Tor Books hardcover - copyright 2006
Cover art by Stephan Martiniere
Book reviewed March 2006
Rating: 9/10 (Very Highly Recommended)
Review by Aaron Hughes
The first of four projected volumes of The Long Price Quartet, A Shadow in Summer is set in a preindustrial world, one that owes more to the history of the Far East than medieval Europe. The world is dominated by the city-states of the Summer Cities, collectively called the Khaiem. Each city in the Khaiem is ruled by its own Khai; however, in what may be a bit of authorial wish fulfillment, the Khaiem are so prosperous not because of their rulers, but their poets.
The poets of this world have learned how to describe and personify aspects of nature so completely that they come to life, in the form of humanoid "andats." The andats are bound to their poets' wills, yet they assume their own personalities and, crucially, have volition independent of their creators. This is both an intriguing premise and a brilliant metaphor for the challenge authors face in attempting to create complete and believable fictional characters.
If the poets are skillful, a given andat may be controlled for a few generations, but eventually it is lost and can never be recaptured. Thus, over the centuries, poets have had to become increasingly creative in the forces they harness, to maintain the prosperity of the Khaiem. In the city of Saraykeht, where most of the action of A Shadow in Summer occurs, the resident poet Heshai has bound the andat Removing-The-Part-That-Continues, better known as Seedless. Seedless can remove the seeds from cotton, which gives Saraykeht a commanding advantage in trade. He can also remove seeds from human beings, i.e., perform abortions, which creates a side business called the "sad trade," much to the poet Heshai's distaste. It is also a great deterrent to any possible aggression against Saraykeht, since any attacker would be subject to reprisals of a biblical nature.
Like George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, the fantasy elements of A Shadow in Summer are understated. We only see magic performed on a small number of occasions in the book, and it is an undramatic form of magic at that. This enhances the verisimilitude of the universe Abraham has created. The world of the Khaiem is strange and unique but also solid and real. Abraham is wonderfully inventive in creating aspects of this world that make it seem simultaneously foreign and believable. Some of these variations from our reality are minor but interesting details, for example how people tuck things into their sleeves instead of using pockets. Others play a key role in the story, for instance the intricate body and hand gestures that are an integral part of the language of the Khaiem - one side character is a foreigner who does not know how to form these poses, and her inability to communicate drives a key thread of the plot. The realistic tone of A Shadow in Summer should appeal to non-genre readers, yet anyone who comes to fantasy to experience worlds different from our own will also be delighted with it.
Just as importantly, Abraham peoples his unique setting with believable, complex characters. One of the central characters is Maati, a young poet who has just been apprenticed to Saraykeht's resident poet Heshai. Maati soon discovers that Heshai is a flawed, weak person. In creating Seedless, Heshai has imparted aspects of his own personality into the andat, in particular his self-loathing. Seedless detests Heshai, although he seems to take a sincere liking for Maati. Maati does not know that Seedless is scheming with agents of Galt, a rival to Saraykeht, to destroy Heshai - albeit through an absurdly overcomplicated scheme when a simple assassination by one of Galt's agents would have sufficed, my only complaint with the story. Seedless' duplicity makes him seem like the villain of the story, but since he is in essence a slave trying to free himself, perhaps his actions are justifiable.
Several other characters are in the employ of Marchat Wilsin, Galt's primary representative in Saraykeht. This includes Amat, a tough-skinned 58-year-old woman who rose from the streets to become Marchat's most trusted advisor, Amat's smart but flighty assistant Liat, and Liat's lover Itani. (All these characters have last names, but they are rarely used, since in this land people are addressed formally not by their last names, but with the honorifics "-kya" or "-cha" added to their first names.) Itani is a particularly interesting character, apparently devoid of ambition, even though he knows his position as a manual laborer taints him in Liat's eyes - sometimes literally, when he is called on to transport dyes.
The two sets of main characters, those surrounding the poet Heshai and those in House Wilsin, intertwine after Maati and Itani meet by happenstance and become close friends. A Shadow in Summer focuses on the interactions between these characters, with the greater conflicts between the Khaiem, Galt, and other neighboring countries only a backdrop. However, it is clear that the outcome of the characters' personal quandaries will by the end of the series determine the fate of nations.
I will not say too much about how the story plays out, to leave you the pleasure of watching it unfold. Suffice it to say that the main characters will experience love, joy, heartbreak, and betrayal, and each face terrible decisions. These characters are varied and sympathetic, and drawn so effectively that the reader shares their happiness and pain, as well as their anguish at the moral dilemmas Abraham places before them. These dilemmas are heavily steeped in ambiguity and irony, for instance confronting well-meaning characters with having to run a savage brothel or perhaps even commit murder to further ethical causes. As the first volume of a series, A Shadow in Summer leaves much yet to be decided, but the ending gives enough resolution to satisfy.
Daniel Abraham's prose is confident and thought provoking. His occasional tendency to overstatement (a faint smile is "the smallest of all possible smiles," a character in distress "feels her heart die a little") is more than offset by his insightful descriptions, for instance this short passage in which a defeated character returns home:
I strongly recommend A Shadow in Summer. Indeed, I challenge any of you to go into a bookstore, read the prologue of A Shadow in Summer, then put the book down and walk away. I do not believe you can do it - the prologue, which depicts the harsh training that prospective poets must endure, is too absorbing. I predict you will immediately purchase the book, and become one of what is soon to be a very large number of Daniel Abraham fans.He walked back to the compound slowly. Not because of the dread, though gods knew he wasn't looking forward, but instead because his failure seemed to have washed his eyes. The sounds and scents of the city were fresh, unfamiliar. The city was the same, but he was a new man seeing it.
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|Copyright © 2006 Aaron Hughes|