Daniel Abraham is presently juggling two of my favorite ongoing series—the fantasy series The Dagger and the Coin and, under a pseudonym, the Expanse series of space operas. While I’m in the lull between installments, I’ve been slowly making my way through his first fantasy series, the Long Price Quartet. Each of its titles relates to a season, and as the conceit suggests, it’s a series that takes its time to unfold from one generation to the next.
The story is set in an East Asian-inspired, hierarchical empire of city-states, with a bloody tradition of inheritance based on which son survives being stabbed or poisoned by his rival brothers. For all that its ruling family is routinely engaged in factional murder, it’s a stable, complacent society, its upper classes enjoying wealth, comfort, and good trade, and so secure in its peace that there are no standing armies.
Although he isn’t sure he’s good enough, Maati is a young man hoping to become a poet, one of the class that make this wealth and peace possible. “Poet” isn’t quite the job description you’d expect. After long study, and at great risk, a poet’s manipulations of grammar can make an abstract idea concrete, a personification called an andat. Having brought this power into the world, a poet splits the rest of his life between using its harnessed function for the good of society, and vigilance against the andat’s attempts to free itself. As an apprentice to Heshai, the poet of Saraykeht, Maati is a witness to this daily struggle. Saraykeht’s cotton-exporting economy depends on Heshai’s andat Seedless, the anthropomorphic equivalent of a cotton gin, but its ability to render life sterile could have far more sinister applications if its poet were to lose control. And even as Heshai grows older and weaker, Seedless is conspiring with foreign powers to bring the city down.
With a wide scope and complex plots, the four titles in this series build momentum as you go along. Abraham excels at creating a vibrant world out of convincing details, including fanciful architecture and an elaborate language of gestures and postures that convey details of rank and etiquette. He builds such a solid portrait of how this society works in the first half of the quartet that it’s really affecting when, in the second half, he starts to take it apart. His characters, while occasionally admirable or sympathetic, are deeply flawed. At first, their mistakes are those of the young and impetuous, and they mostly hurt one another, but as they gain in age and power, twisted by lost chances and regretted choices, their decisions will affect nations for generations to come.
The Long Price Quartet is a good choice for a leisurely, immersive read. The animosity between the poets and their andat reminded me of the leashed gods of N. K. Jemisin’s Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, while the theme of one man’s private flaws wreaking public catastrophe is shared by K. J. Parker’s bleak Engineer trilogy. Abraham is kinder to his characters, though, as they are in some cases able to make it through their catastrophes and into a more hopeful future.
Check the WRL catalog for A Shadow in Summer.