Genre Fantasy Publisher Tor Year Published 2007 Review Posted on 9/1/2008 Reviewer Rating
9 out of 10
A Shadow in Summer, by Daniel Abraham
Reviewed by Stephen Case
If you've read this book, why not
I know you're not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but the art by Stephan Martiniere that graces the cover of Daniel Abraham's first novel is so compelling I really couldn't help myself. Besides, I'm kind of a sucker for epics, and this looked like the first volume of a promising one by a new author. When the blurb on the back compared his writing style to Gene Wolfe, I was hooked.
A Shadow in Summer is a book about a city. Saraykeht is a vibrant merchant capital, free from growing military threats on its horizon because of the monopoly it holds on the cotton trade. This monopoly is maintained by magic, the single fantasy element of the novel, which otherwise reads much like a straightforward political drama. In Abraham's world, sorcerers known as poets create beings of poetry given form and life called andats. The poet of the city of Saraykeht controls the andat Seedless, who works like a magic cotton gin, removing the cottonseeds from warehouses of raw cotton that merchants bring to the city. Unfortunately, Seedless is trying to destroy his master to gain his freedom. Agents from the enemy city of Galt are trying to use this to their advantage, while the introduced cast of heroes from Saraykeht try to stop them.
There are a lot of good things to say about this novel. The majority of the plot is moved along by conversations between characters, and it quickly becomes clear that Abraham has the talent of creating believable dialogue, no small feat. He augmented this by giving his characters another level of communication: the people of Saraykeht speak using gestures as well, a detail that lends interest and subtlety to their conversations and depth to their culture. This is creative, and made me wish I could formally give undertones of sarcasm to my speech by the way I held my hands. There were other nice little details as well. For example, I enjoyed the creative yet logical ways they had of telling time.
Unfortunately though, creative touches don't make a novel an interesting read. That takes bigger doses of creativity, and while A Shadow in Summer seems like it would have made a compelling novelette or novella, it didn't have enough to carry through as a compelling full-length work. There were two distinct climaxes to the book, and though Abraham set the ground compellingly for the first, once that peaked before the book was halfway done, there wasn't much to hold my interest. The book did not revolve around ideas; it revolved around characters and their relationships, and frankly these couldn't hold my attention.
My main complaint, and reason my interest flagged, was that both the characters and setting seemed flat. The main character of the novel was certainly the city of Saraykeht itself, and though the majority of the action took place there, it never really developed a life of its own like Mieville's New Crobuzon or Wolfe's Nessus. It is described as being rich, alive, and opulent, but besides walking through a few palaces and whorehouses, this is never painted before us. The same complaint could be made about characters: there is a love triangle that is rather wearing and another character has an unexplained personality change halfway through the book. The most compelling character is the andat, and he's not human.
In all fairness, these are complaints that may fade as Abraham's quartet continues. However, I don't know if I'll be reading them. I'm not interested enough to find out what becomes of the characters, and though the city of Saraykeht is drastically transformed by the novel's end, it hasn't become a real enough place for me to care.