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Fantasy’s Finest: An Appreciation of Daniel Abraham’s The Long Price Quartet

This essay was originally published by Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog in January, 2019. Sadly the publication closed down, so I'm preserving my favourite pieces, and bringing them to a new audience through these reprints.

In the mid-1990s, you’d be forgiven for assuming the future of epic fantasy would be drawn out to infinity. The most popular series were quite literally endless: Terry Brooks’ Shannara (still going strong), Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time (final word count: 4.4 million), and Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth (just released: book 20). George R.R. Martin had yet to become a household name, but was already two books into his magnum opus A Song of Ice and Fire, and, well, you know what happened there. It was a great time to be a teenager with more time than money—I could share books between friends, assured each volume would take forever to read and reread, and that there would be ample time to speculate about what was to come in the next volume—because there was always a next volume.

As an adult, tackling those endless series is a little trickier. Life often gets in the way. Memories fade. And so does time for rereading between books

Even back then, standalones and trilogies were there for the reading, but these days, it is the voluminous epics that seem to have fallen out of favor. Brandon Sanderson will be working away at his colossal Stormlight Archive for the next decade or so, but most of those other multi-volume, multi-million-word fantasies have reached their conclusions. Instead, completed trilogies (or, occasionally, quartets) pepper the shelves: N.K. Jemisin’s tremendous Broken Earth saga; Tad Williams’ beautiful, eerie Shadowmarch; Elizabeth Bear’s The Eternal Sky. Paradoxically, though the recent epic fantasy boom can in many ways be traced to the success of A Game of Thrones, I’d argue that this slimming down—this resurgence of shorter, more easily digested series—has had as much to do with the genre’s new (and ongoing) Golden Age.

Among the very best of these recent completed series is Daniel Abraham’s The Long Price Quartet, which includes A Shadow in Summer, A Betrayal in Winter, An Autumn War, and The Price of Spring. Though initially something of a slow-starter (while critically acclaimed, the books had a hard time reaching readers, such that the final volume was never released as a standalone paperback), they have become something of a cult classic—passed around among those in the know, a true fantasy reader’s fantasy. Tor Books's four volume omnibus offers an effortless way for a wider swath of readers to discover a story that truly deserves their attention.

To celebrate this repackaging, and to look back on a modern classic in the making, I recently caught up with Daniel Abraham—these days better known as one-half of the James S.A. Corey pseudonym behind The Expanse novels and television series—to chat about crafting the series, how his relationship with it has changed over the years, and what fans can expect on the horizon.

The Long Price Quartet by Daniel Abraham

Set in a fantasy world reminiscent of south east Asia, The Long Price Quartet, published at a book-a-year cadence between 2006 and 2009, eschews many of the stereotypical worldbuilding elements long expected of epic fantasy in the wake of decades’ worth of Tolkien riffs. The early volumes are both tense and meandering, philosophical and cutting, with much of the conflict coming not via battle sequences by through wit and debate, with words honed like knives. As the series continues, tensions escalate, and as war breaks out, the series truly earns its “epic” stripes. Abraham doesn’t lift a great deal from Tolkien for The Long Price, but he does apply one of The Lord of the Rings' most important lessons: he makes the reader care about the world as much as the characters. The way Abraham builds toward the war by investing the reader in both the characters, whose lives are revisited from generation to generation, and the world itself, is deft and remarkable. For Abraham, that comes in showing, across four books spanning decades, the evolution of his setting—its geopolitics, religion, culture, etc.—and examining how those changes affect his characters.

“The Long Price is a four-book fantasy series with huge time jumps between [installments] that follows the changes in a few main characters and the world they live in,” Abraham says. “The idea for it was a collision between a short story I wrote in 1998 at Clarion West, and thinking about how much the world changes in the course of a single lifetime. My grandmother was born into a world without telephones, and died in one with cellphones. That’s more epic than most of the fantasies I’ve read, and it’s happening all around us all the time.”

Abraham is something of a protege of George R.R. Martin—both hail from New Mexico, home to a robust group of SFF authors—and that influence can be found in the way Abraham draws both from our real world history and familiar genre tropes, blending them into an intoxicating melange of intrigue, beautifully drawn characters, moral compromises, and ethical labyrinths.

Like many epic fantasies, the Long Price Quartet is built on a foundation of solid worldbuilding that reflects the cultures, societies, and histories of Earth, but through a lens particular to Abraham’s vision, themes, and plot. A million and one epic books cast their worlds in the mold of medieval western Europe, perhaps with a dash of exoticism in the form of far distant lands peopled by strange cultures. The Long Price Quartet opens from a different angle, drawing from the history of western Asia, and continues throughout to consider epic fantasy from a different perspective. The series’ de facto European nation fills the role of exotic outsider, and the flipped script—with the Euro-centric nation acting as invader and conquerer—along with the multigenerational timespan covered over the course of the four volumes, allows Abraham to explore colonialism, its the long-term effects, and a shifting polyculture in a way that few other series have captured.

And then there’s the beautiful magic system, unlike any I’ve experienced since: magic-users in the Long Price Quartet are called poets, and their singular power allows them to manifest living, physical beings called andat from abstract thoughts of ideas. But the poets themselves wield only this ability; it is the andat themselves who are imbued with nearly godlike powers, affecting the weft and wend of the world—its religions, politics, cultural shifts, economies, etc.—by their very being.

Jared Shurin at the now (sadly) defunct Pornokitsch blog describes the nuance and wonderful complexity of the andat: “The andat are omnipotent and vicious, Mephistophelian figures with a lust for both freedom and destruction. But the power they offer is too good to refuse. The city of Saraykeht, for example, has one andat captive—Removing-The-Part-That-Continues, known colloquially as ‘Seedless.’ Every day, Seedless helps the city with the painstaking labor that is removing the seeds from cotton. As a result, their trade thrives, the center of the textile trade. Seedless is also Saraykeht’s ultimate defense. Who would attack a city when they have the power to render an entire nation infertile at will? The price for this power is constant vigilance. Seedless is bound to his Poet, Heshai, and the two dance in an endless routine of hate and devotion. They’re tied together by bonds that the rest of the world cannot understand, but can only support. Poets live lives of celebrity and unease. They’re the most valuable men in the land, but they’re under constant pressure from their struggling andat.”

And therein lies the series’ most intricate question: at what price comes power? Every facet of the series springs from this question.

In his writing as James S.A. Corey—a name he shares with writing partner Ty Franck—Abraham helped shape The Expanse. the aforementioned mega-popular space opera saga that became a beloved TV series. The series turns SF tropes on their heads, and has reached a mass audience of readers seeking science fiction reminiscent of the Golden Age science fiction work of writers like Heinlein and Clarke, but with more modern sensibilities and worldbuilding.

Readers who favor fantasy are likely to be more familiar with The Dagger and the Coin, a five-volume epic fantasy series that, in this critic’s humble opinion, is one of the best completed series of the past decade. It’s a subversive work that lays bare the underpinnings and tropes that have actively supported epic fantasy since the 1980s, and attempts to deconstruct the genre, and build it back up into something new using familiar pieces. It’s gorgeous, smart, funny, and exhilarating.

The Long Price Quartet is very different from both The Expanse and The Dagger and the Coin, however. It was, Abraham admits, an attempt to doing something that he’d never seen before in epic fantasy. “Structurally, I made some risky choices,” he said. “My joke is that the Long Price Quartet was reaching for something as new and unfamiliar as I could, and The Dagger and the Coin was reaching for doing something familiar as well as I could.”

Still, he adds, “The Long Price has its own voice, but I also think it has some of the things that have come up in my stuff since: a hesitation to pass judgment.”

As a long-time fan of Abraham’s work, one of the elements I appreciate most is the delicacy and empathy he pours into his work. If a hesitation to pass judgement as a recurring theme, it is most obviously and effectively demonstrated in the ways he blurs moral and ethical lines as the series progresses.

Grimdark has become fantasy’s de-facto “mature” sub-genre, but Abraham’s work, The Long Price included, is mature in many ways that transcend graphic sex and rampant violence. In this way, it’s easy to pick up his books and be reminded of writers like N.K. Jemisin (for her bold, uncompromising worldbuilding) or Ann Leckie (for her careful, layered approach to narrative).

There’s something undoubtedly mature about the writing itself, even as he’s playing with tropes and ideas that many readers, myself included, first encountered as children. He accomplishes this without the use of explicit bloodshed, and sans the heavy fog of nihilism that clouds many grimdark works. Though the narrative is occasionally horrific, you’re never smacked over the head with horror. His novels are political, but the politics are glimpsed only through the lens of the people directly affected by them. Just like grimdark’s finest anti-heroes, his characters are grey and nuanced. There are no “bad guys” and “good guys,” or, if there are, they change places throughout the narrative, or become intractably tangled.

A Shadow in Summer cover artwork by Stephan Martinière

“One of the things I like about The Long Price books is that, by and large, I don’t feel like I took sides,” he says. “People sometimes do terrible things—the kinds of things that they carry with them for the rest of their lives—and then go on to have lives. They have the opportunity to change and shift and be complicated. Years ago, I was at a convention, and I heard an author whose work I deeply admire talking about his process. He said he always wanted his villains not just defeated, but humiliated and destroyed. It was kind of revelatory moment for me, because I realized I wanted mine understood and forgiven. I think that’s harder.”

The Long Price concluded in 2009, but, due to a low print-run and the hardback-only release for the concluding volume, for years it was difficult to attain in a physical format—and therefore nearly impossible for new readers to discover while browsing a bookstore, though fans began to evangelize for the series online almost immediately. In the wake of the success of The Dagger and the Coin and particularly The Expanse, it was rereleased several years ago as a two-volume omnibus, but those editions came and went without much notice. This latest omnibus release marks Tor Books’ most ambitious plan to connect readers with an unjustly overlooked series that plays even better today than it did a decade ago. And, per Abraham, it may be the perfect way to experience the series.

“I’d always kind of hoped the books would all come out in a single volume some day,” he said. “[They] were all meant to work as both a complete story in themselves, and also as parts of a larger narrative. When you put the books all together that way, I think brings that larger structure more clearly into focus. I hope that sense of the epic [within] a single, full life comes through.”

Returning to The Long Price, and its long history, was a treat for Abraham. “I’m not someone with an eidetic memory,” he says, “even for the things I’ve written. There were scenes, sometimes even subplots, that I’d forgotten over the years. One of the bits of advice I got as a new writer was to try to make the sort of book you’d want to read, and I actually got that experience: I wrote something that’s actually just exactly what I enjoyed reading.”

Like all of Abraham’s work—from the mega-accessible The Expanse to trope subversion of The Dagger and the Coin, The Long Price Quartet’s chief characteristic is that it is enjoyable to read. It’s beyond easy to lose yourself in its pages, and even the sometimes heady themes it explores become compulsive, thoughtful; you’ll quickly find yourself drifting toward contemplation as you consider the myriad lenses through which we’re allowed to view his story.

As much as I love The Expanse, it’s Abraham’s fantasy that truly captures my imagination and influences my own writing. So, naturally, I asked him about the possibility of writing more epic fantasy in the future.

“I followed up the intentional novelty of the Long Price books with The Dagger and the Coin,” he says. “That series was really my deep dive into epic fantasy as a genre—its strengths, its limits, what the genre is about. For me, anyway. Once I was done with them, I wasn’t sure I had anything else to say in that space.”

And yet—

“It took a few years to find something that really interested me,” he adds, “but now I think I have. It’s not ready for an announcement yet, but there’s definitely something stewing.”

Needless to say, with a new shiny edition of The Long Price Quartet on store shelves—and, hopefully the shelves of many new readers—and future projects in the pipeline, this is a great time to dive into Abraham’s back catalog, where you’ll discover some of the best modern fantasy has to offer.

The Long Price Quartet by Daniel Abraham is available now from Tor Books.

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