REVIEW: A Shadow in Summer by Daniel Abraham

REVIEW SUMMARY: An intriguing story that is short on fantasty elements and long on characters who are complex and real.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: The summer cities along the coast are rich and powerful because of the magical spirits they control. That doesn’t stop the rest of the world from plotting against them, and several young people find themselves caught up in the drama, politics, and violence that erupts.

MY REVIEW:

PROS: Character-driven story with characters who grow and learn; state politics made realistic; fantasy elements stay very much in the background; not an elf in sight

CONS: Sometimes the characters seem too heroic and selfless

BOTTOM LINE: A tremendous first novel by Abraham that rises above most fantasy written recently that I have read.


The world Abraham invites us to has some connection to our own, but with a distinctly Eastern flair. The summer cities are hot, but full of wealth and power because of the magic they control. A group of scholars, called poets, has determined a way to control nature by defining what they want and binding the spirits (called ‘andats’) to them. The types of rolls they play seem minor at first. One named Seedless can remove the seeds from things and that includes cotton, for example. While this is very useful and gives the city a competitive advantage, it turns out this andat is also capable of removing the seeds from people (and thus performing abortions.) Writ small it is called the “sad trade” and used only when other methods would be dangerous. Writ large, this spirit can be a weapon of near Old Testament-style punishment to a city or nation. Needless to say it gives the city and it’s hereditary ruler (called a Khai) tremendous power.

The story centers around a boy named Otah who is the unwanted sixth son of a Khai. He is first sent away to study to become a poet, but rejects the cruelty of that life and soon finds himself involved in the politics of the age. The remote nation of Galt is involved in a plot to drive the poet controlling Seedless insane which would cause the spirit to be released and the city to at the mercy of the Galt’s military. How Otah reacts, as well as the people he befriends and ones who uncover the plot, is what makes this story work.

Most of the characters start out young and naive, but learn and grow as the book progresses. Each has to make extremely tough choices. Even the older and wiser characters find things about themselves that they didn’t know, and the lengths they are willing to go for their principles. It is perhaps with this last bit that I have some issue. The characters soul-search and agonize certainly, but yet the heroic choices they make are almost too selfless to believe. Admittedly this could be influence by my mood at the time I was reading the book, but it was hard to believe that all these people – low-born and high-born alike – were always focused on doing the right thing. I suppose there is some of my own cynicism in there too.

I definitely enjoyed this book and I recommend it to others. If you can stand a mild bit of fantasy and enjoy quality character-building then you’ll find A Shadow in Summer worth your time.