Book review: A Shadow in Summer, by Daniel Abraham
It’s not often that a debut novel blows me away, but A Shadow in Summer did just that. I came across this book a few months ago on Fantasy Faction, where it was getting great word-of-mouth, and was surprised I had not heard of Abraham before; unlike contemporary debuts by Scott Lynch, Joe Abercrombie, etc, this one had totally slipped under my radar.
The novel is set in Saraykeht, an Oriental-like city in an apparently pre-industrial fantasy world. It’s hard to say who is the protagonist, since the book follows several characters involved on different sides of a complex political intrigue*, but my favourite is Amat Kyaan, the elderly chief accountant of a foreign merchant. Amat is what is generally described as “a tough old bird”; she refuses to take life lying down, despite the pain and fragility of her years, and is, to my mind, the most sympathetic and well-rounded character in the book.
What really sets this world apart is not just the Japanese-inspired culture, but the magic used by the poets of Saraykeht. Not wizards, mind; the poets themselves have no magic apart from the gift of being able to capture an abstract concept in words and thus transform it into a sentient being, an andat. These beautiful, djinn-like beings are enslaved to their poet-masters, and have the power to perform any magic that can be encompassed by the concept they embody. Thus the andat in this book, Seedless, is used to instantly remove the seeds from the cotton harvest, thus giving Saraykeht’s textile-workers a huge advantage over other nations who must card their cotton by hand. However this is not the only possible use of his abilities – anything that involves the removal of seed (in its widest biological meaning) can be done with ease by the andat – and the story revolves around a plot to abuse that power.
This brings me around to my one criticism of the book, which is that sometimes Abraham is too subtle for his own good. The intrigue hinges around an event which is described so obliquely, with litte explanation either before or after, that the reader is left scratching her head for several chapters, trying to work out what the heck just happened. I did come to some conclusions eventually, but my enjoyment of the book would have been greatly improved by just a little hand-holding from the author.
A Shadow in Summer is beautifully written, complex and subtle, and some may find the languorous pace of the narrative boring, but my experience was one of being drawn slowly but inexorably into a fascinating world that has all the elegance of a tea ceremony with the undercurrent of menace of an ukiyo-e woodcut. This is a seductive novel that I think will bear re-reading; if it’s helter-skelter action you want, look elsewhere!
* I was not surprised to discover that he has occasionally collaborated with George R R Martin; whilst their books are very dissimilar in many respects, their politically complex, morally grey fantasy worlds have a lot in common.