Sunday, 19 September 2010
Book review: An Autumn War
By Daniel Abraham
(Orbit omnibus edition, 2010)
While the first two books in The Long Price quartet - A Shadow in Summer and A Betrayal in Winter - are excellent, their underlying premises are perhaps a little too similar at times and there is a sense that the scene is being set for something larger and even more significant. The third instalment, An Autumn War, is therefore arguably the pivotal book in the sequence. With this novel, Daniel Abraham needed to build on the foundations he'd constructed and take the series in a new direction, without compromising the human element that has made his story so remarkable. Success would propel the series to the very heights of the genre, failure would mean that the The Long Price quartet would never quite achieve its true potential.
I had little doubt Abraham would succeed; soon after starting The Long Price quartet I realised I was reading something special, by a very gifted author. It therefore came as no surprise that An Autumn War surpasses its predecessors in every aspect. Yet what did surprise me was how effortlessly Abraham tore apart my expectations and delivered a novel that instantly goes down as one of the finest epic fantasy novels I've ever read.
Fourteen years have passed since the events of A Betrayal in Winter. The Galts, having seen their previous attempts at influencing the politics of the Khaiem meet with mixed success, have decided to take a more direct route: invasion. Such brute force was never previously viable; the Khaiem had the andat to protect them, and their wrath would be devastating. Yet a Galtic general by the name of Balazar Gice thinks he has found a way to nullify the andats' threat. If he is right, an ambitious military campaign could see the defenseless cities of the Khaiem conquered within a few months. If he is wrong, Galt will be erased from the map. Either way, the world will be changed forever.
In the first two novels the Galts were little more than a vague menace, yet with Balasar Gice taking centre stage they become a far more definitive threat. While most readers will view the Galts as the antagonists, Abraham is very careful not to paint them, or Gice, as blackhearted villains. Gice is simply doing what he thinks is best for his country: he sees the andat as a threat that needs to be removed from the world. He doesn't want to build an empire; he just wants to preserve the future of his own people by eradicating the threat that poses the most danger to them. He's an interesting character: likable, dedicated and tactically brilliant. Yet the ghosts of men that have died under his command haunt him, and the fear of failure - and what it would mean - constantly gnaws at him. His future, at least, is black and white: if he succeeds, he'll be the greatest hero in his country's history. Fail, and he'll be known as the man that brought destruction upon his own people. It is a predicament that lies heavily across his shoulders, and Abraham convincingly explores the psychological implications.
I realised while reading A Betrayal in Winter that what Abraham was trying to do was to tell the life stories of a select few people, and to show how their decisions and relationships affected the state of the world. It was no surprise then to find that many familiar faces return, although as before Abraham develops their characters and takes their lives in new directions. As always, they find themselves in a variety of difficult and demanding situations: Otah must lead a ragtag, amateur army against the finest fighting force in the world, knowing that defeat will cost him everything he holds dear; Maati must finally confront the failures of his past and attempt to perform an act that he was never intended for; Sinja - previously just a minor character - finds himself with conflicting loyalties, and trying to guess which way he will lean is one of the most intriguing aspects of the novel. As before, Abraham's characterisation is bone-deep; it's impossible not to engage with these figures and their various struggles.
The Long Price has always been driven by the characters, but it's only in An Autumn War that the subtleties and intricacies of their relationships - carefully developed over the course of the two previous books - really come to the fore, affecting the unfolding events in dramatic style. The plot pivots on such small details that originally appeared almost inconsequential, yet are now revealed to have far wider consequences. It's a rewarding experience watching these various elements slot into place, and is a testament to Abraham's plotting skills and grasp of characterisation. While An Autumn War loses none of the intimacy of the previous novels, it is nonetheless more epic in scope and the results of the unfolding events are even more profound than those of the previous novels.
Verdict: An Autumn War retains all of the elements that made the earlier novels in The Long Price quartet so impressive, yet takes the story in a fresh direction and raises the emotional stakes to dramatic levels. This is a truly remarkable story about love and sacrifice, with an ending that is both stunning and heartbreaking. A Shadow in Summer and A Betrayal in Winter marked Daniel Abraham out as a talent worth watching, but An Autumn War cements his transformation into one of the genre's most gifted authors. Make no mistake, this novel is amongst the best the genre has to offer.