Daniel Abraham is a local author that I have been aware of for a while but never read any of his work. I knew about him because his name appeared in anthologies edited by Gardner Dozois, George R. R. Martin and Melinda Snodgrass. He also coauthored short stories with Walter Jon Williams, Gardner Dozois and George R. R. Martin. With that kind of a resume I expected anything that he wrote to be somewhere in the excellent range. After all, if George R. R. Martin and Walter Jon Williams (also local authors) think your good enough… not to mention Gardner Dozois – inarguably the greatest science fiction and fantasy editor still alive.
After many years of honing his skills on the short story he came out with a debut novel, the first of a planned quartet. The book came with some of the highest praise from authors and critics alike. Nobody could say anything bad about Daniel Abraham.
Unfortunately, despite all the praise, Daniel Abraham remained a secret to the world – his books were almost unfindable.
I finally obtained a copy and read the first book in the series. A Shadow in Summer is possibly the most beautiful story I have ever read. There is a plot, there is a beautiful setting, there is some of the most fantastical prose that I have ever encountered but all of this pales next to the vivid characters and their individual struggles.
The summer countries are ruled by the Khaiem and maintain their power and economic flourishing with the use of Andat. The Andat are ideas made flesh by the complicated descriptions given them by the poets. Heshai, the poet of Saraykeht has created the Andat Seedless, or ‘Removing the Part That Continues’.
Seedless wants to be free so he conspires with Marchat Wilsin, a noble from a less advanced country living in Saraykeht, to create a scandal that will destroy Heshai emotionally and cause the poet to let the Andat go. They plan to force Heshai to use Seedless to abort a child from an unsuspecting young mother – without the girl or the poet knowing fully what is happening until it’s too late.
The result will be that Saraykeht will no longer hold the monopoly on cotton, as they will no longer be able to remove the seeds effortlessly and the other nations need not fear them.
This is the plot of the book. The story is much different.
Amat is the personal aid and accountant of Marchat Wilsin, aging and crippled she refuses to take part in the plot and flees into the city to try and make her way while Wilsin’s men search for her to kill her. Amat is brilliant and devious but lacks any physical strength and must use her wits not only to survive but also to put together evidence of Wilsin’s betrayal to take before the Khai.
Liat is Amat’s apprentice, left behind, young and naïve, she acts as Wilsin’s agent. Liat does not suspect anything about the plot to destroy Heshai, she thinks she is simply doing her job and trying, desperately to fit into Amat’s shoes.
Maati is the poet’s apprentice. He has survived the poets school in the far north and has been sent to learn how to be a poet so that when Heshai becomes too old Maati will be capable to describing Seedless in a new way (it only works if it is completely new, which makes it harder with each generation) and accepting the burden of the Andat.
Otah is the youngest son of the Khai Machi. His only choice as the youngest was either death or to become a poet. Instead he left the poet school behind and changed his name, becoming a laborer in Saraykeht.
A Shadow in Summer is about these characters and the things they do and the ways they think. The events of the plot happen around them, some of them are involved directly, some of them observe what is going on in their city. They act and react in a tapestry of life that feels as real as documented fact.
Liat is consumed with guilt when the result of Wilsin’s and Seedless’s plan becomes clear. She feels that it is her fault. Amat fanatically pursues justice for her former employer, not out of vengeance but out of a profound sense of patriotism toward her own country. Maati tries nobly to make up for Heshai’s shortcomings and to learn from an under-devoted teacher. Otah just wants his simple life, but when he is recognized by Maati he is thrust back into the world of cruelty and depression that the poets live in.
Seedless, meanwhile, is devious and conniving. He is truthful in just he right places to be deceptive. Nobody trusts him but he is able to wheedle and pry information from them anyway. He just wants to be free, but his desire to be free is so consuming that he is willing to do horrible things to any number of people to get what he wants.
Daniel Abraham keeps the story moving at a quick pace throughout. His characters are as real as any I have ever encountered and his descriptions of their feelings are so personal that they become your own. His prose is astonishing. Every word feels like a small piece of a symphony, slowly unfolding until the whole is one great masterwork of beauty and grace. I have never experienced writing so well crafted and honed, every phrase and sentence and paragraph feels lovingly built and chosen to form a noble choreography of words.
In short A Shadow in Summer completely blew me away. Daniel Abraham is one of the greatest authors to write fantasy in a very long time. I can’t wait to read his next book.