Wednesday, May 14, 2014
A Shadow in Summer - Daniel Abraham
The city of Saraykeht thrives on the cotton trade. As with the Khaiem, their wealth and security is based on the possession of an Andat, a concept given shape and volition through language, a bound magical spirit, forced to do the bidding of the poet that holds his leash. The Andat are always struggling to regain their freedom and Saraykeht's Andat is no different. When the young poet Maati arrives in Saraykeht to train with the Andat's master Heshai, he quickly gets ensnared in a plot to destabilize the city. To make matters even more complicated, he recognizes a former fellow student in one of the city's labourers. He has assumed a new identity but Maati knows him as Otah Machi, son of the ruler of one of the other Khaiem cities. Should his identity become known, his life would be in danger.
This novel has just about everything you could want in a fantasy novel: magic, good worldbuilding, conflict and strong characters. It has an innovative concept of magic for instance. Personally I think this one could make Brandon Sanderson jealous. The Andat are essentially a concept given physical form. The one we get to meet in this novel is quite a scary creature. Very manipulative. He's also very powerful. Should he manage to escape, the same language that bound him will not work again, and another way to describe the same concept will have to be found. This means that the poets are finding it increasingly difficult to find new ways to bind Andat. Letting one go, would be a disaster of epic proportions. The price a poet pays for hanging on to it, however, is extremely high. Especially in the case of the Saraykeht Andat, who according to his poet has a serious design flaw.
The idea of the Andat puts a lot of tension in this story. The benefits of creating one are obvious. The city's prosperity and safety depend on it. On the other hand it is profoundly unethical to capture one against its wishes. It is a practice that, even if new ways to describe the same concepts can be found, is not sustainable in the long run. We'll follow the struggles of Maati and Otah with this contradiction throughout their lives in these four books.
So we have a personal struggle and the city's internal problems, but Abraham doesn't stop there. He creates an external threat as well. The Galt, a militaristic people with a much younger culture than the Khaiem, on the brink of becoming an industrialized society, are always looking to expand. The Andat are like a nuke targeted at them however, but should the Khaiem lose them, they will be overwhelmed. It adds another player to the complex politics of the city. Abraham deftly weaves all these interests into a conspiracy with the Andat at the center.
The magic Abraham describes in the book also has a major influence on the Khaiem culture. Structure is important in their language and correct grammar essential to expressing themselves. The Khaiem have developed a complex system of gestures and poses to communicate beyond the verbal. Body language is essential to a meaningful conversation. Imagine how much harder it would be to lie to someone attuned to watching your body language as well as paying attention to the spoken word. It does make the dialogue in the novel a bit different from what the reader will be used to. Abraham has to describe the meaning of the poses and it does mean he tells us a lot that maybe he could have shown. Personally it didn't bother me, I think it adds to the richness of the woldbuilding in this novel, but I do know of readers who didn't like it or had a hard time imagining what it might look like.
Another aspect of these novels I very much liked was the way the two characters who will be with us for all four books age. In this novel they are young and hotblooded. Their passions, desires and guilt run close to the surface and make them take rash action at times. In the next novel, A Betrayal in Winter , they'll have aged ten years and matured a lot in the mean time. To balance this youthful exuberance, Abraham has added a few more mature characters to this novel. One of them is an older woman working for one of the Galt trading houses. She is probably the most divisive character in the entire book. She is a very skillful bookkeeper and a woman driven to succeed. Admirable qualities, but when her employer does something she doesn't agree with she is not afraid to take over a brothel and use that income to seek justice. It's an odd thing to see those two combined in that character, I'm not sure Abraham managed to really make me believe her motivations for acting the way she does.
A Shadow in Summer is a very promising start to a good fantasy series. It got a lot of good reviews over the years but apparently the sales were nothing to write home about. Tor didn't bother with a mass market paperback edition of the final book. That is a shame really. The Long Price Quartet is a refreshing piece of writing. Concise by the standards of the genre, but without sacrificing the details that make the world believable. In his new fantasy series The Coin and the Dagger, he has shifted his approach somewhat to a more conventional approach to fantasy. I enjoy those books but I like these ones better. Hopefully Abraham will move on to something a little more daring once he is done with that series. In the mean time, you could do worse than giving this series a try. It is well worth your time.
Title: A Shadow in Summer
Author: Daniel Abraham
First published: 2006