I’ll admit it, I struggled with this work and what to think of it. The first two books in the quartet I really enjoyed. The second two books irritated the hell out of me.
Nevertheless, as much as I was irritated, I half suspect that that was Abraham’s intention. At the bare minimum, Abraham seems determined to leave the reader struggling with the question of right and wrong. In a way, the entire work is like a Michael J Sandel course: you’re constantly confronted by the philosophical question, “What is justice?”
It’s a remarkable fantasy work that does that, and to Abraham’s credit, he never chooses sides. In the tangled scenarios that he paints, there are no good solutions, just different ones. And which one you prefer says more about you than about the actual rightness of the decision made.
Typically, I love books that do that, and Abraham handles the theme very well. No one character is presented as being totally bad. People who do bad things do so with perfectly sound reasons. More importantly, none of them think of themselves as evil. So why was I so irritated? Well, I’ll get to that later.
First off, though, I have to say that if you are a reader of fantasy, you should get out there and get this work if you haven’t already. It’s original in many ways, not least the reason I gave above.
Abraham’s work is the first I’ve read in the fantasy genre which does not mourn the loss of magic. It actually celebrates it. That is remarkable given how many fantasy works deal in the overused trope of the grevious loss of magic fading from the world. It’s not something that strikes you when you read the book; Abraham is so matter of fact about it that you barely notice it. It helps, of course, that his system of magic is far from the one that typifies most fantasy blockbusters.
Another key feature of the work is the amount of time that passes between volumes. Each book picks up some 10 to 15 years after the events of the previous book. This is all too rare, but reflects how things would work in real life. Things happen, people react. The repercussions of the event are immediate and also ripple out far beyond the immediate moment.
This observation, of course, is at the heart of the work and the reason for its title, “The Long Price Quartet”. We see played out over the span of 80 years the results of a seemingly small decision made by a young boy in a garden. Many of the decisions—large and small—made by various characters are picked up again later as their unanticipated effects play out. All of these interweave to build the story and the characters and endows them with a heft and solidity rarely encountered in fantasy novels.
Abraham, the sneaky bastard, also does something that I’ve not notice anyone pick up on yet. Of course, it might all be in my imagination, so take this with a large ladle of salt. But did anyone else think that the book was a subtle comment on American power and the war in Iraq? After all, we also have here a nation that invades another to get rid of its weapons of mass destruction.
That the effect of the andat was to have, in the past, turned fertile country into an unlivable waste land of mutant creatures hints at this link, as does the sterility that occurs from an attempt to raise an andat. Both bring to mind the effect of nuclear weapons and radiation. Another link is the fracticide involved in choosing a new Khai which recalls the Ottoman Empire. Add to that the central importance of the Poets among the Utkahiem, which harks to the importance of poets in Persia. Altogether, these elements brought to mind (well, mine at least) the US invasion of Iraq and its current troubles with Iran.
Of course, Abraham does not write a simple one-on-one metaphor. Nothing as clumsy as that. Here the nation that is invaded is the most powerful nation in the world. However, that it has not been the aggressor does raise the very pointed question: Are you entitled to attack a country simply because you fear that it and its might might one day be used to destructive ends? Are you entitled to kill men, women, and children to ensure that this does not happen, especially if the country has not and has given no indication of being an aggresor? Is it less justifiable if that end result will only last several generations and is not permanent?
Having set out what made the work so good, I must now get to what irritated me about it. The irritation was so great that I had a very very hard time finishing the entire quartet.
And now, look away, gentle reader if you don’t like spoilers.
My irritation stemed from the fact that I feel that nothing, but nothing, can justify launching a pre-emptive attack on an innocent people. At heart, Balasar Gice is no different from Osama bin Laden (and surprise, yes, he did think he had good justifiable MORAL reasons for bringing down the Twin Towers) or George Bush (and the parallels to the US-Iraqi war just underscored that similarity for me). And yet, Balasar Gice is presented as if he is justified in what he does, that the end justified the means. That totally pissed me off.
Even worse, that Maati the well-meaning if destructively ineffective poet is demonised by the others around him… That chafed worse than cheap scratchy underwear.
I will hand it to Abraham that this irritation might have been the specific result he was looking to create. At the very least, I will credit him for deliberately avoiding any answers to the issue. But it almost stopped me from finishing the work. Only the fact that people on this site whose opinions I respect enjoyed the work so much allowed me to bash my way through.
The ending of the work was a marvel. Given the prominence given to steam engines at the end, I could not help but think of how our age of steam eventually ended with the age of nuclear power. The Galts and Utkhaiem might well find that they bottled one genie only to have unleashed something far worse.