Sunday, February 8, 2015
An Autumn War - Daniel Abraham
Fourteen years after the events in A Betrayal in Winter, Otah is still on his uncomfortably throne in Machi. His rule has not been made easier by his stubborn refusal to give into the pressure of having multiple wives and father a bunch of sons. He doesn't want the cycle of brothers killing each other for the throne to start again. While the Khaiem are mostly concerned with internal affairs, secure in the knowledge that the Andat provide the ultimate defense against invasion, the more technologically advanced Galt are stirring again. They have gotten their hands on a rogue poet, a man wit ideas on how to neutralize the Andat. Led by the general Balasar Gice, they prepare another assault on the Khaiem's unassailable position.
Our heroes Maati and Otah are now middle-aged men, with a life settled in routine. They do still have ambitions though. Otah is looking for a way to pass on the throne without bloodshed and to prevent that custom from bouncing back again after he is gone. Maati is doing research in the hopes of getting back into the good graces of the Dai-kvo, the head of his order. He thinks he has found a revolutionary way of preventing a poet from paying the ultimate price when making a mistake in binding a new Andat. It is typical for men from this culture to be so self absorbed. Since the fall of the empire, many generations ago, the Khaiem have been trying to regain what is lost. It permeates their whole culture, their customs, the way they run their cities and the way they trade. It has become a stagnant culture, with only the ambition to regain powers long gone. In a sense, the end of the Khaiem seems inevitable.
This sense of inevitability is present in other aspects of the book too. The Galts are superior in a technological and military sense. It is only the Andat holding them back. Otah is one of the few who realizes this and wants to start raising a militia. Something the other rulers of the Khaiem, conservative as they are, don't like at all. It's a sign of Otah and Maati, once best friends in A Shadow in Summer, are drifting apart even further. Their shared lover and the the son that one of them can't acknowledged and the other wishes was his are part of it as well of course but the difference between looking forward and looking back is what will cause the real conflict in the final book of the novel. The gap is already widening significantly here.
Abraham includes a major Galtic point of view character in the novel, the first in the series. Balasar Gice is a man with a military mind. He thinks that because the Khaiem posses the Andat, the balance of power tips towards the Khaiem in an unacceptable way. He firmly believes that because the Khaiem poses the Andat, it is only a matter of time before they use them against the Galt. Something of a self-fulfilling prophecy given all the plotting and showing off their military muscle they've been doing. The Andat are a nuclear bomb held by only one side. To prevent disaster they must be neutralized. What is most interesting about Gice is that were most generals and politicians would want the power of the Andat for himself, Gice works to get rid of them once and for all and is even willing to go against the orders of his political masters to do so. Abraham could have made him into a stereotypical hawk but manages to avoid this by adding a bit of personal trauma to the character.
His treatment of Gice is one of the many ways in which Abraham succeeds in creating complex characters. Not of the major players in the story are flawless. They all have their bind spots, their annoying habits and they all make mistakes. Sometimes mistakes with far-reaching consequences. They are also all people you can identify with at some level and that makes this book into a real tragedy. They can't all succeed. One of them seems likely to prevail over the others and will change the world for ever in doing so. It is in the climax of the story that the sense of inevitability finally disappears. The twist at the end of the book makes that really drove it home for me. Abraham's world is not black and white, it is not either/or.It is much more complex like that an things can go wrong in ways even the most prudent leader cannot foresee.
There is one part of the story that I did find somewhat problematic and that is how Abraham handles personal relationships in this novel. The drama that ensues when Liat, the woman both Maati and Otah loved at one point, shows up in Machi feels like a bit too much. The whole mess carries over to the younger generation and that is one aspect of the plot that does become predictable, sometimes to the point of being cliché. They are not the teenagers we met in the first book anymore but Abraham can't quite pull off a more mature kind of drama. I think more interesting things could have been done with Nayiit's story line in particular.
After this reread I still think this book is my favourite in the series. The novel combines the dynamic between Otah and Maati with a view of the world outside the Khaiem cities. The problematic nature of the Andat is also addressed and the whole story reaches a point from which there clearly is no going back. While The Price of Spring is a very good novel in its own right, it feels almost like cleaning up after the big climax of An Autumn War. I've read a whole stack of Abraham's other solo novels and collaborations but I'm not sure he has managed to surpass this novel yet. The combination of the unusual setting and culture with the deeply flawed characters make this a very good read for me.
Title: An Autumn War
Author: Daniel Abraham
First published: 2008