This is actually a double book - the first two volumes of 'The Long Price' quartet, namely 'The Shadow of Summer' and 'A Betrayal in Winter'. The remaining two volumes, 'An Autumn War' and 'The Price of Spring', are combined into a second double book, 'Seasons of War'. The central conceit of the first book (and the only magic so far) is that after long training, poets are able to write a poem of such power that it can embody (literally) an idea. The idea then takes anthropomorphic form (called an andat), but bound to the will of the poet. The cities of the Khaiem then use these 'andat' beings to enhance trade and to deter invasions and avoid war.
In the first book, one of the powerful trading nations attempts to pervert this power in a way that would kill the poet and thereby release his andat, thus leaving the region undefended against invasion. The method used is quite complicated, and ultimately fails, and it seems to me that it would be far, far simpler just to kill the poet directly. He seems to move freely around the city, regularly getting drunk, so it would hardly be difficult, and far less risky than a public ceremony where there are bound to be recriminations. Since there seem to be very few poets with an andat (only one per city), it would surely not be too difficult to arrange a mass killing of poets, and release all the andat beings at once. And why, when the power of the Khaiem rests almost entirely on these few poets, are they free to do as they please, unrestrained and unprotected (quite apart from the unwisdom of letting the andat loose to brew his plots).
Logic flaws aside, the book is well written and absorbing. It is set in an eastern-esque world with a Japanese or perhaps ancient Chinese feel, with robes and teahouses and an intriguing use of 'poses' with the hands to add layers of meaning to spoken communication. The city of Saraykehm is nicely drawn, civilised and more or less orderly, a hub of trade and politics, and perfectly believable. I liked the idea of kilns and food carts on every street corner, the public bathhouses where much of the private discussions go on, and the beggars who sing for their charity, a nice echo of the elegant slave songs which are the backdrop for the Khai's courts.
The andat is actually the most interesting character, with his perfect form and his deeply flawed personality and his determination to defeat his creator and return to a state of 'unbeing', all a creation of the poet Heshai's own mind. The other characters behave with strange logic. Liat, who appears to be capable of loving two men at once without understanding the consequences (she thinks they will all be friends!), is quite unbelievable. Amat, who has such a horrible time held captive (essentially) in the brothel, yet chooses to buy it later purely to fund herself, is not particularly believable either.
By the end, I was finding it increasingly hard to suspend disbelief long enough to follow the story. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the book, and I hope that the second volume is a little more soundly based.
The second book of the series, 'The Betrayal of Winter', is a much more racy read than the first, moving along at a cracking pace. It focuses on the means of inheritance of the Khaiem (the three eldest sons compete for the right to inherit by killing their rivals, and all other sons are sent away to attempt to become poets, or be branded and live normal lives), and the action takes place in the northern city of Machi.
The central conspiracy which drives the plot is just as hare-brained as the one in the first book, but somehow the consequences of it are much more natural and therefore believable. The two main characters from the first book, Maati the poet and Otah/Itani the labourer, now a courier, are drawn into the political affairs of Otah's family in Machi, somewhat reluctantly. In both cases they resist being personally involved, but their past history and their own desire to do the right thing and protect the innocent drags them deeper in.
There are two significant new characters - Cehmai the poet at Machi, a young man who has successfully taken over the local andat from his predecessor, which underscores Maati's own failure in that respect, and Idaan, a daughter of the Khai, who resents her own unimportance in state affairs, since she is a woman. And there is a third character - the andat itself, Stone-Made-Soft, a very different personality from the acid intelligence of the previous book's Seedless, but just as resentful and resistant. The interplay between doing the things we are expected (or even forced) to do and what we truly want to do is one of the themes of the book.
So too is the idea of family, Otah's (and Idaan's) family which rejected him as an unwanted younger son and sees no value in her, and the family which Maati tried to have with his (and Otah's) lover Liat and failed. Then there is the fratricide which is essential by tradition to ensure a strong succession for the ruling family.
Much as in the first book, the plot is driven as much by people's mistakes and misunderstandings as by logical thought and decisive action. Sometimes they drift into situations, half awake, and sometimes they do the wrong thing or do the right thing badly, and sometimes they have to take huge risks because it is absolutely the right thing to do. But this time, the characters behave more believably, and the better pacing makes this a fine book. It speeds along at a cracking rate, quickly becoming an addictive page turner, and leads in very nicely to the next book in the series. [First written in February 2011]