“Everything is going to be fine.”
“It isn’t,” [he] said. His tone wasn’t despairing or angry, only matter-of-fact. “Everything is going to be broken, and there’s nothing I can do about it.”
Sometimes, the popularity, or lack of popularity, of a book perplexes me. An example I’ve used a lot this year is James Branch Cabell – how has a writer of such fluency, pathos and humour, of novels so easily read, been so forgotten in an age in which pale imitators of his style continue to be sucessful? Only sheer bad luck seems to explain it.
Daniel Abraham is not James Branch Cabell, in almost any way. But his name’s trajectory through the consciousness of genre readers seems to show a similar pattern, albeit in miniature. Abraham attained considerable notability as a short story writer – nominated for the Hugo, the Nebula, and the WFA – before producing this debut novel, A Shadow in Summer, to great acclaim, if not to immediate blockbuster sales. My copy comes complete with blurbs from George RR Martin, Connie Willis, Jacqueline Carey, S.M. Stirling, and Walter Jon Williams. Jo Walton thought it worthwhile including reviews of all four books of this series in her collection of writings on “re-reading the classics” of the genre (though to be fair, it’s a big collection). In my poll back in 2010 of around 100 members of a fantasy fan forum, Abraham ended up in the top 20 living authors, and this quartet, The Long Price Quartet ended up in the list of 10 genre works to read from the 21st century (alongside works by Abercrombie, Bakker, Chiang, Erikson, Lynch, Mièville, Morgan, Stover and Valente – books like Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, American Gods, The Road, and Cloud Atlas all got runner-up honourable-mention placings). Six years ago, people were excited by the name of Daniel Abraham, even if they hadn’t always gotten around to reading him.
Now, they aren’t. Well, I’m sure some are, but more don’t seem to have heard of him; his books rarely if ever feature these days in the endless merry-go-round of Goodreads group read nominations, and hardly anyone I know has read his works, at least under that name. The Quartet was followed by the Dagger and Coin series, which apparently is still ongoing, which I didn’t even know because his new works don’t seem to make any waves in the various circles of bloggers and reviewers I loosely keep an eye on. Now I should be clear: the guy’s not suffering. In fact his popularity is growing all the time: it’s just that that fandom is attached to a different name, that of James Corey, author of the (as seen on TV) Expanse novels, of whom Abraham forms one half. He’s also probably made a fair few pennies as the writer for the graphic novel adaptations of A Game of Thrones. So, well done Daniel Abraham, he’s doing pretty well for himself. But part of me has always wondered what happened to the original version – how come so many people recommended these books to me, and now how come so few people seem to have heard of them today?
Like I said, sometimes the fickleness of public interest is just inscrutable.
Other times it isn’t, and this is one of those times.
That’s not meant to be dismissive, because I think I understand both halves of it. I think I understand why people were excited ten years ago, why people kept talking about this book, why they put it on best-of lists, why they recommended it to people. And also why in the end perhaps not that many people actually bought it, among the general public. And why it hasn’t, in the intervening years, had the same sort of devoted, passionate support, the re-reading and the advocacy, that has enabled similarly niche authors to remain visible.
Why the excitement? Well, it essentially comes down to a line in the Locus review excerpt we get at the beginning of the book: “There’s something genuinely new here.” It’s true, there is; and let’s be frank that’s not something we get to say too often in the genre. New? That’s exciting. That makes some waves.
To begin with the most obvious: Abraham has branched out here from the traditional fauxdiaeval Europe of epic fantasy, and relocated to a new sort of place – perhaps vaguely ‘Eastern’ in character, but avoiding the broad clichés associated with that setting in other fantasy novels (it’s much less identifiable in its culture than, say, the Feist and Wurts Empire trilogy). The city states and elaborate codes of politeness made me think primarily of southeast Asia. It’s a welcome novelty.
It’s not, however, a novelty without flaws. There is something of a trap for white Anglophone authors: write what you know and you’re perpetuating a monochromatic emphasis on European culture, but write what you don’t know and you’re patronising people from other cultures. Abraham’s decision to not make his Khaiem too close an imitation of any one culture avoids the worst notes of that Scylla, but there is still a slight smack of orientalism about it – I think a bit part of that, for me, was the unfortunate decision to locate his culture on the same planet as the Transparent European Analogues. An alien culture can be an alien culture; an alien culture far to the east of some pre-colonial Transparent European Analogue traders suddenly, inescapably, becomes a statement about Asia. The presence of a West forces what’s east of it to become The East. And I’m not kidding when I say “Transparent”: these are people with surnames like “Wilsin”, who live in towns called “Acton”. That’s not lack-of-imagination West, that’s Look At Me I’m Making A Statement About Colonialism West; and so far, he doesn’t really have any subtantial statement to make in that regard (although admittedly there are another three books, and I expect the Europeans to play a larger role in the sequels). And at the same time, in mostly avoiding the Scylla, he may have steered a little too far into the Charybdis: his Khaiem may not be a transparent analogue of an earth culture in the way that, say, the Tsurani are a fantastical exaggeration of mediaeval Korea, but the flip side of that is that they don’t feel particularly alien at all – they don’t feel particularly specific. It doesn’t (yet) feel as though this culture has the depth and nuance and specificity that authors can bring to analogues of real-world cultures they’ve actually researched. To some extent – not entirely but to some extent – the characters feel too much like Europeans in fancy dress.
The one big exception to that, the one big oddity, is something that many readers find intensely off-putting: the heavy use of concomittant gestures alongside speech to convey conversational meanings like acceptance, query, disagreement and so forth. It’s a fine idea; but in practice it means an awful lot of repetition of the phrase “he adopted a pose of…”, which, coupled with the lack of any actual description of these multitudinous and complicated poses, could easily be frustrating. For me, it mostly faded into the background successfully, except a little toward the end, but I could see how this could be a deal-breaker for some readers.
But, let’s be fair: while all this novelty of setting isn’t exactly perfect, it’s a notable effort. It does break away from the norm for the genre and gives the books an added dash of oddity, of memorability.
Yet that isn’t what’s new about this book.
No, far more important is what the book is about, and how it is about it.
I remember thinking something similar about Deadwood. As I watched that series, I realised that it was the culmination of a certain quiet revolution in visual narrative. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, many TV series, freed by the development of half-length seasons on subscription services, moved away from an episodic structure toward increasingly elaborate ‘arcs’: first, an episode might be linked to those that followed by recurring themes or characters or background plot developments; then, episodes increasingly became not-quite-complete in their own right, increasingly dependent on surrounding episodes for resolution. Works like The Wire operated almost entirely on season-long, and multi-season rhythms. And then I saw Deadwood, and thought: oh! I get it, it’s a novel! And more than that, it’s a novel like a Pratchett novel, a novel that has done away with needing to have chapters. The Wire was still strung across chapter-like episodes – each having its place, each needing the others, but at the same time each a perfectly-formed little playlet in its own right (complete with its own little epigram). But in Deadwood – OK, episodes mostly ended after something exciting happened, but apart from that they had almost no unity as episodes, but were simply installments in the ongoing narrative of the season, cut up into approximately convenient tranches of time for easy distribution.
That’s not what this book does at all, it’s completely irrelevent. Except perhaps as an illustration of a certain experience of reading, or in this case watching: little has actually changed in the work, in terms of specific details, but when you become aware of it you realise that these small changes have produced something distinctly different, distinctly new, that may look similar on the surface but that does things in a fundamentally different way.
The style of A Shadow in Summer I can best describe by reference to Robin Hobb. Abraham’s work reminds me of Hobb considerably (there’s even a character who could have jumped between the worlds) – more so than of Martin, to whom Abraham was more often compared, perhaps because of the closeness of the authors. Like Hobb, Abraham uses the apparatus of fantasy to tell a story about people: it is dark, it is complicated, it is intense, and fundamentally it is about relationships – and much more about what has happened and what will happen than about what is actually taking place in the moment. But if Hobb is The Wire in this analogy, stretching the established form to breaking point, Abraham is Deadwood, pushing just a little further, to the point where the trappings of the form may look similar but the beast beneath is a different thing entirely. It’s hard to really impose the expectations of form learnt from epic fantasy onto a book like A Shadow in Summer: the structure, the rhythm, the turning points, are all different.
It’s not a book that uses a fantasy plot to tell a story about people: it’s a story about people that happens to arrange itself into what looks sort of like, but not quite like, a fantasy plot. It feels, in a way, like the next evolution of the genre.
And then there’s the content. If the structure doesn’t feel entirely normal, the content is kick-in-the-teeth abnormal. There’s no elliptical way to say it: it’s a novel about an abortion. Abraham has written an epic fantasy tetralogy and made the introductory volume all about an abortion. And I don’t mean that metaphorically.
There’s no doubt Abraham deserves great credit just for that. There’s a great freedom there, a great willingness to piss off his readers – not just because his abortion-novel is likely to offend hardliners on both sides of the issue, but also just because… dude, that’s not what fantasy novels are meant to be about!
But why not, asks the novel? Who says that fantasy has to be only about big men in armour hitting each other with metal sticks? Why can’t it be about a woman having an abortion? There’s plenty of personal drama there – plenty, in the right context, of potential for political and social and cultural drama.
But more than that: it feels as though the book is saying, “you think this is a fantasy novel about people, but really this is a book about people that happens to look like a fantasy novel… sometimes. And sometimes it doesn’t.” There’s one point where I think the author is even intentionally baiting the reader: “what,” asks a character, “did you think was going to happen?” and then lays out what would happen in a typical pulp fantasy book and the reader is left sheepishly hanging his head and saying “well, kind of…” and then admitting “but that wouldn’t really make much sense, would it? sorry, I guess I was being silly… I mean, that wouldn’t really happen…” –
– now, when a novel makes the reader think “of course that wouldn’t happen here, that never happens, that just happens in books!”, it’s accomplished something really remarkable: it has tricked the reader into, on some level, forgetting that this too is a book. And some readers will react with anger – “hang on, too bloody right that’s what I wanted to happen! why aren’t you giving me what I want!” – but others will realise that they have been outmanoeuvred, applaud the artist, and salute the breaking of new ground in the genre.
After all, this is only Book One. Surely we’re going to get what we want by the end of the series, right? I mean… right?
So what we get with A Shadow in Summer is something complicated, dark, intense, scented with a new-flavoured setting, and tackling unexpected subject matter in a bold, careful, unpredictable way.
…so why don’t people love it?
Well, OK, I guess I partly answered my own question there. Intense, dark, complicated, new, unexpected, controversial subject matter… those things may be easy to respect, but they’re not always easy to enjoy. Add in that the pace is for the most part glacially slow (the entire novel covers what some other writers would deal with in two or three chapters), and you’ve got something that’s not all that approachable.
But that’s not it. That’s all also true of, for instance, Robin Hobb novels, which have attained both broader commercial success and, seemingly, a more devoted fanbase.
I think the real problem with A Shadow in Summer is instead that it is… cold. Or not cold exactly, but… dry? Hard? Like… a matte grey metal. No glitter, no gentleness, no warmth, no fur.
The core of that is the characterisation. The characters of the novel with perhaps one exception feel distant and unknowable. They are not badly-written eactly: they don’t feel unbelievable. They look like real people. But they look like people seen at a distance, and the more important the character the more impenetrable they are. We see their reactions to things as they happen, even their thoughts, but I am left with little real sense of who they are as people. Part of that isn’t the author’s fault. The core trio are all young characters who don’t themselves fully know who they are, or who they will be. And another element of this is intentional: it feels as though much of the time the author is intentionally keeping a guard around their souls, just as they keep up their own guards. But whatever the reasons, the result is that it is hard to deeply care about these people – we’re left working too hard just to understand them. Nor do I get the feeling that if I did understand them then they’d be worth caring about – indeed, the more I felt I understood about them, the less I cared about them. Now in many novels this wouldn’t be a problem. They’re actually better-defined than the protagonists of a great many likeable books. But Abraham has made the decision to centre his novel on the relationships and psychology of these individuals, and so it feels as though we’re funnel down a tunnel only to find a big iron wall blocking the end of it.
Alongside this, there’s the moral dimension. Morality is more important in fiction than people give it credit for, I think – not the finnicky debates about this or that issue, but the broader sense of a moral dimension underlying the physical – a reason, in essence, why these events should matter to us. And Abraham’s novel is not amoral – quite the contrary. One of its great virtues is its moral complexity: it follows multiple different approaches to the same problem, showing how they are each persuasive and understandable, and yet are fundamentally incompatible. Characters face choices between doing terrible things and allowing terrible things to happen. This is central to the novel and its structure.
But in eliminating easy answers, and crewing the book with a cast of, to varying degrees, cold-hearted pragmatists (even those passionate about one cause must be pragmatic about the others that get in their way), Abraham has created a narrative world in which there is simply little to drive the reader from one end to the other, or to reward them for making the journey. Stories work like water, or electricity, or music: we move, as it were, from a place of high potential, high stress, toward a place of rest. Usually this is a movement toward justice; sometimes, it’s only a movement toward irony. But either way, there’s movement. In this book, things happen, but it’s hard to characterise exactly how the end relates to the beginning, so to speak, in terms of what direction we’ve gone in. It feels like being dropped into the middle of a fugue. It’s not that a great tension has been resolved happily; but it’s not that it has dissolved into chaos to set up the other novels either. To put the matter plainly: although I could recite at length what happened in the book, I find myself at a loss to give a simple description of exactly what the story is.
Without a great harmonic direction, we’re left clinging to the individual threads of the characters, which is where the real development here occurs, but those threads are hard to grab hold of. We’re sent back to the characters, but not only are the characters hard to grasp, but because of the moral greyness and the pragmatism it’s hard to really find anyone it’s possible to unambiguously like. And fiction doesn’t need characters we can admire – many of its protagonists are horrible people – but it’s hard to love a story when you don’t even particularly like any of the characters. And at the same time, it doesn’t even feel that these unlikable characters are in control of themselves: they’re all just dragged along by events. They may make a few choices, but they’re not autonomous.
You can have characters who lack agency, or characters who aren’t particularly likeable, or characters who are distant and hard to fully understand, but doing all three at once makes it really difficult for the reader right from the start.
[One idea that occurs to me: it reads almost more like the middle book of a long series. Maybe if we knew these characters already, if we had a sense of the overarching direction of the narrative already, then being dropped into this complicated and unpleasant situation for the duration of one volume wouldn’t be an issue. Instead, this is how the tetralogy opens, and it’s… not inviting. (Although actually the prologue is quite good, and would work well as a standalone short story)]
It is, therefore, an impressive book. It’s the sort of book where you think “hey, I’d better keep an eye on this guy!” – it’s ambitious, and it’s encouraging, and it’s interesting. It is, as the reviewer said, perhaps even something genuinely new in the fantasy genre in a number of ways, and its filled with potential. I should also say that the basic mechanics of the novel – the prose, the dialogue, the descriptions, the chapter construction and so on – all work pretty well too, barring a little excess of infodump in the first chapter or two (which is hard to avoid in a work like this). Not remarkable, but solid. On a page-by-page level I found myself engaged and immersed. When I came to the end of chapters, I wanted to find out what would happen next – although little really happens, something always seems on the edge of happening…
And yet when I put the book down each time… I didn’t feel any great urge, once the immediate curiosity had passed, to pick it back up again. I didn’t desparately need to see how the story ended. I didn’t desparately want to spend more time with the characters, or to explore the world in greater detail. None of it was actively repellent, but none of it was… magnetic. I understand why you don’t hear fans of this novel constantly pressing into the hands of newcomers. Why people maybe don’t do yearly re-reads. It feels like the sort of book you read, you enjoy, you make a mental note of, you maybe remember to buy the sequel when it comes out (I intend to read all four, but don’t feel any urgency), you mention to others as something really interesting that it’s worth checking out… and then you kind of forget about. Until maybe a few years later someone mentions it and you think “oh, yeah, that was really good, wasn’t it? I’m not surprised he’s doing so well with The Expanse now, he’s clearly a talented writer!” – but don’t actually get around to re-reading. The sort of thing you say “oh yes, I read that, I agree it’s worth trying”, but perhaps not actually “hey guys, you’ve got to read this!!!”
It’s admirable, but perhaps – this first installment at least – not all that loveable.
And in a way that’s a shame, because, you know, actually you should read this. A lot of people complain a lot about the stagnation of the genre, about how cliché it is, about how difficult it is to go anything new in it, about how simplistic its stories are. Well, here’s the proof of what is possible still in the fantasy genre, and (broadly) epic fantasy at that. It’s a novel I would absolutely recommend to anyone skeptical about the possibilities of the genre, or anybody who might consider writing a novel in this genre. Not because you ought to copy what it does, but because seeing what it does might broaden your horizons a little bit when it comes to what you think is possible within the genre.
Which, let’s be honest, isn’t too bad for a debut novel.
Adrenaline: 3/5. As I said above: I was engaged and didn’t want to put it down. But not so engaged that I was ever desparate to pick it up…
Emotion: 3/5. It’s intense – sometimes a bit too intense, too melodramatic – and it hits on some emotive notes. There are emotional moments. But by and large it’s just too… hard… to pluck continually on the heartstrings.
Thought: 4/5. I don’t feel that it really raises any great fundamental questions, nor poses any baffling puzzlers in terms of predicting the plot. But it is constantly trying to avoid cliché, and it does touch on, sketch out and leave troublingly unresolved some important issues – slavery, power, colonialism, abortion, loyalty, guilt, justice, consequences and so on. It’s very much a brain-on read.
Beauty: 3/5. Unremarkable prose, intentionally realistic style and limited use of description – it mostly side-steps the aesthetic dimension, while never being exactly ugly.
Craft: 4/5. It does feel a little like a fugue – carefully constructed, with four significant point of view characters navigating around one another in a very confined space, in an alien culture, making brave decisions about content and plot structure. It’s a novel that sets itself a high degree of difficulty and clears that bar without knocking anything over – even if it doesn’t have any fireworks either.
Endearingness: 2/5. Well now, I like the idea of the book. And I don’t hate the book itself. But my reading experience, while enjoyable, was not affectionate or comfortable. Instead, it was angular and remote, and that doesn’t make me love it.
Originality: 4/5. As I suggest early on in this review, I think some of its originality of setting is less profound than it appears; and it’s not as though its originality of plot is really radical. The elements of something familiar are there, they’re just not put together in quite the expected way. But if we’re asking whether this is above or below par for originality, the answer is clearly the former… it’s hard to think of any directly parallel works.
OVERALL: 5/7. GOOD. Yup, I think it’s a good book. Which, let’s remember, is pretty impressive for a debut novel in particular, and absolutely opens up the possibility that the sequels may be even better. Those looking for inspiration in the genre would do well to read it – as would fans of George RR Martin or of Robin Hobb who are looking for something that shares their grimy, complicated, emotionally-intense approach to epic fantasy.