A Shadow in Summer spoke to me more than the same ones fifteen years on. That was six years ago however, and in those years I have read a great deal. My taste has developed somewhat and since I still don't have the complete set reviewed for Random Comments I decided to see how it would hold up during a reread. As it turns out, my opinion of this novel has changed a bit but all things considered I think I still prefer the first volume.
Fifteen years after the event that brought about the demise of Sarayketh, Otah's father, the Khai Machi is dying. To determine who will succeed him, by tradition his sons will have to murder each other until one is left. Since Otah never formally renounced his claim to the throne by joining the poets, he is still in the line of succession. Although he has kept his identity secret for almost two decades now, as long as he remains alive, he is a threat to his brothers. The Dai-kvo, head of the order of poets, has taken an interest in the affairs of Machi too. He sends Maati, who has thus far had a very disappointing career as a poet, to look for Otah.
Some people have described this novel as a murder mystery in a fantasy setting. I don't agree with that description. There is very little mystery about who perpetrated the murders for the reader at least. The plot is one about court intrigue and it is quite convoluted. In fact, it is probably the weaker aspect of the novel. Like in the previous book the Galts have a hand in affairs. They try to manipulate the succession to suit their own interests by essentially buying support for the house they want to see ascend the throne. The influential families of Machi then do the murdering for them in quite an ineffectual way, making all sorts of stupid mistakes along the way. This is definitely something I didn't notice on my first read.
Two other aspects of the novel are very enjoyable however. The worldbuilding for instance, is superb again. We move from the warm climate of the summer cities to the cold north. The mountainous setting, a local economy mostly based on mining and the harsh winters Machi gets to endure, all work their way into the details of the story. A Betrayal in Winter is not a large book, weighing in at just over three-hundred pages. Abraham manages the right balance between the level of detail necessary to allow the reader to immerse themselves in his creation and the necessity to keep the plot moving forward at a reasonable pace. It's a balance he took with him to his later Dagger and Coin novels.
The second aspect of the novel I really liked is the characterization. Maati and Otah return from the previous novel and they have unfinished business with each other. In the opening stages of the novel, Otah is still traveling the Cities of the Khaiem, never quite able to settle down anywhere. His true identity prevents him from doing so. In fact, I always had the feeling that while is he's not prepared to murder for it, Otah does want to rule at some level.
Maati on the other hand has been sinking back into poets' society, taking care of the unglamorous day to day business. He is considered a failure. Despite the disrespect the poets show him, he finds himself unable to let go of that life. To make matters worse, he meets a young poet Cehmai in Machi who is everything he could have been and seems to insist on making the same mistakes he made. Like Otah, Maati is stuck between his desires and what society expects of him. Both of them, if their life would not be severely shaken up in this novel, would be heading for a serious midlife crisis.
A third important character is one we haven't met before. Idaan is the daughter of the Khai, growing up in a society where women, at least in the upper class, are mere commodities, used to cement trade agreements, and sent off to the man considered the most advantageous ally. She strongly resents this. So strongly in fact that she is plotting her own way to power. The conservative Utkhaiem will not accept a female ruler, but with the right husband, both influential and suitable malleable, she might get there still. It sets in motion a chain of events from which she will not be able to extract herself. Idaan resists the patriarchal society she is part of but uses the instruments that are another flaw of Khaiem culture. Somewhat predictable perhaps, it results in a mess.
Abraham took part of his inspiration for these books from Shakespeare. In fact, Macbeth is mentioned on the inside flap of the cover. It shows in the way these characters interact. There is drama everywhere you look. The characters are passionate and flawed and headed for tragedy. It's a type of story that some readers will experience as over the top. And in a way it is just that. The author twists his plot to create all this drama and he doesn't always to it in the most believable way. Abraham does create characters with real emotional depth though. They all want something, they all strive for it and they all make mistakes that leave real scars. If you can stand a bit of drama, they are a joy to read.
A Betrayal in Winter is not quite as action-packed as the third volume, An Autumn War, nor does it contain the youthful passion of A Shadow in Summer. The main characters have matured, they are more aware of consequences of their actions, but the stakes are not so high yet that their actions influence events beyond the city they are in. Abraham is working towards the climax of his quartet in this book. It is a satisfying read in itself, but I can't shake the impression it still falls a little short of the books that flank it. It lacks the excitement of reading something new as well as the tension of playing for stakes so high that they impact the entire world. I guess I'm going to have to reread the third book sometime soon to see how that one holds up as the climax of the series.
Title: A Betrayal in Winter
Author: Daniel Abraham
First published: 2007