunge the world into war.
Meanwhile, Otah has returned to the city that gave him birth, only to find his name whispered on every street corner. Worse, his old colleague, Maati, is in town, and Otah has reasons for wanting to avoid his former friend. But even Otah, who has grown accomplished at living in the shadows, cannot avoid the machinations aimed at eliminating his family.
Abraham’s world is richly detailed and complex. The notion that thoughts can be embodied pervades not only the interactions of his characters—people communicate their emotions using stylized gestures—but also the world’s magic. The andat—concepts made flesh and forced to serve the will of their masters—are fascinating creations; they are at times terribly human and at others frighteningly alien, but with a few exceptions they all strive to break free of their Poet-captors and return to their natural state. The magic of the world is thus ethically troubling, not only because of the power the Poets wield—a single word to the andat Seedless, for example, could make all the women of a neighboring country miscarry for a generation—but also because in wielding it, the Poets are essentially slave masters.
Indeed, the long price of the omnibus’s title refers to the cost —whether it be integrity or peace of mind— all the Poets must pay in order to maintain control over their andat. It also refers to the consequences of characters’ actions. Abraham’s characters are complicated and carefully observed; they don’t fall into clear divisions of good and evil, and many of them remain sympathetic even though they commit heinous crimes. Their portrayals also reveal the work of an author who both understands human behavior and can distill it in a few words. Take the following conversation, between a wealthy merchant and a man who has just asked him for a job at his girlfriend’s prompting:
“She told you to ask me, didn’t she?" Marchat asked.
"Yes," Itani agreed, the tension that had been in his voice gone.
“Are you in love with her?”
"Yes," the boy said, "I want her to be happy."
Those are two different answers, Marchat thought, but didn’t say. (p. 46)
A short conversation between two (apparently) minor characters thus quickly conveys that Itani’s relationship is probably doomed and that Marchat is perceptive but not about to intervene directly in every situation he observes. It’s an efficient use of dialogue in a relatively minor exchange and reflects the deftness with which Abraham handles his characters. He’s a writer to watch not only for the duration of this series but also for whatever work he produces in the future.