A Shadow in Summer by Daniel Abraham
(Book One of the Long Price Quartet)
Published by TOR Books, March 2006
Review by Mark Yon / Hobbit
A debut novel that carries a blurb from George RR Martin on its front cover takes a lot of living up to. (“….a thoroughly engrossing debut novel from a major new fantasist.”) Not only that, but a book which clearly denotes that the next book (in a quartet) will be soon available (on its second page), shows an impressive degree of confidence on the part of the publisher (and perhaps the author.) Now an Award nominee (see Nebula nominations, not to mention World Fantasy Award and others) it may be time to evaluate this book. Does it merit such confidence?
Abraham is a fairly new writer, though not wholly new to the business. He co-wrote a novella in 2004, Shadow Twin, with the before-mentioned George RR Martin and Gardner Dozois (soon to be expanded into a novel.) He has had a number of short stories published since 1996, including Gardner Dozois’s Year’s Best Science Fiction anthology. But this is his first novel.
It has to be said that not all writers can make that transition from short story writer to novelist successfully. It can therefore be a jump, particularly when the writer is fairly new to the business. Clearly though Abraham has spent his time honing his craft on smaller stuff to produce a book pleasingly mature in its style, vocabulary and characterisation.
The start is jolting. Reading as some sort of hard-knocks martial arts training school, we are introduced to one of the main characters of the book being beaten with a stick around the head: Otah Machi, a trainee being mentored for some higher purpose.
The central premise is set. Otah is the sixth son of the Khai Machi, being trained in a school for priest-poets (the andat), for a land where those priest-poets keep gods captive and in subservience: a very dangerous procedure, and one worryingly where the number of successful candidates are in decline.
This is quite an interesting declaration, and perhaps the most original in the book. Otah is one of the few picked for the higher training, but being uncomfortable with the strict regimes necessary for such schooling, runs away to Saraykeht, one of the Summer cities, where much of the book’s activity takes place.
Here in Saraykeht we also meet Amat Kyaan, chief overseer and PA for one of the big economic trading Houses in the city. The Galtic House Wilsin is ruled in this area by the regional director Marshat Wilsin. Such a position of power is clearly not easy. Marshat is under pressure to create problems for the Kahn’s chief poet, Heshai, and Henshai’s god-captive, Seedless, and it is this that leads to many of the upheavals in the book. There is also Liat, Amat’s inexperienced apprentice, whose presence in the book is the catalyst for many of the key events of the book.
The political system of the book is, as is often the case in such scenarios, strictly hierarchical and feudal. This spills over into society where conversations usually involve posturing poses of dominance and submission. In such a stratified society the lands are ruled by the Kahn Machi, whose position is precarious. This allows Abraham to create tension and intrigue through the book.
This is enhanced further by the characterisation, which is also arresting. Love affairs are rationally developed and curtailed in the progress of this book. Lives are put at risk and careers are impressively rerouted. Dialogue is both emotional and reasonable, something very difficult for fledgling authors to achieve.
What impressed me most though was the world building which is tautly impressive. The oriental-style political and social structures are given with little explanation, though there is a little info-dumping in places. Most impressively for me though was the sense of place. Though rarely lengthy, in parts the book’s vocabulary reads like a travelogue, which centres the actions of the characters realistically. This reads as a real world, with all of its strengths and weaknesses.
Religion, politics, economics, fantasy. An intriguing mix, if not a radically new one. For similar examples, (but in my opinion not as good), see also Lian Hearn’s Otori series, Trudi Canavan’s High Lord series. What Abraham manages to do is throw in a few neat ideas of his own and give the usual themes a little tweak. After an initial rather dry and uninspiring prologue, we’re off into an entertaining mix of captivating events which, like most good books, engage the reader so that, for me, by page 50 the book became a page turner, and by the end of the book totally won me over.
Award winner? Perhaps not. But to get noticed so early into his career must mean that this author has a stellar career in front of him. One of Locus Magazine’s Recommended Reads of 2006, I can only agree.
Mark Yon / Hobbit, March 2007.