A brief moment of explanation here. The Long Price Quartet is a fantasy series by Daniel Abraham published in four volumes in the United States: A Shadow in Summer (2006), A Betrayal in Winter (2007) and the forthcoming The Autumn War and The Price of Spring (both already completed and handed into the publisher). However, for the UK edition Orbit seems to be publishing them in two-volume editions, so Shadow and Betrayal combines the first two novels in one volume. Many thanks to Pat from Pat's Fantasy Hotlist (link in the list to the right), through whom I won a copy of this book.
The world is in a state of flux. The old Empire has fallen and the new upstart nation of Galt is flexing its muscles, making inroads on three continents. Yet the city-states of the Khaiem are not concerned. They wield the power of the andat, concepts and ideas that through the magic of those known as poets are given humanoid form and carry tremendous power, enough to give the rulers of Galt pause. To be a poet is one of the most prestigious jobs it is possible to achieve, but for every one who makes it many drop out in their training. A very promising young poet-to-be named Otah learns some unpalatable truths about his destiny and disappears during training, but leaves a vivid impression on another student, Maati. Many years later their paths cross in the fabled city of Saraykeht as they confront a dark conspiracy that could shatter the power of the Khaiem and cost one man his soul and self-respect.
Daniel Abraham's debut two novels are a tremendous breath of fresh air in the fantasy genre. Abraham hasn't gained as much attention as some other high-profile recent debuts (Abercrombie, Lynch and Rothfuss in particular), possibly as his European debut has some some time after his American, but hopefully this will be rectified. These two books are inventive, clever and possess a strong moral core. That Abraham attended writing courses led by George R.R. Martin should come as no surprise, but echoes of other fantasists (particularly the emotional resonance of Guy Gavriel Kay) can be detected as well in his work. His characters are deeply flawed and human, but also utterly convincing in motivation and deed. His fantasy landscape is well-realised, with summer-blessed Saraykeht and cold, distant Machi becoming as much characters as any of the humans (or magical andat) in the tales.
An area where Abraham wins out is his description of hierarchy. A lot of fantasy writers decide to have their heroes in a feudal society come to some pretty radical ideas (equal rights between the sexes, universal sufferage, even republicanism) very quickly, possibly out of fear that they'll be seen as endorsing feudalism or serfdom if they don't. Abraham doesn't do this. His is a world of rigid hierarchal layers with each person fitting into their allotted place, underlined by an alternate method of communication which relies on poses and hand-signals. When one character does start to question how his world does things, it is as logical development of his background and his upbringing.
Are there flaws? Some. The underlying 'threat' in both books is pretty similar and it could be argued that Betrayal is somewhat of a rewrite of Shadow but in a different season and setting. However, the emotional cost to the characters is much greater in the second volume and its ending propels the series onto a different tack altogether. Another potential problem for readers is that Abraham adopts a Columbo-like approach to the story, giving us both the protagonist and antagonists' point-of-view so that the reader is (mostly) in full knowledge of all aspects of the plot. This is an idea I haven't seen pursued in SF&F much and I found it quite intriguing, but I can see some complaining that it reduces tension. Another problem is a fault of the publisher, not the author, and that is that the sudden twelve-odd year leap forward between the two books is a bit jarring.
The Long Price: Shadow and Betrayal (****) is a superb, resonant story that catches the attention and engages both the intellect and heart. It is published by Orbit in the UK.
A Shadow in Summer is available from Tor as a mass-market paperback in the United States.
A Betrayal in Winter is available from Tor in hardcover in the United States.
Daniel Abraham is also the co-author of the recently-published Hunter's Run (with Gardner Dozois and George R.R. Martin) and has a website here.