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For some reason, fantasy and Sci-Fi epics tend to be written as trilogies. However, Daniel Abraham has chosen to do something different and make his "The Long Price" series into a quartet. "The Long Price, Book One: Shadow and Betrayal" is an omnibus volume of the first two parts of this quartet: "A Shadow in Summer" and "A Betrayal in Winter".
The world we are introduced to is largely controlled by The Cities of the Khaiem; city states ruled by a controlling family headed by the Khai. The reason for their power is that each has an andat; a magical being created and bound by thought and word, each controlled by the poet who has bound them. These andat are feared by many of the other countries of the world and have prevented the Cities of the Khaiem from being attacked, as their enemies fear the retribution that could follow, such is their power.
In the first part of the quartet, "A Shadow in Summer", the Galts have seen a way to unsettle the city of Saraykhet, by disposing of the poet Heshai. They and the andat, Seedless, have found Heshai's weak point and plan to take advantage of it. However, plans are interrupted by an unlikely group; an elderly overseer along with a trainee poet who has recently come to study under Heshai, a labourer who is keen to keep much of his past a secret, and the woman who is to become the lover of both men.
The second part "A Betrayal in Winter" is set some years later, in the Northern city of Machi. The Khai of Machi is very ill and nearing death which, in Khaiem tradition, means his sons will kill each other until the last survivor becomes the next Khai. Some of the other families aren't happy with this and, with support once more from the Galts, one family is determined that it is their turn. There also happens to be a convenient scapegoat, unless a couple of familiar characters can unearth the truth.
With so much potential intrigue and fratricide, you might be expecting an exciting and fast-paced read, but that isn't the case. The society is quite formal, with a well-defined hierarchy and formal forms of address that remind me a little of old Japanese society. This gives the writing quite a formal tone, so it doesn't flow as well as you might expect. There are some unexpected moments of writing so good it is almost poetry, but mostly it seems to pass sluggishly and it's difficult to get caught up in the story.
This isn't helped by some of the other aspects of the society. The money they use is described only in "lengths" of copper or silver and there is a system of communication that resolves around formal poses. There is little explanation of either of these systems, which makes things seem a little over complicated and with very little you can relate back to familiar situations, this also keeps the reader slightly distanced from the story.
For me, the major issue is that much of the story is taken up with political, as well as actual, posturing. The whole story seems to be building to a massive climax that never materialises. Admittedly, the second part was better than the first and as this is a quartet, it may be that the climax is somewhere in the future, but this is a book that promises much, but takes a long time to deliver very little. It reminds me of a written version of the most recent "Star Wars" trilogy, which took too much time with the politics and too little time on the fighting.
It's not that this is a poorly written book by any means, despite the formal tone and the slow pacing. The central ideas are sound and the idea of powers constrained by thought and poetry is an intriguing one, if perhaps left a little unexplored. It's just that it this book has more potential than actual excitement and it's tough to get enthused by something that hasn't happened, especially when it keeps you waiting for so long for it.
I may change my mind once the rest of the quartet has been published, assuming it explores things further and brings more matters to a conclusion, but I expected more from an author who has worked with and comes recommended by George R. R. Martin. Given his enthusiasm, this may be an acceptable read for fans of Martin, but given that it's quite difficult to find and the cheapest price is £5.89 from the Amazon Marketplace, I wouldn't recommend this, as "The Long Price" is a long read, but ultimately unrewarding.
This is a slightly amended version of a review previously published under my name at www.thebookbag.co.uk
The powerful city-state of Saraykeht is a bastion of peace and culture, a major centre of commerce and trade. Its economy depends on the power of the captive spirit, Seedless, an andat bound to the poet-sorcerer Heshai for life. Enter the Galts, a juggernaut of an empire committed to laying waste to all lands with their ferocious army. Saraykeht, though, has always been too strong for the Galts to attack, but now they see an opportunity. If they can dispose of Heshai, Seedless's bonded poet-sorcerer, Seedless will perish and the entire city will fall. With secret forces inside the city, the Galts prepare to enact their terrible plan. In the middle is Otah, a simple labourer with a complex past. Recruited to act as a bodyguard for his girlfriend's boss at a secret meeting, he inadvertently learns of the Galtish plot. Otah finds himself as the sole hope of Saraykeht: either he stops the Galts, or the whole city and everyone in it perishes forever.