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Tuesday, May 4, 2010

A Shadow in Summer by Daniel Abraham

Title: A Shadow in Summer, book one in the Long Price Quartet
Author: Daniel Abraham
Reviewed Format: Hardcover
Release Date: March 7, 2006
Pages: 336

Saraykeht is a thriving port city in the Khaiem with an economy built around the cotton trade. It’s a world where gestures and poses convey what words cannot, where Poets shape manifestations of thoughts and ideas into living beings called andats. Andats have curiously powerful magic reflected in their names. Seedless can remove seeds from plants, such as the cotton Saraykeht relies on. He’s become indispensable to Heshai-kvo, the Poet who controls him, and Saraykeht’s local monopoly on cotton and the textile industry. Seedless can also remove a child from a mother’s womb. Aborting an unborn child is known as the “sad trade.” Unfortunately for Saraykeht, a conspiracy is well under way involving Seedless, the “sad trade”, Heshai-kvo’s apprentice, a laborer with a mysterious past, his lover, and her teacher (our myriad cast) that threatens the literal threads holding the city together.

The “prolog” for A Shadow in Summer is one of the longest prologues I’ve ever read. In fact, I think it’s the longest. After 36 pages the present story begins. At first, I worried that this was a sign of things to come. If the rest of the novel took as long getting to the point, it did not bode well that I had already purchased the remaining books in the series. Luckily, I was very wrong. Not only is the prologue important to the series (if not immediately resolved in the events of the novel), but Daniel Abraham’s prose invites a slower reading that doesn’t necessarily relate to an abundance of unnecessary narrative. I found his writing to be quite gentle. That’s not a word I’ve ever used to describe someone’s writing, but it’s true. Abraham is very respectful of his characters and their environment--his prose is considerate of their private moments, his diction concise. In other words: job very well done on his first published novel.

His characters are realistic and substantive--humanistic rather than predictable caricatures meant to fill an assigned role (was I the only one impressed with Amat?). Abraham’s characters are what gives this story its momentum. The fantasy world and magical elements aside, this is a novel about consequences that affect vividly imagined individuals with complex relationships that just so happen to live in a fantastical land that doesn’t exist. That’s impressive.

I was also surprised by Abraham ascribing the city’s power to a Poet and his “ideas tamed and given human shape” (p. 25). This is a not so subtle commentary on the power of poets in the real world and ultimately, on the power of words--of poems, literature, and language. Heshai-kvo lives the consequences of what happens when words get the better of us. The flighty nature of the andats and their loyalty to no one but themselves is a cruel (in the context of the story) reminder, albeit a necessary one, that we imbue meaning to language. By itself it is just sound and symbols without human interaction to control and manipulate. Writers maintain an intricately complex relationship to their words.

If I ever had any doubt of the merits A Shadow in Summer has as one of the better Fantasy novels (consequently, series) in publication, Abraham’s successfully executed motif of trade put that to rest (I didn’t, by the way, but if I did…). We are reminded about a third into the book how “everything in Saraykeht was for trade” (p. 129). Everything, we learn, has a price. Whether that’s Otah Machi deciding to leave school, Liat having an affair, Amat pursuing justice, or the ultimate consequence of the “sad trade,” everything must be paid with a consequence. These characters bargain in deals that never seem wholly beneficial. This element surprised me only in its realism. Choices are often messy and can become disastrous. Life is nothing but forked roads; we navigate by trading futures. Nothing is resolved happily (or, at least, solely for that purpose); there are lesser evils to be attended to. Everything comes with another set of problems--human problems, which makes Abraham’s fantasy world that much more relatable.

As impressed as I was with Abraham’s thematic concerns (of which I am sure I only touched the surface), realistic characters, and compelling prose, I did have one problem. The poses and gestures everyone used bothered me. It wasn’t that I couldn’t imagine a society built around them. We use gestures and poses right now; a wave, a shrug, a vague fluttering of the hand--body language intended to convey what words cannot. In the terms of the book, though, I felt everything was grossly out of context. There was nothing to stop me from imagining a pose of submission to be someone wildly waving their arms above their heads and pausing with one leg sticking out midair. Nothing. I’m sure that was not Abraham’s intention, but that I could do this frequently jarred me out of the narrative.

The cities of the Khaiem clearly draw on Asian influences. Whether it’s a vague combination of several ethnic groups or just one (the name suffixes were reminiscent of Japanese honorifics and endearments, for instance), I couldn’t be sure, nor could I initially figure out, if that was something good or something bad. Surely Westerners would object to someone imagining a world where Americans, Britains, and Canadians are all lumped together into one vague culture and people. Perhaps I’m too unfamiliar with the intricacies of any one Asian culture to notice whether his world is complimentary, but I believe he did not mean to offend. He cares too much about the details that are so important to his characters. We can see this by the way he never forgets to include certain poses between characters and additionally use their different classes to create moments of softness, brief breaches of etiquette for the sake of friendship.

In any event, I appreciated the Asian influence all the same. The opportune word here is influence. Even if he’s picking and choosing customs to modify for his own world, that I can’t tell which culture any of it is from is a testament to his successful adaptation of those customs to the Khaiem. I think it brought something fresh to the Fantasy genre I haven’t seen that much of. Too often Fantasy is divided into Feudalistic systems and settings reminiscent of something Medieval and European. A Shadow in Summer was anything but that and the restorative I needed to venture back into epic fantasy.

How many Jawas recommend this book?

Did you review the book? Let me know and your link could be the first. :)
  1. Calico-Reaction's review
  2. Michael's review

A Few Rules:
  1. Be respectful.
  2. Rude or inconsiderate comments will be deleted without question.
  3. No vulgarities allowed.
  4. Be considerate. If you have read the rest of the series, avoid posting spoilers.
Remember: have fun! We're all here because we love to read. Discuss anything about the book that comes to mind. The topics I've written below are only for consideration and do not necessarily need to be answered.

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Topics to consider for discussion:
(These are only guidelines and do not necessarily have to be answered like test questions ;) )

1. Abraham frequently mentions the “price” of each character’s decisions. Do you think this was intentional to set the tone for the remainder of the quartet with a name like The Long Price? Do you believe what happened to Maj will affect the events in the remaining three books or do you think it already has? What, other than the ones mentioned in the review, are some examples of characters having to pay a price for a decision?

2. Heshai-kvo imparts rare wisdom to Maati early on in the book. The following passage is from page 82:
“It’s a fallen age, boy. The great poets of the Empire ruined it for us. All that’s left is picking at the obscure thoughts and images that are still in the corners. We’re like dogs sniffing for scraps. We aren’t poets; we’re scholars."
What do you think Heshai-kvo means by this? Do you think Abraham is also speaking of the current state of literature where, essentially everything that can be written, already has been?

3.  With all of the poses each character had to remember and execute, this could be considered a novel of posturing in the same way there are comedies of manners. Do you think these ritualistic practices made the novel more interesting?

4. The prologue is long. Let’s not lie to each other. Did you feel we really needed to know that much background for Otah and Maati? Do you think theirs is a history that is only beginning to be uncovered?


Anonymous said...

I'm reading this book just in these days. I'm loving it!

Unfortunately, I disappear - if it's a part of a fantasy serie - to see his sequel in Italy.

Anyway, I love Abraham style.

Erika said...

@fantasy-caill: I'm glad you're enjoying it, too! I'm not sure what other languages it has been translated in, but I hope you're able to read the rest of the series. :)

Anonymous said...

I read this book back in 2008, and here's the link to the review: http://calico-reaction.livejournal.com/66734.html

To be honest, before I read A BETRAYAL IN WINTER, I had to scour the internet to refresh my memory of this book, but I agree: the prologue does not represent the rest of the book well at all (though the question you ask about Otah and Maati gets a little clearer in the second book), and the poses were jarring. Like you, I kept trying to imagine them, but since they aren't described, it becomes difficult and kind of annoying. This would be kind of beautiful for a movie, but in a book, it's frustrating. I think it tones down a bit in book two, but since you're reading back to back, I'll let you decide. :)

Erika said...

@calico-reaction: I figured Otah and Maati had more to work through than this book allowed. ;) Largely A Shadow in Summer was set up for the entire series, which is good since even as an introduction, it surprised me.

The poses would work wonderfully in a movie. As a visual form of communication, part of the effect was lost on me. They weren't described too much in detail, but if they had been, considering how many were included, it would have overwhelmed the text.

I'll be reading A Betrayal in Winter very soon! I'm hoping a couple of books in between don't hurt my memory too much, or jar me completely out of the mood for the world. ;)

Anonymous said...

In between books two and three, I've read LEVIATHAN, and now I'm reading Aguirre's HELL FIRE and then I'm reading THE HUNGER GAMES. :)

So I understand the need for a break. :)

Anonymous said...

Okay I read the questions and here are my answers.
1) I do think the idea of a price needs to be paid for every decision that's made is essential to the series. And I do think that what happened to Maj will affect the series.
2) I think it reflects the culture of the story and our own culture. We do use variations of the same themes. The authors we admire use the best variations.
3)I think the use of ritual was interesting.
4)I think Otah plays a large part in the series and the prologue gives us a look at his character.
I hope I did this right.

Erika said...

@calico-reaction: I made the decision to put down Neverwhere (I was only 2 chapter in) and pick up A Betrayal in Winter. I figured I might be too busy to read it by next week unless I started now. Ah well. It was only a little painful. I have my review ready for The Gardener ready to post tonight, though. :)

@brenbell: Aren't you sweet! The questions weren't really literal - you didn't have to answer them exactly. They were more like guidelines to see what anyone else wanted to discuss. Would you like to discuss something I didn't mention? :)

Anonymous said...

Love the detail and thought put into the review. I also like the questions and have been pondering them a great deal. May answer them on my book blog at some point.

I've posted my review of the book as well



Erika said...

@nashvillebookworm: Thank you! I'll post a link to your review right away. :)

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