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A Shadow in Summer by Daniel Abraham

This review signals the start of a minor retrospective. Thanks to Mark and Cindy Ziesing, I’ve laid in a few early titles from a couple of authors who have recently struck me as interesting. I’m going to start off with the Long Price Quartet by Daniel Abraham. After publishing several impressive short stories, A Shadow in Summer (TOR, 2006) was the first novel and it shows what have become the trademark signs of a great author. For me, the key features of Daniel Abraham’s work are his willingness not only to create credible worlds, but also to people them with rounded characters. The contrast with most published books is actually quite depressing. The majority of authors make do with cardboard stereotypes in formulaic scenarios. In this novel, we have a fantasy world still at the level of Mediaeval European city states or principalities. As usual, small economic units cannot achieve independence. They must trade or, if they have the military might, force a consolidation into larger units of production. In turn, trade becomes an active form of diplomacy. Sometimes states really only negotiate with each other out of economic necessity. When the need arrives, it’s left to those with the right skills and connections to make the deals or the conquests. In the end, it’s all about the perception of success or failure. When status is high, a state’s power and influence is acknowledged by its peers and inferiors. It’s always galling when the superior states refuse to take lesser states seriously.

The theme of the tetralogy is, as the name suggests, one of price and may be put simply: when the only coin you have to spend is cowardice, you cannot buy yourself out of Hell. For our purposes, we have to assume a culture in which rank and status potentially lock people into a fixed position in society. It can be formalised through indentured labour, or people who fear change stay in their allotted roles and make the best of their lives. Indeed, levels of submissiveness are built into the language with a complex system of gesture and poses to acknowledge rank or add layers of meaning to words used. A Shadow in Summer focuses on those who are sufficiently proactive either to change their own situation or to force a more widespread and so disruptive change on to large numbers of citizens around them. In becoming agents of change, these individuals are, of course, paying a price, but it’s one they choose to pay because of the value they believe it returns. This “profit” can be purely for them as individuals or the motive can be utilitarian, i.e. bring the greatest good to the largest number of people.

Daniel Abraham dressing down as a first-time novelist

The story starts with the young Otah Machi who learns that mixing toughness and compassion can be liberating. Except he chooses to use that freedom in becoming indentured for a short period under an assumed name, Itani. It’s part of the price he’s prepared to pay to ensure his own physical safety. Marchat Wilsin is a merchant who has traded very successfully but, when it comes to politics, takes the line of least resistance. He relies on Amat Kyaan, an experienced woman who has worked her way up through the ranks to a trusted position. In other circumstances, they would have become lovers, but rigid social etiquette gets in the way. Liat is young and naive, but has the relative good fortune to have Itani as her lover. And then there’s Maj whose role is to become a victim and later, perhaps, something different. Finally, offstage and seen only through agents, we have the militaristic Galts who plan for world domination through destabilising the smaller states and absorbing them into the emerging empire.

The magic that underpins this culture depends on a rather interesting skill. Imagine yourself a poet with the task of capturing the perfect metaphor for a work you hope or intend will be your masterpiece — the one signature poem that everyone around the world will always associate with you. That’s quite a terrifying challenge and not the kind of thing a shrinking violet should attempt. Only someone with a cast-iron ego, absolutely confident in his or her poetical abilities, should even think of attempting such a task. Now let’s come to the actual process underpinning this world’s economy. Our magicians are actually makers or shapers in that they take a concept or idea and make it incarnate, i.e. they have to describe the idea with such startling clarity that it takes on a human form called an Andat. In a way, I suppose, it’s a variation on the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea, the famous sculptor who fashions a statue out of ivory and then falls in love with “it”. When Venus feels the strength of his love, she animates the statue and the couple live happily ever after. Well, things don’t necessarily run quite so smoothly when all you have to play with are imprecise words and the shifting meanings of sentences. The incarnate can turn out with all the flaws of their creator which is, to put it mildly, a high price to pay when slave and master are so intimately bound together.

The dynamic of the novel concerns the relationship between the Andat Seedless, the poet Heshai who created him, and Maati Vaupathi who arrives as the young apprentice who may assume the control of the Andat when Heshai dies. Maati went to the same school as Otah. When they meet again some years later, they immediately trust each other and that trust may save the city when Heshai is attacked.

So here’s a slightly different question for you. If a city is wronged, what’s the right price for the wrongdoing city to pay as compensation? Indeed, can a price ever be put on justice or is revenge the only thing that satisfies? For more than a thousand years in our culture, money has been the key to avoiding blood feuds. It’s the idea that a value can be put on a life. In Anglo Saxon times, if the killer can pay the sum assessed, the family of the innocent victim must accept payment and keep the peace. If no money is forthcoming, the killer must give up his or her life. It’s like a commercial transaction, an exchange of value. Even the Bible goes in for equivalence with an eye for an eye as in a bargain. But if we come back to a city wronged, how many innocent lives might be sacrificed in the aggressor city as the compensation for the losses to the victim city? Cities have leaders and, by virtue of their roles, they might represent the city they govern. Some leaders may be guilty of various crimes, but the mass of the people they govern will be innocent of any complicity in the wrongful attack. Put another way, does the loss of one innocent life ever justify the loss of another innocent life? As a final question, does love necessarily imply trust? If the partners have secrets, does the relationship only survive if each knows the secrets of the other? Or who else should you trust with your secrets?

A Shadow in Summer is a wonderful first novel which is a somewhat unfair way of characterising a fine book. Whether it’s the first or the twenty-first is hardly relevant to judging its intrinsic merit. Except, I suppose, it becomes more impressive by being the first published. It’s as if the author is being born with fully developed skills and without having to go through the drudgery of learning his trade. Putting all this to one side, this is as good a fantasy novel as you could hope to read. It’s full of intelligent world building and interesting debate on the values we develop as individuals and societies. You should make the effort to find and read it — an omnibus of the first two in the quartet is being published under the title Shadow and Betrayal (Orb Books, 2012).

For reviews of other books by Daniel Abraham, see:
Abaddon’s Gate written under the pseudonym James S. A. Corey with Ty Franck
An Autumn War
A Betrayal in Winter
Caliban’s War written under the pseudonym James S. A. Corey with Ty Franck
The Dragon’s Path
The Incident of the Harrowmoor Dogs
The King’s Blood
Leviathan Wakes written under the pseudonym James S. A. Corey with Ty Franck
Leviathan Wept
The Price of Spring
A Shadow in Summer
The Tyrant’s Law.

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