A Shadow in Summer
Long ago, I blocked out (but never finished writing) a story where a barely disguised me drove down to see a barely disguised friend, the two quietly broke off their relationship, and the guy meekly drove home without really defending himself or fighting for love. At the time, I scorned that character for being such a pansy. A few years and one nasty breakup later, I thought back on the story and decided that the character was worthy of admiration because he didn’t get worked up over things, accepted the inevitable, and didn’t waste his energy fighting for something so ephemeral as romance. I tell this not to wax poetic about my failed literary ambitions, but because one character in A Shadow in Summer recalled my own creation, bringing him to mind a decade or so since I last considered the guy. In some ways, these two are proxies for the book itself; younger me would probably be infuriated by a tale that declines to stride boldly forward, while an older and mellower me found a lot to like in this unconventional fantasy novel.
This interview is a good place to start. I knew nothing of Daniel Abraham until I read James S.A. Corey’s Leviathan Wakes. After that, I knew that he collaborates on blockbuster SF under inexplicable pen names and is part of the Albuquerque writers group in orbit around George R.R. Martin. (I am uncertain why New Mexico, of all places, is a fantasy hotbed. Is it perhaps the green chili cheeseburgers?) Now I know a bit more of his background and what he is trying to accomplish with The Long Price Quartet, of which A Shadow in Summer is the first volume. I was unsurprised to find out that much of what is off-kilter in the book is so by design, as Abraham is purposefully subverting fantasy tropes.
Following are some things I liked about the book. First on the list by a comfortable margin, Shadow is about economics. I realize that this makes me a particularly nefarious kind of nerd, but I really like stories that have a solid political economic base. Abraham’s book is what happens when magic meets Richard Rosecrance’s seminal The Rise of the Trading State. The city of Saraykeht is a trading state, which maintains its position and safety through economic power conferred by magic. The same magic can also protect the city, but its main purpose is to preserve Saraykeht’s competitive advantage in the cotton industry. Galt is a typical military state, maintaining its empire through conquest but dependent on Saraykeht and the other Summer Cities for goods. The core of the story is a Galtic attempt to undermine Saraykeht economically, a much more interesting tale than yet another campaign and siege. This is a forward thinking story, one that couldn’t have been written before contemporary Japan and Germany suggested an alternate path to world domination: buying everything.
Another thing I quite liked is the absence of destiny, prophecy, Chosen Youth, or any such nonsense. There are some people caught helplessly in the middle of the story, a few power players, some unexpected pressure points and pivots, but always, always agency. Each of the central characters chooses a path through the story, often constrained by the situation but never in the service of some overarching, mystical Plan. A couple of younger types come of age, some older characters confront the past, there is love both thwarted and successful. My favorite character, Otah, is mentioned above and acts as a stand in for my own creation, which in turn is a stand in for me. Not to say that Otah is meekly dumped by a woman, just that he has an oblique, idiosyncratic method to his decision making that I identify strongly with.
Finally, I enjoyed the ratio of world building to page count. While it is quite possible that the publisher split the Quartet into four solely to move more copies, Shadow recalls an older style of fantasy storytelling. It is not a long novel, so Abraham is forced to prune extraneous detail and concentrate the most important information into compact and efficient prose. We know from hints and tidbits that there are more Summer Cities, other Empires, and plenty to the world, but we are not party to anything not directly related to the story. We also see how the world works, as Abraham shows rather than tells. For example, The Cities are vaguely Asian, with some groups that resemble Shaolin or Zen in their training, and have a complex social hierarchy that is indicated in part by poses taken and gestures made during conversation. Abraham never explains these poses or describes them, merely states that characters are performing them. He can thus pack several pages of meaning into a short conversation, trusting the astute reader to infer and imagine the rest. 900 page volumes can be entertaining, but there is something to be said for brevity.
And now, in the “Not really a minus but definitely something I thought about” category, Shadow is very much fantasy in the David Brin definition of the word. (ie, looking back to a Golden Age rather than pressing forward into a Bright Future.) Magic is, of course, fading and kids these days just can’t conjure like they used to. Why is it that magic always has to be fading? Why can’t magic be constant, or possibly even getting better? What real life analog is there for magic constantly going away? (Someone might try to toss peak oil out there, or the loss of manufacturing sectors, but these are apples to oranges comparisons, not the least because “magic” is not a tangible substance made from decomposed dinosaur bones. On second thought, that’s a great premise for a novel.) There is also an obligatory scene where a character thinks back to the previous empire, where the ruler was strong and wise, the men good looking, and the children all above average. Midst all of the other trope subversion, I wonder why Abraham decided to keep this one.
A Shadow in Summer isn’t for anyone who requires Dark Lords and farmboys of royal lineage, nor fans of prancing woodlands elves and magical weapons of antiquity. It is not a thinly disguised Dungeons & Dragons campaign. Instead, Shadow is intelligent and ambiguous, without being depressing. Recommended for discerning fans of challenging fantasy who aren’t afraid to leave a few cliches behind.
Rating: Ruud Van Nistelrooy, a legendary goal poacher with a great name. He was efficient and predatory, lacking in wasteful flourish and a reliable source for goals.