Tags: Daniel Abraham
The Long Price Quartet is ostensibly a series of four books about a land where men use secret incantations to bind ideas to their will. Called poets, they can imprison an idea into the form of a man, a man bound to their mind. But the idea made manifest, called an “andat”, hates this imprisonment and will escape back into abstraction if the poet who bound it ever lets his guard down. As magical systems go, this is a pretty interesting one. I feel there’s an really exciting story to be told about Mage-Platonists wielding ideas like ordinary people wield knives or screwdrivers: using and discarding as necessary, constrained only by their imagination and their expressive power. But it turns out that’s not the story Abraham wanted to tell.
You can get a glimpse of where he wants to go based on the limitations built into the system. Constraining an idea is extremely difficult, the work of a lifetime. There are very few andat at once, about one per city in a loose collection of city-states. Abraham’s andat are not there to provide action scenes, they are there to help him tell a story about power: its use and misuse, the ethics of wielding it, and, perhaps most of all, how the power to shape society tantalizes but ultimately eludes those who seek it.
Probably the most similar author I’ve read is Guy Gavriel Kay. Like Abraham, he is concerned with societies and cultures and the changes they experience over the passage of time. Kay’s best work, Lions of Al-Rassan, was rooted in an extremely thinly disguised Spain and had virtually no magic at all. Abraham’s setting draws from history in a much more typically diffuse manner, but like Kay’s books his main characters sometimes seem like they’d be more at home in our world than in the one they grew up in. But unlike Kay, Abraham paints his picture across a vast canvas. Each book in the Quartet is short by the standards of fantasy novels, but taken together they span perhaps forty years of chronological time. By The Price of Spring, the final book, the reader has followed some characters from youth to old age. The characters of these books are the highlight, carefully drawn and nuanced, and more than worth the price of admission.
In the end, perhaps the only complaint I have is that the andat, so important to the politics of the books, feel rather underused. The only one given the same amount of attention as the human characters, Seedless, is so fascinating and fun that it was disappointing the rest stay more or less in the background. And more broadly, when thinking about the political and cultural tensions of the books, while the andat are inseparable from them and thus crucial to the overall plot, I couldn’t help feeling the andat were a little superfluous. Oh, the conditions as described require them, but the results mirror countless troubled societies in our own world, so people are more than capable of having these conflicts without the presence of the andat.
But these are minor quibbles to a very strong series of books. Anyone interested in more culturally-oriented fantasy can’t go wrong here, and I’m looking forward to seeing more from the author.