I think I’ve figured out why Daniel Abraham is not a very popular fantasy writer. It’s because his books are not part of the usual formula. Eschewing the usual medieval Europe setting that most fantasy embraces he turns instead to a definite Asian influence. Not only that but there are none of the tropes of fantasy that have trotted around until they became cliché. There is no young farmer/scullery boy/peasant who learns he is the true king/magician/powerful Jedi. Nobody discovers an unlearned magical prowess. There are no quests or knights or heroes or wizards or mystical creatures of any kind. There are not even any true bad guys. That’s not to say that there are no bad people. The people in these stories are flawed human beings, but not too flawed. They are likable and respectable but with weaknesses. There is an antagonist but even he is fully realized and complex. Most importantly, all the main characters are justified in their actions. It is possible to see both sides while still rooting for the success of one.
The previous two books in the series, while standing well on their own, build up to a culmination in this third book that tears the world apart, rending beauty and life and shattering relationships and peace.
The cities of the Khaiem maintain poets, men who use the power of words to bind thoughts in human form, giving them power to control certain aspects of the world. This power in words appeals to me – and probably to most people who love to read. For example Stone-Made-Soft has the power to soften stone so that it can be molded like clay or mined like soft earth. Removing-The-Part-That-Continues – called Seedless for short – can strip the seeds from harvested cotton – or anything else – with a single thought. The rest of the world fear these poets and their bound andat, for even though they were created to increase trade and artistry their power can be (but hasn’t recently) used to destroy. Seedless can also miscarry the child from the womb of every mother in a rival nation, Stone-Made-Soft can sink their cities into the ground and melt their towers on top of their heads.
General Balasar Gice is intent on removing that threat from his country, keeping the world safe from the poets and the andat. In order to do that he must kill every poet and burn all their libraries.
Thus begins a war, in all its brutality, for the survival of a nation versus the survival of a world. If the poets are allowed to continue binding andat then someday they will use the andat as weapons and bring destruction to the entire world. If they do not keep binding andat the cities of the Khaiem will have no protection (they have no armies or fortifications) from the other nations of the world and no way to uphold their economy – which is based on the abilities of the andat.
Daniel Abraham’s particular skill is in his understanding of character and their motivations and strengths and, most importantly, their weaknesses. When his people are under attack Otah does not become a brilliant general or a master swordsman. He becomes a desperate leader and politician. This story – as well as the two previous volumes – is told from the perspective of the people involved and the way that it affects them. We see greatness and weakness tied together in the same people so tightly that we understand and know them.
I have said before that Daniel Abraham writes the best prose that I have ever read and I’ll say that again. I read his books half as quickly as I do other ones because the words resonate with such power that they invite savoring the flavor of them on the tongue and in the mind. I eat this meal slowly, tasting each bite as it goes down.
He is also a master storyteller. An Autumn War, while being an intense and powerful story of war and the effects it has on the people involved also had the time to show some of those people struggling to find their place in a changing world, fighting for survival, whatever the cost. It is also about power and who should wield it and who can wield it.
This is the most riveting book I’ve read so far this year and the most powerful one of the series. If you don’t want to read the first two books you could probably pick this one up with little trouble. If you do the read the others, though, you are in for a ride of sheer brilliance that is guaranteed to leave you breathless at the pain and beauty you will find.