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Monday, July 21, 2008

"An Autumn War" by Daniel Abraham w/Bonus Q&A

Official Daniel Abraham Website
Order “An Autumn War
Read Fantasy Book Critic’s REVIEW of “A Betrayal In Winter
Read Fantasy Book Critic’s 2007 INTERVIEW with Daniel Abraham

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Daniel Abraham is an American author of science fiction and fantasy whose bibliography includes “A Shadow in Summer” and “A Betrayal in Winter”, the first two volumes of The Long Price Quartet, as well as numerous short fiction that has appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction, Realms of Fantasy, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Gardner Dozois’ Year’s Best Science Fiction anthology and The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror. Among his published stories, “Flat Diane” won the International Horror Guild Award for Best Short Story and was nominated for the Nebula, while “The Cambist and Lord Iron: a Fairytale of Economics”—collected in 2007’s Logorrhea, edited by John Klima—was nominated for a 2008 Hugo Award for Best Novelette. Daniel is also the coauthor of “Hunter’s Run” (Reviewed HERE) with George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois; contributed to “Inside Straight” (Reviewed HERE), the latest mosaic novel in GRRM’s Wild Cards universe; and wrote the Wild Cards comic book miniseries, “The Hard Call”. Upcoming releases include the urban fantasy novel, “Unclean Spirits” (Pocket Books) under the pseudonym MLN Hanover, and “The Price of Spring”, the final volume in The Long Price Quartet.

PLOT SUMMARY: Otah Machi, unlike most citizens of the Khaiate cities, understands the precipice on which his world is balanced. Machi and the other cities have no physical defenses or standing army. Instead, they rely on the powerful andat—created beings with magical powers that for generations have protected the cities of the Khaiem from invasion, including the Galtic Empire.

For centuries, the Galtic Empire has looked hungrily upon the riches of the Khaiem. But because of the threat of the vast powers of the andat, Galt has never dared attack. Enter Balasar Gice, general of the Galtic Army, who understands the power of the andat and is obsessed with preventing them from wreaking terrible destruction on the world, as has happened in centuries past. And now General Gice has a secret weapon that if successful would leave the Khaiem open to complete annihilation.

With the Galtic Army fast approaching, Otah Machi must rally the Khaiate cities and quickly raise an army, while the Poets who control the andat must wage their own battle to save their loved ones and their nation. Even though failure seems inevitable, success would mean the end of the Galtic threat. But when the final battle comes, both sides will be shocked by the consequences of their actions as the world they know is forever changed…

CLASSIFICATION: Even though The Long Price Quartet is marketed as epic fantasy, the series stands out for a number of reasons, including the oriental-flavored setting; the understated magic; the slim, self-contained volumes; and methodically-paced plots driven by characters, internal conflicts, and emotion. So even though war and the magical andats are a large part of the central storyline in the third Long Price novel, it is once again the characters that command the readers’ attention. For comparisons, I haven’t read another series quite like The Long Price Quartet, but it kind of reminds me of Lian Hearn’s
Tales of the Otori spiced with a little Shakespearean drama/tragedy and the intimate characterization of Jacqueline Carey or Robin Hobb. Highly recommended to fans of “A Shadow in Summer” and “A Betrayal in Winter”, and anyone who wants to read fantasy that challenges the conventions of the genre, while tugging at the heartstrings…

FORMAT/INFO: Page count is 366 pages divided over twenty-seven chapters and a Prolog, and also includes a map of The World and The Cities of the Khaiem. Narration is in the third-person via characters both familiar and new including Otah, Maati Vaupathai, Liat Chokavi, Sinja Ajutani, and Balasar Gice. Story takes place fourteen years after the end of “A Betrayal In Winter” and like the other two Long Price novels, is both self-contained and connected. So you can read “An Autumn War” on its own if you like, but I’d recommend “A Shadow in Summer” and “A Betrayal in Winter” first if you want to understand the big picture :) The Long Price Quartet concludes next year with “The Price of Spring”. July 22, 2008 marks the North American Hardcover publication of “An Autumn War” via
Tor Books. The cover artwork is another outstanding piece from Stephan Martiniere.

ANALYSIS: Aside from a cover blurb by fantasy giant
George R.R. Martin, I didn’t really know what to expect from Daniel Abraham’s debut novel when I first picked it up and was pleasantly surprised by “A Shadow in Summer’s” originality and emotionalism. The follow-up title meanwhile, “A Betrayal in Winter”, was both stronger and weaker as a book compared to its predecessor, and I had about the same experience with the novel as I did “A Shadow in Summer”. Neither book though can compare to the brilliance of “An Autumn War”…

On the surface, “An Autumn War” doesn’t seem all that different from its predecessors in The Long Price Quartet. The prose is once again restrained, yet elegant. The setting is again the oriental-influenced Khaiem, where Daniel’s unique form of etiquette—different poses based on status—is used to communicate feelings of obeisance, greeting, farewell, query, affirmation, gratitude, disagreement, respect, forgiveness, forbearance, etc. The page count, while longer than the first two Long Price novels, is still significantly shorter than a lot of epic fantasy. And the story is once again character-driven. Yet, there are differences and it is these differences that I believe elevates “An Autumn War” over its predecessors and into greatness:

First and foremost, the characters are more compelling than ever. Part of the reason is that “An Autumn War” focuses on Otah Machi, Maati Vaupathai, and Liat Chokavi, and revisits the intricate relationship—Liat was a lover to both Otah & Maati in A Shadow in Summer—that exists between the three of them which is more complex (and interesting) than ever due to Otah’s current position as Khai, his children, and his wife; Liat’s grown son Nayiit who has his own wife & child, and wants to establish a relationship with his father, Maati; and the fact that they have changed so much over the decades. Just as impressive is the character of Balasar Gice who finally gives readers the Galts’ perspective. What’s interesting about Gice is that even though he’s technically the villain of the story, he’s actually quite the noble figure and I found myself feeling sympathetic for Balasar much of the time. After all, while his plans for the Khaiem are brutal, his ultimate goal is a virtuous one.

Secondly, the scope of the novel has been considerably widened. In the first two Long Price books, the consequences of events were mainly constrained to the main characters and the cities that the novels were set in—Saraykeht and Machi. In “An Autumn War”, there’s still plenty of personal drama going on, especially surrounding Otah, Maati, and Liat, but this time it is all of the Khaiem and Galt who will suffer the consequences, and it’s not just because of the decisions that are made in this third Long Price novel, but because of events that occurred thirty years earlier.

Which brings me to my third and final point—the payoff. As noted by Daniel in the Q&A below, “A Shadow in Summer” and “A Betrayal in Winter” were largely about setup, and “An Autumn War” is when readers can start to reap the benefits. That love triangle between Otah, Maati, and Liat; the tragic events surrounding the Poet Heshai and his andat Seedless; the fratricidal succession that Otah was forced into . . . all this and much more comes into play in “An Autumn War” in a major way, including a jaw-dropping finale that will leave readers breathless and desperate for the final book in the series…

Negatively there’s not very much to complain about, but I did have a few nitpicks. For one, I thought that Sinja Ajutani’s narrative was somewhat clumsily handled, particularly his torn loyalty between Machi and the Galts which wasn’t very convincing. Two, very little of the Galtic culture is explored so the only differences that are really defined between the Galts and the Khaiem are the Galt’s military prowess, language, and the use of advanced technology like steam-driven wagons. And lastly, I was disappointed with the novel's religious aspect which I thought could have used more substance.

CONCLUSION: Despite my anticipation and all of the advance praise surrounding Daniel Abraham’s new book, “An Autumn War” somehow manages to exceed expectations and is not only the author’s best novel yet, but also one of the best fantasy releases of the year…

BONUS FEATURE — Daniel Abraham Author Q&A (Questions were answered in June):

Q: When all is said and done, 2008 is going to be a banner year for Daniel Abraham. “Hunter’s Run”, the collaboration novel with
George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois, made its US debut in January. “Inside Straight”, the latest mosaic novel in GRRM’s Wild Cards universe, also came out in January. “The Cambist and Lord Iron: a Fairytale of Economics”—found in 2007’s Logorrhea, edited by John Klima—was nominated for a 2008 Hugo Award for Best Novelette. “Wild Cards: The Hard Call”, a six-issue comic book series from Dabel Brothers which is written by you with art by Eric Battle, made its debut in April. “An Autumn War”, the third novel in The Long Price Quartet, comes out July 22, 2008. And in December, Pocket Books will release your first urban fantasy novel, “Unclean Spirits”, under the pseudonym MLN Hanover. Plus, you’ve been working on a number of other projects and you’re raising a two-year-old daughter! So how would you describe the year that you’ve been having so far and does one accomplishment stand out more than the others?

Daniel: The description I've been defaulting to recently is “structurally overbooked.” But really, most of those projects are the products of work I did a while back. The year I'm having now—at least on a day-to-day basis—is generally work that will see the light of day sometime next year or even farther beyond. So apart from the tail end of the comic book project, my year has been about the second urban fantasy book, editing and massaging the last Long Price book, pitching and talking through the third Wild Cards book (Suicide Kings), and building the next big fantasy project. The books actually coming out and being read and reacted to is great, and I'm always interested and often delighted to see what folks think of them. But it's also kind of anticlimactic, because I've already moved on to the next thing.

As far as standouts for the year thus far, sharing a Hugo ballot with Ted Chiang, Greg Egan, and David Moles is hard to top. I have a lot of respect for the Hugo as awards go, and being mentioned in the same breath with those folks is a little stunning.

Q: Focusing on “An Autumn War”, many of the advance blurbs I’ve seen proclaim the novel as your best one yet. Would you agree with that statement? If so, why in your opinion, is “An Autumn War” your best novel so far? Is it because of the writing, the story, etc.?

Daniel: I like to pretend that I was always pretty good at putting together a sentence. On a purely word-by-word basis, I think “Autumn War's” on par with the first two books. But that said, yes, I think overall it's a better book. My editor, Jim Frenkel, described it as bigger, and he wasn't talking about the length.

The series was always meant to be four independent but mutually reinforcing stories—four episodes that made something bigger when you put them all together. “An Autumn War” is where that larger story starts to turn the corner. All the setup work is done. All the promises and threats have been made. Now it's about paying them off. Keeping the promises you made to the readers is actually a profoundly satisfying thing.

Q: Even though “An Autumn War” is just being published, you’ve already completed “The Price of Spring”, the fourth and final book in The Long Price Quartet. How do you feel about the way you concluded the series, what are your thoughts on the series as a whole, and were you able to accomplish everything you set out to when you first started writing The Long Price Quartet?

Daniel: This is probably the worst time to ask me that particular question. I'm at the part of the editing process on “The Price of Spring” where I'm in the guts of the engine, tinkering and moving things around, trying to get that last percent of power out of it. Being that close to it makes it hard to say what it's going to be like to read.

Apart from that kind of writerly paranoia, though, I am fairly pleased with it. I set out to do several things with the books, and overall, I think I've said what I set out to say. There are ways that things changed along the way—there always are—but the basic structure I wanted to play with is there. And it's working for me. We'll have to see what other people think when “The Price of Spring” comes out.

Q: You’ve emphatically stated that The Long Price Quartet is a four-part story and that there wouldn’t be any additional sequels, which is something I applaud. But does that mean you’ll never return to this milieu, be it a different time period or unexplored location, even for just a short story?

Daniel: It's possible that there may be a short story or two in there somewhere, but I doubt there's another book. The action of that larger story is built around a particular idea of magic, and I don't think I can tell many more stories around that particular speculation. In the last two books especially, I've smoked this world down to the filter.

Q: Regarding “The Hard Call”, what kind of experience has that been for you, and will we see any more comic book series set in the
Wild Cards universe?

Daniel: That's been a trip. The whole
Wild Cards milieu is collaborative by nature, and the comic books especially mean that I have to be part of a team, and my word ain't law. On the other hand, seeing the images that Eric (Battle) comes up with based on the descriptions I've given him has been amazing. He consistently does things that are better than what I was picturing.

And yes, if this does well enough, there are plans for other
Wild Card graphic novels. But probably not by me for a while. We built the project on the model of Busiek's Astro City. Six issues or so, telling a complete story, and then moving on. And just like with the books, there are a lot of people with a lot of stories to tell. I think Melinda Snodgrass is slated next with a murder mystery/legal procedural that sounds really cool. And I know that some other writers in the consortium are kicking around ideas too.

Q: Staying on this subject, what do you feel are the biggest differences between writing a novel and a comic book, and what are the positives/negatives of each format? Also, could you tell us anything about the other comic book projects that you’re working on?

Daniel: The biggest single difference craft-wise is narrative voice. Comic books have a tremendous latitude for a narrator to come in and comment, set the tone, give information. You can do things—in fact you're almost required to do things—in a comic book that just plain don't work in straight prose. And turning it around, the tricks you use in prose don't work in comic format.

Let me give you an example. When you're writing a prose story, the part that really snaps—that's immediate and engrossing and fast—is dialogue. Two characters saying things to each other. It is action. In comic books, that's page after page of pictures of heads. Dull as grey primer. The power in the comic books comes from getting out of the way and letting the images carry the plot.

As to other projects, I don't have anything lined up at the moment. There are some adaptations I did for
Avatar Press that are waiting for art, but my work there is done. And there's a project I'd like to do—it's called The Golden Age of Wireless, and if I ever get anyone to sign on for it I think it'll be wildly nifty—but I'm still new enough in that industry that pitching original ideas may be optimistic on my part.

Q: When I interviewed you last year, you mentioned that you were particularly fond of your novelette, “The Cambist and Lord Iron: a Fairytale of Economics”, and lo and behold it gets nominated for a 2008 Hugo Award! What’s the novelette about, why is it special to you, and how do you feel about the Hugo nomination?

Daniel: To answer the last one first, I'm deeply happy about the nomination. It really is delightful and also oddly humbling. The story itself is a pretty traditional three-tasks structure, just like a fairly tale. I actually had just read a Marguerite Yourcenar short story just before I wrote it that was riffing on the same structure. It really is one of the old classics of structure.

Cambist is also a conversation about economics and money. I've been reading about economics for a few years now, so this was where I got to take all of the things that really excited me about the ideas I'd been reading about and synthesize them into something cool. And yes, I know, economics has a reputation for being pretty much dead dull. That's part of why I found so much of it so exciting.

I think money is the great example of human cultural magic that actually works. I've been on this rant elsewhere, but briefly, if I say “fireball” and a fireball appears, that's magic. If it takes two people yelling “fireball” to make one appear, still magic. So when we all say “this piece of paper (or circle of metal or set of electronic data) holds abstract value” and then all of a sudden it does? And a million things that would have been impossible before suddenly become possible? Yeah, that turns me on. The Cambist is about some of the implications of that all wrapped around a fairytale and men's adventure stories.

Q: That’s some interesting stuff! So I was really surprised when I heard you had written an urban fantasy novel to be published under a pseudonym. Why urban fantasy, where did the inspiration for “Unclean Spirits” come from, and what’s the book about? Can you also tell us about the Black Sun’s Daughter series that the book is a part of, how you ended up with
Pocket Books, and your pseudonym—how you chose it, what it means and so on?

Daniel: A lot of folks seem surprised, but it was a simple decision for me. The Black Sun books are a very different project from the epic fantasies. Anyone picking them up and expecting something like the Long Price is going to be disappointed no matter how good they are. It's like when you forget you ordered a Coke and think the stuff in the cup is iced tea. It can be really good Coke and still be nasty iced tea. I wanted the projects to be separate, and putting the one under a different name seemed the simplest way to do that. I've always believed that if the thing that makes a book good is the name of the author, it isn't a good book.

The reason for writing something else was also straightforward. I finished the Long Price books early, and I was looking for something to do. I was a Buffy fan from the beginning, I read the first four or five Anita Blake books back before they ruled the universe, I followed Hellblazer all through high school and college, and I have some friends who are playing in that sandbox. I felt like I had something interesting to say about the genre and the time to do it. So I took a swing. (With some encouragement from my UK publisher.)

I think the urban fantasy genre—by which I mean the books with the girl in leather pants and a tattoo at the small of her back—is interesting, often bordering of symptomatic. It's about the relationship of women to power, and it's more ambivalent than you'd expect in our allegedly post-feminist society. What I wanted to take on was the difference between empowering women and weaponizing them. And the difference between being free and not having boundaries. Plus which, they're fun, right?

The process by which they wound up at
Pocket was complex, and my agent could probably describe it better than I can. I can say Jennifer Heddle over at Pocket has been great to work with. And I really like what I've seen of the cover art.

Q: One project that you’ve been working on is a symposium to discuss what fantasy is—its strengths, weaknesses, etc. So what have you learned from this symposium so far?

Daniel: Most of what I've learned is where my own weaknesses lie. Being in the room with people who've been doing this work professionally for so much longer than I have is bound to bring up things I've never thought about.
Walter Jon Williams and Melinda Snodgrass had a lot of interesting things to say about structure. George was eloquent on the idea of landscape and the power of landscape. We took The Lord of the Rings pretty much apart and put it back together again.

We did it almost a year ago, and I still have two more reports to write—the one on fanservice and the one on scope—before I get to my summarizing thoughts.

Q: You’re also involved in an ambitious epic fantasy project where you’re working out the outline, worldbuilding, characters, plot arcs and whatnot of the series before actually sitting down and writing the first book. How is that progressing, can you give us any specific details about the series, and how much of an impact will the symposium—and what you learned from it—have on the series?

Daniel: The symposium was the first step in that project. They were always meant to go hand-in-hand. Right now I'm looking at a five-book story with no more than five viewpoint characters in any one book, and with each book running between 200- and 225,000 words. So call that five or six hundred pages once it’s in a book. About a million words total runtime, aiming for a story that's clear, emotionally present, accessible, and appropriately huge. Beyond that, I have some pretty strong suspicions of what it'll be, but nothing's set in stone yet.

I've made the map (with help from
S. M. Stirling and Maureen McHugh, if you can grok Maureen McHugh building high fantasy maps for giggles). I've written up the initial documents with the characters I have in mind (The Bank Girl, The Man in Despair, Pudgy Boy, The Monarchist, The Detective, The Apostate, The Second), the magic system (which has a lot to do with Karl Rove, oddly enough), a little bit of the world's history, the map and a little gazetteer, the rough plot of the whole damn thing, and a list of the things I think are still missing. Then in July (scheduling is a bear), I'm having about eight people over to my place to kick it around. Sadly, George is out of town for the duration, but so far Walter Jon Williams, Melinda Snodgrass, Ian Tregillis, S. M. Stirling, Carrie Vaughn, Vic Milan, and Ty Franck have signed up to help me out. Once that's done—once they've ripped apart everything I've got and we've talked about what I want to do and others way to do it—I'll take a week or two to rebuild. Then I'll write the first hundred pages or so, a detailed outline of the project, and a pitch document that makes the whole thing sound as sexy as I can manage, and then we'll try to sell it.

If it goes well, I'm expecting to crank them out about one a year until the whole thing's done. With this much of the thinking and design work already done, I expect that'll be easier than if, say, I hadn't done it up front.

Q: If you look at people like Steven Erikson, Joe Abercrombie, Brandon Sanderson, Richard K. Morgan, Jacqueline Carey, and yourself, more and more authors these days are writing fantasy that is ambiguous, gritty or blatantly defies traditional fantasy tropes. What are your thoughts on this movement, the audience’s response to such books, and fantasy tropes in general?

Daniel: I have mixed emotions. On the one hand, I'm clearly interested in poking at the walls of fantasy and trying to see what they're good for and what they aren't. But I distrust the impulse to do “gritty” in the name of realism. Dark and unpleasant is . . . well, it's easy. If you want to evoke an emotional response in the reader—and that's kind of the game we're playing—killing a puppy will do it every time. Doesn't make me a good writer. Having something that's realistic, that has comedy and tragedy both, violence but also compassion, is much harder. Some of the folks you've mentioned have pulled it off. I'm hoping to do that too.

Also feeding my ambivalence, I think there's a difference between the things that writers want from stories and what readers are looking for. Writers—myself absolutely included—have to weather the temptation to get wrapped up in explorations of the form and technical nifty things that we can do. I think a lot of modern art has the same problem. Artists get involved in their conversation with other artists about the issues that turn them on. The danger is that you have something that's technically fascinating—like a novel that revolves around a scene that's never shown to the reader and that the characters don't exactly remember—but vaguely dissatisfying as a straight read. I'm thinking of M. John Harrison'sThe Course of the Hart” there. Nifty book if you're a writer. As a reader, not so much. I'm of those folks who thinks that if you're a writer's writer, you're doing it wrong.

The tropes of genre are there for a reason. They serve functions. You can get rid of them or change them or challenge them or whatever if (and only if) you then do something else to address the jobs they were doing.

Q: If there are any other projects that you’re currently involved in or plan on starting in the near future that I haven’t covered yet, could you talk about them now :)?

Daniel: Oh, it's all vaporware at the moment. I would like to write a mystery, and I have one in mind. I would like to write a space opera, and I have one in mind. I would like to do The Golden Age of Wireless comics, but I don't have an artist or a publisher.

Q: In the past, you came up with some great author recommendations in Catherynne M. Valente, Tobias S. Buckell, Walter Jon Williams, and Ian Tregillis whose series I’m highly anticipating :) I’m hoping you’ll have some more treats for us this time, so any recommendations?

Daniel: You tried
Warren Hammond yet? If you haven't you should. He came out with a novel called KOP a couple years back that deserved a lot more attention than it got. It's a hard-boiled detective story set on another planet. The man has an eye for detail and an ear for noir that any sane author would kill for. Really, really good.

I also just got to blurb the new
Ekaterina Sedia book, “The Alchemy of Stone” (Reviewed HERE). Sedia's first book got a lot of comparisons to Gaiman, but I think that's a little unfair. She deserves to be read as a first rate Ekaterina Sedia, not as a Gaiman clone. “The Alchemy of Stone” was a surprisingly disturbing book for me. You want to talk about someone defeating tropes and expectations, she's doing it.


ThRiNiDiR said...

Nice review Robert; it's always nice to hear when the subsequent books in the series actually get better and not worse.

Robert said...

Thanks Uros! Yes, it is rare to find a series that actually improves with each book, and I'm very intrigued to see how Daniel concludes The Long Price Quartet...

Calibandar said...

Yep, I've ordered this one.

I'm also really interested in the Milweed Tryptych that Tregillis is coming out with this year, I wonder when exactly it's due?

Warren Hammond and Sedia's new book are interesting recs, I was already going to buy the latter based on your rave review.

Robert said...

Calibander, I'm pretty interested in the Tregillis series too! Daniel has been raving about that one for a while now. Not sure about a release date though. "The Alchemy of Stone" is definitely a great recommendation. I was disappointed in kop, but I plan on reading the sequel and hope that I'll have a better experience...

RedEyedGhost said...


What did you not like about KOP? I really enjoyed it, and found reminiscent of Altered Carbon (but without the dirty sex scenes like Morgan loves so much). I thought the character were very interesting world building was superb in how harrowing it felt.

Great review and interview btw. Amazon shipped my copy today, and I may have to shift my reading plan to fit this one in next.

Robert said...

Thanks RedEyedGhost! I hope you enjoy An Autumn War :)

As far as kop, I thought the noir elements were a little too formulaic, especially considering the sci-fi setting. I also thought there wasn't enough sci-fi in the book or that it could have been a lot edgier, especially compared to Richard K. Morgan, or Warren Ellis's "Crooked Little Vein" which is the book I read just before kop ;)

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