This is a double book - the last two volumes, 'An Autumn War' and 'The Price of Spring' of 'The Long Price' quartet. The first two volumes, namely 'The Shadow of Summer' and 'A Betrayal in Winter', are combined into a double book, 'Shadow and Betrayal'.
This series just gets better and better. In 'An Autumn War', we have moved on another fifteen years or so, and for the first time the shadowy threat of the Galts, seemingly behind every conspiracy in the previous books, moves out into the open, with an audacious plan - no less than to destroy the andat altogether, and then destroy the Khaiem and their poets before they have time to create more.
But although war is the main story, the underlying themes are far more intimate - family, sons and daughters, love and friendship, and the mistakes people make. Abraham's world is populated by people who are not heroes, who are not even very good at what they do, sometimes. They do the right thing for the wrong reasons, the wrong thing for the right reasons, and even the wrong thing for the wrong reasons, but we always understand why and sympathise with them.
The complicated relationship between Otah, Maati and Liat now comes back to haunt them in the shape of Liat's son, believed to be Maati's but now obvious to everyone as Otah's. This is a problem, since the two legitimate sons of a Khai are required to attempt to kill each other to secure the throne. But the quiet way everyone manages this potential difficulty, without Nayiit himself ever knowing, is very moving.
There is also a compelling side story in the shape of Sinja, loyal to Otah and training up soldiers to help defend the Khaiem against the Galts, who stumbles into the midst of the Galt army, not realising their full intentions, and is forced to play the role of hired mercenary and traitor to his people in order to survive.
Abraham manages to create his world superbly. Previously we have seen a great deal of the eastern-style Khaiem culture, with its teahouses, robes, elegant poses and soaring palaces, created by the power of the andat. Now for the first time we see the less impressive, but somehow more familiar, world of the Galt, with technology filling the andat-less void, and cities built on the smaller scale of human endeavour alone.
The book is even more of a page turner than the previous one was, as the Galts race to complete their plan before winter stalls them, and the Khaiem race to delay them as long as possible, so that the two remaining poets, Maati and Cehmai, have a chance to create an andat with the possibility of victory. The ending, when it comes, is both highly credible and yet searingly painful to read.
The final book, 'The Price of Spring', is a slightly slower read, perhaps, than its predecessor, but is even more powerful and moving. We see the final result of decisions made by the characters decades ago, and how these shape their lives and relationships. The focus is on the aftermath of the war, and how best to move forward. If nothing is done, both the Khaiem and the Galts will be destroyed. Otah's plan is to accept the world as it now is and unite the two nations in a bid to overcome their mutual problem. Maati's is to create an andat which will restore everything to the way it was before. The conflict between these ideas, and the consequences of them, form the core of the book, but as always it is built around the more intimate matters of love, family and friendship.
It is a joy to find a fantasy series which is tightly plotted from end to end, without a single unnecessary character or side story. The concept of the andat, ideas made manifest and brought under control, is utterly brilliant. The world itself is magnificently realised, particularly the poetically beautiful culture of the Khaiem, with their elegant robes, graceful poses and awe-inpiring cities. Abraham gives us enough detail to convey the flavour of each city - the food, the streets, the majestic palaces, the traditional etiquette and stifling formality, but we also see, if only briefly, the rougher but more dynamic society of the Galts, built on enterprise and technology.
There are many such dualities throughout the book - the relative roles and abilities of male and female, the stasis of tradition versus the constant change of initiative, duty versus love or family, authority versus instinct, selfishness or the greater good, and perhaps most of all, the acceptance of change versus the desire to go back to the past. The book raises many issues: does it matter if we are not entirely suited for the job we find ourselves doing? Is it enough simply to do the best we can? The importance of women. Should we always forgive a betrayal? Is forgiveness more important than vengence, and at what point does forgiveness become impossible? The power of words and ideas. How our own imperfections affect everything we do. And what to do about a useful tool which could also destroy the world in seconds.
These four books form a very profound work, one which rises far above the usual level of fantasy. Undoubtedly the themes it raises will be discussed in academic circles in years to come. Five stars. [First written in February 2011]