"And why were the spirits who stood by and neither fought with the gods nor against consigned to a lower hell than the servants of chaos?" (p.19)
Daniel Abraham has written some interesting short fiction over the last ten years. See, for example, "Leviathan Wept," originally published in the late lamented SCI FICTION, and selected for inclusion in the venerable 22nd annual "Year's Best SF" according to Gardner Dozois. A Shadow in Summer is his first novel; it's very good, grafting an Arthurian love triangle riff onto a loosely Oriental world in which andant (spirits) conjured by poet-sorcerers (so called in part because the magic wielded incarnates ideas into corporeal counterparts of the conjurer, which is perhaps one way to describe poetics) are harnessed to enhance commerce. In this version, it seems that Lancelot gets the girl as Arthur sets out to repair the kingdom, though I can't say for sure because A Shadow in Summer is but the first volume of "The Long Price Quartet" (in which, you guessed it, each iteration is sequenced to a season).
If there's a rule of thumb for discriminating the by-the-numbers escapist fantasy that clogs the shelves of the genre aisles from something of a higher order, it is perhaps this: whenever the lines between good and evil are considerably blurred, such realism makes it, according to some definitions, more like literary fiction, even if the plot is fantastic. This is the case with A Shadow in Summer; the chief plotter and "bad guy" is deserving of sympathy because, much like Caliban in Shakespeare's The Tempest, such ruthlessness is justified as the one recourse left a victim seeking release from bondage. However, even as certain characters and settings offer something different from the usual fantasy schtick, the plot is a familiar one, though it remains to be seen whether the story-arc continues to adhere to the standard heroic adventure quest.
Saraykeht is a port city and therefore a major trade center. One of the foremost trading houses in the city is run by foreigners, the Galt, which has designs on Saraykeht beyond making a profit. The unwilling, but compliant, instigator of the plan to overthrow Saraykeht's commercial interests is Marchat Wilsin. In taking steps to keep his longtime business associate, Amat Kyaan, the woman he has come to love, out of the intrigue, Marchat instead ensures not only her involvement, but his own downfall.
The central character thrust into this scheming is Itani, a laborer with a past who, in a common fantasy trope, is much more than he pretends to be. Or thinks he is. Itani has managed to rise above his class in attracting as a lover Liat, scribe to Amat and a key albeit witless player in Wilsin's conspiracy. Itani's true identity is revealed to Liat by his past association with Maati, apprentice to the troubled poet-sorcerer Heshai. Maati is supposed to learn how to control the aptly named Seedless, Heshai's andant enslaved to magically remove seeds from cotton plants, and thus support Saraykeht's profitable cloth trade. Heshai, however, is a poor teacher; it is Itani and Liat who become Maati's true instructors in ways very different from his intended career path. And it is the plot to involve Heshai in the abortion of a wanted child that determines not only the individual fates of the trinity, but the fates of their relationships with each other.
Without giving too much away, this is basically a story of how tragic change creates new opportunity, a common theme of fantasy fiction rooted in mythological archetypes. The book ends, as you might expect for the opening volume of a series, with the various characters dispersed on their own separate paths to discover their fates. So far, this sounds all very conventional, and it is, but the details are what separate this wheat from the general chaff. The characters and their characterization rise above the usual stereotypical fantasy—there's nary a mischievous yet lovable elf, wise wizard, warrior dwarf, clever dragon or whimsical faerie within sight. Magic is a background feature, not the main event and, moreover, is invoked as a technology to aid commerce, not as a powerful weapon in a clash of competing ideologies.
There's also the interesting conceit of posture. Underpinning Abraham's imagined culture is the idea that certain gestures convey meaning—in particular subservience and apology—which besides adding to the flavor of a formalistic Confucian-type culture may mean to imply how people are forced by society into positions not of their own design. Or maybe I'm reading too much into this and Abraham just thinks it's a cool thing to do in his invented world. It's worth pointing out though, that he doesn't feel the need to explain the postures, or provide an appendix describing that particular posture 1 means thing B. More pedestrian fantasy frequently gets caught up in that kind of world building detail at the expense of narrative and character development.
How the trinity sorts itself out, whether Itani reclaims his identity or chooses to relinquish it, who the bad guys really are, and whether Marchat and Amat ever patch things up remain, of course, for future volumes. The question Itani will no doubt wrestle with is the one posed by his teacher long ago: why were those who stayed out of the fight punished more severely than those who openly rebelled.
He was not loved or wanted in his home, and he understood that thinking too much about this truth would kill him.
As he drifted towards sleep, [the teacher's] hard voice murmuring the lesson of the spirits who refused to fight spun through his mind ... The coward spirits consigned to hell.
And what keeps them there? his quiet inner voice asked him. Why do they remain in hell?
He lay awake for hours, his mind racing. (p. 19)
However much our minds may race after reading A Shadow in Summer, we'll have to wait for the seasons to unfold to consider possible answers. But even if you don't read any further, this is a pretty good place to ponder how the choices you make frequently fail to achieve your intended results.
David Soyka is a freelance journalist and teacher who writes the occasional short story. He also writes corporate marketing communications, which is a fiction of a different sort.