A Shadow In Summer
Tor, 2007 (mmpb)
I’ll confess that A Shadow In Summer is a book I started once before and just couldn’t get into. While the series has been well received by readers it has largely remained below the radar despite its solid reviews. While I certainly had my own difficulties in getting through the book, particularly the first hundred pages or so, in the end I found it quite a satisfying read and I plan on continuing on with A Betrayal In Winter within the next few weeks.
In a fading Empire the only thing keeping the regional rulers from each others throats, and foreign enemies at bay, are the andat; ideas bound to flesh by order of men called poets. In the port city of Saraykeht the andat known as Seedless increases cotton cultivation by removing seeds from picked cotton while waging a quiet war against his self-loathing and tortured poet Heshai. Arriving amidst this war is Heshai’s new apprentice Maati who must attempt to draw his master out in order to learn while also trying to save him from himself. Elsewhere in the city Amat, bookkeeper for a foreign trade house, stumbles upon a deadly secret and must take refuge in a brothel in order to avoid her pursuers. Amat’s sudden exile unwillingly draws her apprentice Liat and Liat’s lover Itani into the same scheme she uncovers.
If it wasn’t obvious A Shadow In Summer is not necessarily an easy book to describe; especially without veering too far into spoiler territory. My initial problem when first reading the novel was that the novel’s prologue bears no obvious relationship to the main plot of the novel and, that the characters introduced there do not appear again once the main plot gets rolling; at least initially anyway. This is really what set me off the novel to start with and why I put it down on my first attempted read-through. Having finally completed the novel I think that while the prologue manages to plant some seeds for the plot it is entirely more important in that it sets up several key themes that the novel examines later; particularly as they relate to the relationship between the poet Heshai and the andat Seedless.
Having read recent fantasy novels by Brandon Sanderson, where the magic system is polished to a mirror sheen, and novels where the fantastic elements were upfront and obvious I found adjusting to Daniel Abraham’s near minimalistic approach to magic a bit difficult to adjust. Abraham focuses more on making his characters seem real than in explaining precisely how poets bind andat; that they do exist and that they affect the world around them is entirely more important than how they come into being. It is an occaisonally frustrating approach, especially when Abraham starts dropping hints as to how the binding occurs and how the relationship between andat and poet works. The hints are subtle without being obtuse and unfold as part of the drama that occurs between the characters. It is an effect that works quite well in enhancing the drama but definitely leaves the reader wanting more.
Abraham is sure to hint at the potentially dangerous repercussions of the actions his characters take but keeps the focus centered squarely on those same characters and letting the reader glimpse on the barest shadow of something larger looming in the distance. This lends the novel a curiously intimate feel that is, in my opinion, rare in a lot of fantasy novels; particularly in multi-book series. The character based narrative unfolds at a deliberate pace and, while it draws you forward, never really reaches the same heights of excitement as other fantasy novels. So if you’re looking for thrilling sword fights, battle sequences, or daring feats of arcane might you should check your expectations at the door. However, once you settle into the pace you are drawn into the lives of the characters and can marvel at the various levels of complexity and meaning Abraham weaves into the narrative. It is truly impressive writing and, while I admit to longing for at least one action set-piece, find myself hungry to see what happens next both to the characters and to the world at large.
A Shadow In Summer is a decidedly different type of fantasy that might not appeal to every fantasy fan. It’s opening doesn’t draw you in with big effects or high action but the novel itself rewards patience and dedication thanks to deep, intricate plot, and well-defined characters. It is a particularly impressive showing for a debut novel and it a shame that the series as a whole has somehow managed to avoid the spotlight. It is a novel that I don’t think is for everyone but I think fans who favor drama over action will find a lot to like here. I’m definitely looking forward to see where A Betrayal In Winter and the rest of the series goes.