Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Book review: A Shadow in Summer

A Shadow in Summer

By Daniel Abraham

(Orbit omnibus edition, 21 January 2010)

There are a number of aspects that can help one fantasy novel stand out. Excellent prose. Deft, inventive worldbuilding. Believable characters that possess genuine human qualities the reader can relate to. A new take on a classic theme that lends freshness to the story. Fluid, realistic dialogue.

Most novels achieve a couple of the above, others maybe more.

A Shadow in Summer possesses all five. The fact that it is American author Daniel Abraham's debut novel makes this feat all the more impressive. Yet what pleased me the most is that Abraham deliberately set out to write something different:

"I wanted to do something to reset people's expectations. I wasn't trying for a traditional epic fantasy, and I thought that would be one way to alert readers that this one might be a little different."

"A little different" being something of an understatement. There are no dark lords, epic battles, magic swords or commoners discovering they have royal blood. In fact, many of the obvious trappings of the fantasy genre are conspicuous by their absence.

And A Shadow in Summer is all the better for it. Don't misunderstand me; there's nothing at all wrong with any of the above elements. It's just nice to read a fantasy book that doesn't immediately feel like two-dozen other ones you've already read. What we have instead is a character-driven story that delves into both the light and dark sides of the human psyche.

The city of Saraykeht is the greatest of the cities of the Khaiem: one of the world's great trading hubs, whose ruler commands a power to rival the gods. This power is the andat Seedless - a captive spirit, formed from thought - who is controlled by the poet Heshai. Seedless is crucial to both the city's cotton trade, and to protecting it from the threat of external enemies.

Yet a plan is in motion that could destroy Saraykeht's influence, and leave it at the mercy of foreign powers. A plan that will cause the collapse of old friendships, betrayals of trust and abuses of power. A plan that will send shockwaves around the world.

And all that is required is the death of one child...

Despite the large-scale repercussions of the secretive machinations in A Shadow in Summer, the cast - unlike many epic fantasies - remains reassuringly small, and each and every character is fleshed out and developed very well. Liat possesses an outward confidence that hides a fragile sense of self-belief, Maati struggles to balance his desires and loyalties, while Otah discovers that you cannot raise barriers against the past. Heshai the poet convincingly flits between wry humour and bleak depression, while Amat and Marchat - two old friends - struggle to understand the changes in their lives as they find themselves on opposing sides in a confrontation that is both political and ideological. The relationships that Abraham builds between these various figures, and the way those relationships grow (or collapse) is utterly convincing, and often touching.

The star of the show, however, is the andat Seedless. Quite simply, he's a wonderful creation, and steals pretty much every scene he appears in. Secretive one moment and painfully honest the next, he's utterly unpredictable - and this is what makes him such an absorbing character. This unpredictability, coupled with a sly wit, means that he oozes menace. Yet the flaws in his binding - the fault of Heshai - are largely to blame for his mindset, so he's far from a simple black-hearted villain. Like everyone else, he has his motivations and reasons to explain them.

Abraham has developed a colourful, vibrant world for his story to unfold in. The land of the Summer Cities possesses a distinct Eastern flavour that provides a refreshing break from the Western European-esque setting of so many fantasies. There's little exposition, as the story doesn't really call for it. Instead, Abraham prefers to breathe life into his world through little touches and flourishes. The use of poses is a good example (characters adopt various physical poses when conversing, almost like a second language). This feature - so easily implemented - adds texture to the world and society.

Another element that makes A Shadow in Summer stand out from other epic fantasies is the speed at which the story unfolds. The plot develops well and at a steady pace, with no unnecessary fluff: the book itself is only 304 pages long. Abraham's prose is also worthy of praise, as it's sharp and precise, yet very evocative:

"To his left, dawn was breaking, rose and gold and pale blue of robin's egg. To his right, the land was still dark. And before him, snow-covered mountains - dark stone showing the bones of the land. He smelled something - a perfume or a musk that made him think of women. He couldn't say if the vision was dream or memory or something of both, but a powerful sorrow flowed through him that lingered after the images had gone." 

Perhaps the most striking aspect of A Shadow in Summer is the lack of large-scale set-pieces (as mentioned earlier, there are no battles or epic confrontations). In fact, there's very little physical violence at all - and I found this rather refreshing. This is a novel that - despite the large-scale consequences of the conspiracy at its heart - is very much about the emotions of a select few people, and their respective struggles to maintain their identities and relationships as they try to resolve their own problems. I'll draw a parallel with George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire here, another epic fantasy series that is inherently driven almost entirely by its characters (Martin himself acknowledges Abraham's very "human tale" in his cover quote). And, based solely on this evidence, I don't think mentioning Abraham in the same sentence as Martin flatters him at all.

Verdict: A Shadow in Summer is the sort of novel that we need to see more of if the fantasy genre is truly going to thrive. It's fresh and intelligent, beautifully written and introduces some wonderfully believable characters. In essence, it's a convincing demonstration that you don't need to fall back on the same old familiar tropes in order to write a good fantasy novel. Abraham may not get the exposure that many other more prominent authors in the genre receive, but he certainly blows many of them out of the water in terms of ability. I'll definitely be reading the rest of The Long Price quartet - of which all four books have been released, and recommend that if you're hungering for something a little different, you give A Shadow in Summer a try. 

7 comments:

Jamie Gibbs said...

Wow, that sounds like the kind of book for me. I've been a fan of the traditional sword and sorcery fantasy for a while, but I've been getting more and more into books that are character driven and that don't rely on the tried and tested fantasy clichés. A shadow in Summer is going on my to read list :D

Blodeuedd said...

Hm, wishlist add..perhaps (even if I do love love cliché fantasy, but ok I will need a non-cliché one too, lol)

eoinpurcellsblog.com said...

This is an amazing book, poorly served I think by the omnibus edition! But that's just me.

Abraham is very talented and for those missing set pieces, the later books deliver those in decent number!

All told I agree with your assessment, nice and subtle this first one!

I couldn't lay my hands on a single volume edition for the last of the quartet so bought the omnibus which included the final two, cannot wait to read!
Eoin

gav (nextread.co.uk) said...

I have got to try this again - last time I'm sure it was as dry as gravel....

Jebus said...

I absolutely adore this series, the third novel contains a scene that literally made me go "oh f*ck, how could anyone write sucha thing?!?". I think, in all, there are maybe 3 or "battles" int he entire series and it doesn't suffer at all.

I was talking to Parris last week about DA and his brilliant novels and she had nothing but the utmost praise for the man and his work.

This guys is one to watch.

Dan Smyth said...

Glad to see that you liked this one, James. I can't recommend Abraham enough after reading this series. Really looking forward to his The Dragon's Path coming next year sometime.

Seak (Bryce L.) said...

I just finished An Autumn War yesterday and this series just gets better and better.

@Gav - You're not completely wrong there, it's definitely a bit dry, but I still recommend it. The pacing makes for quite the effect in the end.