Monday, 13 September 2010
Book review: A Betrayal in Winter
By Daniel Abraham
(Orbit omnibus edition, 2010)
I mentioned in my review of A Shadow in Summer that the novel, despite being epic fantasy, had a small cast and that by focusing on this small handful of characters and their relationships, the story had an intimate feel to it. The same is true of A Betrayal in Winter, the second novel in Daniel Abraham's The Long Price quartet. Yet only now have I realised what Abraham set out to do with this series: to tell the life stories of a few key players, and demonstrate how their actions affect the world around them.
The events of this novel take place over a decade after the struggles depicted in A Shadow in Summer, with the scene shifting from the summer city of Saraykeht to the winter city of Machi: a city famed for its imposing towers and winters so brutal that the city's population is driven into subterranean tunnels to escape the cold. A world away from the warmth of Saraykeht then, but Machi's political jostling and courtly intrigue are very reminiscent of the more illustrious southern city. As it happens, political machinations are very much at the heart of this novel.
A lot has happened in the intervening twelve years, yet much has also remained the same. Otah is still trying to escape his past - the past that came back to haunt him during his time in Saraykeht, and which continues to haunt him still. When he is assigned a task that requires him to travel north to Machi - the city of his birth - he finds himself in a desperate situation: returning to Machi may well bring him into contact with the old life he has tried to leave behind. And yet it's something he feels he needs to do; there is an urge within him to face his demons and see if the memories he holds are anything like the truth. Yet it's a dangerous time to be in Machi, as the reigning Khai's health is failing, and the bloodletting to see who will succeed him has already begun. And inevitably, Otah finds himself having to confront his past in order to build a new future, both for himself and for the city...
From a technical perspective, A Betrayal in Winter is an interesting novel. The actual plot - a political struggle in which a foreign power is secretly involved - bears more than a passing resemblance to the plot of A Shadow in Summer. Furthermore, while the novel is essentially a murder mystery, one of the main POV characters is one of the antagonists (if they can truly be called that), so we are presented with the perspectives from both sides. The enjoyment comes not from the gradual deducing of who the murderer is (we find that out very early on), but more from seeing how the plans of both sides fall into place, and subsequently fall apart. At times I did find myself wondering whether the novel would have been more absorbing if the reader wasn't aware of who the murderer was, yet it must also be said that it works very well the way it is. Abraham's plotting is both subtle and immaculate.
As with A Shadow in Summer, this novel is driven entirely by its characters. Otah and Maati are the familiar faces that return from the first book, and once again their relationship is at the heart of the novel. Their relationship is a complex one: they are both friends and enemies, their shared history tarnished by betrayal and unfaithfulness, yet they find they need each other more than ever as the political situation in Machi hots up.
Like the first book, the cast list is small, yet there are some new faces. Idaan in particular is an interesting figure: the khai's only daughter, she has broken free of the mould that high society has forced on her, only to find that the alternative existence she has fought so hard for isn't everything she expected. She's similar to Liat in the previous novel, in that her steely exterior hides a more fragile centre, yet she possesses a cold, unflinching streak that Liat never had. Abraham develops her character superbly over the course of the novel, and rightfully she plays a crucial role in the unfolding events. Cehmai the poet is another convincing figure, and like Otah in the first book he is forced into a situation where he has to choose between his heart's desire and the city's future.
One slight disappointment is the absence of Seedless, the star of the show in the first book. The andat had no reason to appear in this novel, but sadly he is missed. Stone-Made-Soft, the andat that does feature - while giving rise to one or two interesting moments - is bland in comparison. Yet such is Abraham's skill at manipulating his characters' relationships and placing individuals in difficult situations, this absence doesn't undermine the book.
Worldbuilding is once again kept to a minimum; Abraham only gives the reader what information is required to lend context to the story, and that's very welcome. As before his excellent prose is vibrant and atmospheric. Like A Shadow in Summer, this novel is quite short (286 pages in this edition) and the events unfold at a steady pace that builds to a satisfying - if slightly predictable - conclusion.
Verdict: A Betrayal in Winter is an enjoyable continuation of the story that started with A Shadow in Summer. The underlying premise may be a little too similar to its predecessor at times, but this hardly matters as Abraham delivers the same excellent characterisation and subtle plotting that made the first book such a joy to read. Once again we have a tale of passion and friendship, lust and betrayal - the consequences of which will affect an entire city, and perhaps even a continent. A Betrayal in Winter is an intelligent and entertaining read, though I hope that in An Autumn War Abraham takes the story in a different direction.