A Shadow in Summer is an ambitious debut that shows author Daniel Abraham genuinely trying to do something new in fantasy. The story is not a traditional quest or military epic. There's nothing particularly medieval-looking about the setting. None of the genre's stock heroes or villians (or creatures) puts in an appearance, nor is the use of magic remotely conventional. As in most debuts, there are issues; a lack of clarity here, some murkiness there. On the whole, though, it's quite impressive and bodes well for Abraham's future.
Abraham's story is that of a powerful city brought to the brink of ruin not by armies but by a single, vengeful act of spite. Saraykeht is a sprawling city-state that is the most powerful remnant of what used to be a vast empire. It's a hub of commerce whose economic tentpole is the cotton trade. In Abraham's world, cotton is to Saraykeht as oil is to America. As it goes, so goes the nation.
Magic is performed by sorcerer "poets" who summon and bind mystical beings called andat. This aspect of Abraham's story is a little hazy. We see how the poets are trained; it's a situation similar to how you might imagine some ancient Asian martial arts school to have been run, with strict training reinforced by harsh discipline. But Abraham doesn't make it fully clear how the poets do what they do, let alone exactly what the andat are. Are they beings summoned from somewhere, or are they aspects of the poet's own psyche made manifest? Or a bit of both? The story describes the andat as "ideas tamed and given human shape," which is a great concept. But it prompts a lot of questions, especially when the one andat who figures as a major character in the plot seems to have been given not only human shape but a fully developed adult personality complete with sarcasm, arrogance and guile. Some ambiguity can be a good thing, but this is an instance where more clarity would have been better.
Seedless is the name of the andat controlled by Saraykeht's official poet, Heshai. As his (rather, its) name implies, Seedless eliminates cotton seeds, thus increasing the production capacity and value of the city's textiles trade. But something, we aren't sure what, went wrong during the initial summoning, probably to do with Heshai's being an embittered alcoholic due to a past tragedy. The result is that Seedless despises Heshai and knows the poet's miserable secret, and has decided to conspire with an agent from the rival city-state of Galt to destroy Heshai, free himself, and leave Saraykeht's economy and standing in the world in ruins.
The plan Seedless hatches might seem unnecessarily complicated, until you understand it was chosen for the sheer level of its heartless cruelty. And it is viciously, unconscionably cruel. But its very elaborate nature is what prevents it from succeeding exactly as Seedless hopes. Still, enough damage is done that events are set inexorably in motion, at the end of which Saraykeht may never again be quite the same.
A Shadow in Summer is a difficult book to sum up in a routine synopsis, not because its plot is unduly complex or unwieldy, but because it is so gracefully constructed. This is a book that never hurries but never bogs down in extraneous details either. It reveals its secrets one by one. Reading it is like savoring a gourmet dinner where you linger over each course to enjoy the flavor as long as you can. From a story whose premise involves a plot against a whole city, the narrative focuses on the way a single act can set whole row of dominoes to toppling, and how ordinary people will hang on to whatever they can — whether love or burning vengeance — for stability in their lives when the future is suddenly no longer certain.
A Shadow in Summer is a remarkably sensitive, gentle and human tale in a genre best known for broad and sweeping dramatic flourishes, big-budget battle scenes, and grandiose mythical setpieces. Yes, I have my quibbles about some narrative details. But the book delivers the goods in the end. It's the kind of story that builds to a climax whose emotional power comes not from immensity but intimacy. It may not be for all tastes, but Shadow has a freshness and integrity that sets it apart. Daniel Abraham's fantasy career has a future as bright and promising as a summer day.