A Shadow in Summer – Daniel Abraham’s Poet Punk fantasy

a shadow in summer

As luck would have it, I have had my eye on a book since around mid-2005, and was lucky enough to get my hands on it a couple months ago, and it’s quite topical — being just released this week — and sporting an endorsement from the ever popular George R.R. Martin.

“…an elegant style that reminded me by turns of Gene Wolfe, Jack Vance, and M. John Harrison, while still remaining very much his own….”

Definitely some daunting words to live up to, and something that will draw the consideration of anyone who appreciates quality fiction, but author blurbage is something I find — as a reader — largely inconsequential. If a writer was at times reminiscent of Wolfe, Harrison, and Vance, in a single book, I dare say I would go to church this Sunday and repent my numerous sins, as god himself has come back and apparently works for Tor. All that said, A Shadow in Summer, as it turns out, is a rather fine choice for those looking for a new series to turn to in early 2006.

Although our journey begins in a Monastic School of potential poets, the bulk of the story takes place in the port city of Saraykeht, a city of the Khaiem, the surviving city-states and remnants of an Empire generations removed from its glory. While not the military power in the region, Saraykeht, an economic jewel, and the rest of the cities of the Khaiem live with a complete absence of trepidation from any threat of the jingoistic and bellicose Galts — a luxury afforded them being the station and home of the poet Heshai-kvo. Abraham’s poets’ harness the fantastic element in the quartet, as only they, through knowledge of language and description, and monastic training of discipline are able to bring to form and bind to them an Andat. Andats are essentially avatars of the abstract, given birth by articulation. Heshai has dominion over a rather powerful Andat, both the opposite of, yet perhaps the very self-ideal image of the poet himself. He is called Removing-The-Part-That-Continues, in the North he is simply Sterile, in the Summer Cities, he is Seedless. Seedless’s power gives Saraykeht its stranglehold cutting down the harvest costs and labor making it a prosperous economic center, however it’s not Seedless’s agricultural prowess that holds rival nations in fear, with is power he is also very much capable of toppling nations at a whim. What he gives he can take, he can make an entire nation’s crop fail, he can make every livestock animal go barren — he can do the same with people — killing generations of a population. They also don’t care to be bound and given physical form, and work tirelessly, with Machiavellian purpose, at breaking their master’s hold on them, and Seedless will show how an idea — a product of words — can take a life of its own and change the lives of those Abraham chooses and potentially the fate of nations.

We don’t so much as get differing views of Abraham’s setting, as much as we are thrust into a the lives of several characters that are all about the be affected and diverted by the machinations of what is theirs but they cannot fully subjugate. We will follow a cast that is largely interconnected, Itani, who seems aptly described as a simple man in complex times; Maati the student sent to Heshai for training; Heshai himself, the poet of Saraykeht, who battles inner-demons and his Andat alike; Amat Kyaan, the seasoned overseer of the Galt house in the Summer City; Marchat Wilsin, her friend, and the head of Galt’s presence in Saraykeht who is playing a game of clandestine high stakes with someone who has nothing to lose; Liat Chokavi, Itani’s lover, the aide of Amat Kyann, Galt thrust into a game she fails to see through her own ambitions; we follow their plights and how they center around a pregnant Nippu girl, and an Andat who considers all but one of them expendable, in his quest for both absolution and an innate self-hatred that he shares with his master.

Abraham creates a very distinct introduction to a series, chiefly by employing the element and role of the Andat and poet relationship, and the seamless integration of social communication, a practice of elocution, where gestures and poses are as standard as verbal response. The idea itself is rather ambitious, and after getting accustomed to the practice in the first dozens of pages, it becomes a realized ambition, as instead of hindering the narrative, it adds, and reemphasizes — adding to the depth, and really, for myself, a bit of a wow factor, and element too truly appreciate, both in its inclusion, and in reference to its application. The Andat poet relationship fulfills, because ultimately the power is not treated as something that stands beyond the scope of man. This is a power — a technology we ourselves seek — ultimately our responsibility and creation, and as such has a long price.

As I noted in another recent review, fans of the epic styled of fantasy love debuts, thus our novel-length introduction to Daniel Abraham, A Shadow in Summer, needs not so much as find an audience, as much as prove worthy of this existing predilection, and serve as an entrée for the rest of the four-book sequence, The Long Price Quartet, the next three books entitled, Winter Cities, An Autumn War, and The Price of Spring. In this, Abraham succeeds, our travels through Khaiem is one of true discovery, bearing little semblance to any existing current series, and avoiding joining the ranks of failed, vacuous, and at times inconsiderate attempts at melding fantasy with a eastern backdrop. Abraham juggles inventive elements that don’t distract from his plot, but expands upon it and creates appreciable tension; Seedless — poetry incarnate — is rendered alien, even when born of and motivated by the most basic of human instincts. In fact, the single thread that transforms the diverse cast into a thematic ensemble is the apparent destination all are trying to reach; albeit by vastly different paths and modes of travel, they all search for what they perceive as freedom, a condition and destination I felt best represented by a chance meeting between travelers.

“I think it’s why I keep traveling even though I’m not really suited to it. Whenever I’m in one place, I remember another. So I’ll be in Udun and thinking about a black crab stew they serve in Chaburi-Tan. Or in Saraykeht, thinking of the way the rain falls in Utani. If I could take them all — all the best parts of all the cities — and bring them to a single place, I think that would be paradise.”

And also by Seedless:

“We want to return to our natural state like the rain falls”

Abraham gives us hints of the Empires of the past, when poets at times had multiple Andats at their disposal, a practice and trial, long since forbidden. We are told of a system of succession that has brother’s slaying kin, to insure their own ascension. He introduces a love-triangle, one that which is difficult to take sides with, and tells a story of people making personal decisions, whether moral, economic, in self-interest, for desire or duty on all levels, and shows not how Empires are moved or saved by such decisions, but simply how they exist — only the names and participants change. It’s simply a strong combination of zooming in and out of events, making it both have a personal and far-reaching effect, and knowing precisely when to do so. It’s at the very least, a very different reading experience from any other series out there, it takes some chances, and I think they pay off into the most gratifying parts of the novel.

Check out my interview with Daniel Abraham.