A Shadow in Summer by Daniel Abraham
If you’ve been reading this blog for any amount of time, you know that I despise the term “literary fiction”. Not only is it semantically redundant, but it’s also used to ghettoize genre fiction. Ever notice how some genre fiction is sometimes shelved with the nondescript fiction? That’s because it has been deemed to have all the hallmarks of an “important” book—it’s serious and soul-searching. It’s like an errant feudal lord reclaiming a disowned child after he discovers it can do something interesting.
“Literary fiction” looks down on all genre fiction, but speculative fiction gets one of the harder raps. (Poor romance gets the worst rap of all.) If “literary fiction” is about the inner lives of its characters, then speculative fiction is all about swashbuckling, escapist adventure. It’s an argument where “literary fiction” is represented by A Single Man and speculative fiction is represented by Dungeons and Dragons. The best revenge against this sort of binary thinking is, of course, to read whatever you feel like reading and delight in it (the “haters to the left” strategy), but it never hurts to have an example or two of sf that examines the inner lives of its characters. (Or, as it’s more commonly known, well-written characters.) The most visible example of that right now is A Game of Thrones, which is sweeping the nation to the tune of 146 bouncing baby Khaleesis, but A Shadow in Summer might be a better one.
A Shadow in Summer’s jacket copy promises epic adventure with the soul of a city at stake, but the story is much smaller and more human than that. I know all four books in The Long Price Quartet have seasonal names, but I couldn’t help thinking that Small Gods might have been a better title. In a world where poets are men who can force concepts into god-like human forms known as andats and control them, the wealthy city-state of Saraykeht, ruled by the Khai Saraykeht, is the jewel of the Summer Cities. It only boasts one andat, Seedless, but you don’t need a standing army when you can wipe out any aggressive foreign powers—like the conquering Galts—in one generation. But through Marchat Wilsin, a Galt trader, they can still strike. In the planning, execution, and fallout of his crime, five people and one andat come together and break away.
Despite the epic set dressings—there’s nothing like a little Imperial China-inspired worldbuilding for opulence—the story itself is much more about small, human betrayals. Otah, the first character we meet, gives up a chance to be a poet to be something else. His girlfriend, Liat, is striving to make a name for herself. Her mentor, Amat, is an older businesswoman torn between her complicity in the crime and her need to right it. Maati, the head poet’s apprentice, is an earnest child. Heshai, the head poet, is an alcoholic who hates himself. And Seedless, the concept he bottled into human form, shares that hate. While all the political maneuvering will undoubtedly pay off hugely in the three books that follow A Shadow in Summer, it’s used here to test the bonds between these characters. The novel’s major speculative element, Seedless, is used as both temptation and punishment, not so much a betrayer but a betrayal made flesh. (And I just got the thematic import of Seedless being Seedless. I get so much out of writing these things, you don’t even know…)
In its best moments, A Shadow in Summer is quiet, thoughtful, and, in a way that I swear is a compliment, humid. Abraham brings Saraykeht to life in such small, deft strokes that you can feel the thick, oppressive heat of the city. My favorite moment in the novel comes when Otah, who makes his living as a dock worker, snaps at new friend Maati, who asks if he doesn’t want anything bigger in life:
“Is this really so bad, what I do?” Otah asked. “You, Liat. Everyone seems to think so. I started out as a child on the road with no family, no friends. I didn’t even dare use my real name. And I built something. I have work, and friends, and a lover. I have good food and shelter. And at night I can go and listen to poets or philosophers or singers, or I can go to bathhouses or teahouses, or out on the ocean in sailing boats. Is that so bad? Is that so little?” (133)
But specific moments this deep and quotable are few and far between. At a certain point in reading A Shadow in Summer, I realized that it was going to burn right off of me; pleasant and enjoyable, with a few spikes, but it wouldn’t stick to my ribs. I think it’s the love triangle. As I’ve been pointing out to people about representation of women and people of color lately, it’s important to have a wide range of representations available; seeing the same thing over and over again not only contributes to a single story, it also just gets boring. I have simply been exposed to too many blindsiding love triangles as of late, so watching Liat, Otah, and Maati go through it without enough establishment made me disengage. I think it’s meant to be “hey, they’re all young and pretty!”, but it just wasn’t enough to save it for me.
Bottom line: A thoughtful piece of fantasy that’s worth a shot, but it didn’t stick to my ribs the way I like my books to.
I rented this book from the public library.