Thursday, November 15, 2012

Review of "A Shadow in Summer" by Daniel Abraham

It’s 2012 and the fantasy market is showing every sign of saturation.  Riding on the coattails of the success of The Lord of the Rings films, George R.R.Martin’s post-Tolkien visions of medieval fantasy, Harry Potter, and the Twilight saga, the number of unheard of authors writing about wizards, urban vampires, dragons, spells, the paranormal, and all other manner of supernatural is unprecedented.  And, as is to be expected when examining such an output of work, the majority has either one or both feet squarely in the domain of derivative.  Imitation not a surefire guarantee of success, it’s nevertheless a good enough opportunity that writers and publishers alike are willing to take the chance.   This is what makes Daniel Abraham’s Long Price Quartet, with its feet on a fantasy island of its own, a welcome breath of air.

A Shadow in Summer is the first volume in the series.  The story of two young men, Otah and Maati, the former rejects the ways of the institution they are raised in and chooses to make his own way in the real world while the latter subjects himself to the ways of their order, as strict as they may be, for a chance at controlling an andat.  Like a genie in a bottle, an andat is a spirit conjured by a poet that is capable of performing one magical function.  Once enslaved, an andat must perform a poet’s bidding, which in the novel’s case, is to remove the yet-alive from any medium, e.g. seeds from cotton or unborn babies from women.  As mundane a talent as this seems, the setting of the novel, the city Saraykheht, prospers mightily from the andat’s efforts, the textile industry making the region rich beyond comparison and the poet and andat a prize to be protected.  The neighboring country Galt, jealous of the city’s wealth and position, seeks to intervene by killing the poet, and subsequently the andat.  Maati next in line to take power over the andat and Otah a laborer in the city’s bustling clothe warehouses, each find themselves caught up in Galt’s plot in ways they never imagined.

A Shadow in Summer is a character based story.  Along with Otah and Maati, Abraham features an elderly lady, Amat, the accountant for a Galt merchant.  Wise in her years, Amat has strong values and attempts to use her skills and position to intervene in matters so that justice might be done.  Given part of his spirit occupies the enslaved andat, the poet Heshai lives a broken, troubled existence, which he fills with wine and women in an attempt to balance the nerves.  And the andat himself, Seedless, is easily the best personified character in the novel.  Smooth and uncertain, he acts as any djinni would attempting to escape the clutches of humanity.  These and other well developed characters populate what is at times an emotionally heavy novel.

Regarding the originality of the book (and series), worldbuilding is the main element which separates A Shadow in Summer from other fantasy works.  The characters quasi-Japanese/Chinese in behavior and style, each wear robes and seek the finer things in life, tea, wine, silk, etc.  Likewise, pleasure gardens like those of Kyoto or Suzhou yesteryear play a role in Saraykeht’s politics.  The institution Otah and Maati attend likewise has a strong Asian flavor, the vivid imagery of monks and temple grounds floating through the reader’s mind’s eye.  Court life and law, however, hold to a pattern more Arab or Muslim in descent.  Ascendency to throne determined by fratricide, one can almost feel the life of Shah Jahan influencing the story. 

Though perhaps not original-original, one element of the book which stands out and requires a certain tolerance to push through to the end is the posing.  Dialogue complemented by hand gestures, Maati, Otah, Amat and the lot communicate in a combination of words supported by poses.  See the following example from the novel: 

“So many?  I see so few.”
Tahi took a pose of agreement, the cant of his wrists giving it a nuance that might have been sorrow or apology.”

If this idea seems potentially annoying, don’t read the book as the narrative is redolent with this secondary form of communication.  If it seems intriguing, then perhaps you will enjoy imagining how a person might hold their head or arms to indicate the emotions Abraham describes.  

Problems, there are some.  The story feeling planned one scene, dialogue, and outcome at a time, the result is a mixed plot that unravels naturally at times and forced at others, authorial presence occasionally overly-evident.  The latter half of the book in particular features scenes that seem arranged rather than part of the flow of events.  However, that these scenes are well written helps to ease the burden and does not detract too heavily from the enjoyment.  Another “problem” is the occasional usage of heavily clichéd plot devices for manipulative purposes.  The love triangle, for example, cannot fail to make an eye or two roll, character interaction teetering on the melodramatic.  One of the brothel owners likewise acts in an over-dramatized fashion simply to draw reader empathy for the victim.

In the end, A Shadow in Summer is a promising debut to Abraham’s first published series.  Readers can expect a story based on character interaction and emotion rather than brisk action.  That the relationships are tightly wound helps keep tension and the scenes moving quickly.  The andat is a highly original idea that grows all the warmer when its two-edged nature is revealed—magic not all rainbows and butterflies.  Abraham’s prose is practiced and solid (unusual considering this is his first novel publication) despite the occasional mainstream plot device used in the story.  

A side note regarding the series as a whole and whether to invest yourself: while it holds common ground with epic fantasy books like Brian Ruckley’s Godless World trilogy or anything by Guy Gavriel Kay (e.g. character focus, scope of events and light usage of fantasy), thematically the series ends up in territory more familiar to fans of Ursula Le Guin, Robin Hobb, or Lois McMaster Bujold’s Chalion books (e.g. personal, social, and feminist concerns).  Regarding writing style, Abraham borrows a lot from his neighbor, George R.R. Martin, with emphasis on the simple things in life, food, dialogue, emotion, etc.  Not the greatest fantasy series ever written, the Long Price quartet is nevertheless deserving of a wider readership when compared to much of the fantasy saturating the market today and worth a read if the A Shadow in Summer review above seems interesting you.  Delivered consistently, there is little slip in quality across the four books.)

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