I am reading the Long Price Quartet, by Daniel Abraham, touted by David Hartwell and Lou Anders. Hartwell says that Abraham is one of the important new writers, and Anders that the quartet is one of the most important high fantasy series.
At MythCon 39, I learned that Alexei Kondratiev had read the first of the books, A Shadow in Summer. He said that it was a good book, but that he did not put it in the top ranks of fantasy. Having finished it and begun A Betrayal in Winter, I find that I agree with him.
Understand, first, that these are not simply books that fail to be bad. These are good books. I would not have gone instantly from the first last night to the second, nearly a hundred pages in now, if they were merely adequate. What I have read thus far is full of complex characters, most of whom are sympathetic, complex issues, with no easy answers, and plotting that combines the unexpected and the inevitable.
The prologue to the first book hooked me. It opens at what is essentially a school for wizards, although it is not called that, and it functions like no such school I had yet encountered. It is a school for the surplus sons of the ruling class of the Khaiem. Most of these sons will be branded, literally, as failures, their only compensation being immunity from the fratricidal struggles of their brothers. The rare exception will become a poet, responsible for binding an andat, an abstract concept, into solid form. The poets and their andat keep the country safe from invasion, and keep the carnage of the ruling class to an acceptable minimum.
To become a poet, a student must first have the strength to defy the rules of the school. Passing this test elevates the boy to be an instructor at the school, and responsible for helping perpetuate its cruel traditions. Breaking with these traditions is the second test. One who does this has proved himself not merely strong enough, but also compassionate enough to become a poet.
As one might expect from this description, the book opens with a boy who passes both of these tests. But, when offered the chance to become a poet, he leaves the school in disgust. I had not expected this.
The traditions of high fantasy exist for a reason, and it is often perilous to break with them. However, when one does it well, the results are spectacular. The prologue to A Shadow in Summer does it well. Further twists are also well handled.
The book has excellent world building, and a good exploration of complex moral issues, and gender issues. Its scope is epic. It and, thus far, the second book, are a good, thoughtful read.
However, these books lack something to put them into my top ranked fantasy. What they lack, for me, at least, is a sense of wonder.
To put it another way, there is too much of Poughkeepsie, and not enough of Elfland for me here. This is not going to be a problem for everyone. But, for me, these books lack the magic of Le Guin's original three Earthsea novels, almost certainly one of Abraham's inspirations.
I am trying to figure out if what I am saying is that I like books with a simpler moral framework. Certainly, the fact that, at the end of the first book, there are no real heroes is an issue for me.
Again, this is not a problem per se. One sign of a good author is that the characters that author creates are not all good or all evil. And, in the real world, how often is anything truly unambiguous?
But, I think it is not so much that I want less ambiguity as that I want more wonder. When I think of Mary Gentle's Golden Witchbreed, I remember the sense of wonder I felt when reading it. The characters were not simply good or simply evil. They were complex, and that did not detract from the wonder I felt at the world she had created.
I'm citing the Gentle novel rather than a more traditional work of high fantasy because it is relatively close to what Abraham is doing in the Long Price Quartet. Comparing it to the Mythopoeic finalists, I have read all of the adult finalists and all but one of the children's finalists, and every single one of these nine works, whatever its flaws, gave me far more of a sense of wonder than the Abraham novels.
I don't know that Abraham is trying to write high fantasy. He may simply be trying to tell a good story. In this, he is certainly succeeding. And, it is possible that the quartet will gain in strength and wonder as it progresses. But, right now, for me, this series, while good, has been overhyped.