I have not read a huge number of epic fantasies in my life; my experience in that genre is limited primarily to GRRM's Song of Ice and Fire and Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn trilogy. But one thing I hear about a lot of fantasy epics is that there is a great number of characters in them, and the scope of the events is vast, sweeping across colorfully detailed secondary worlds.
Daniel Abraham's first published novel, A Shadow in Summer, resists that tendency. Most of the action takes place in the great trading city of Saraykeht, one of many trading cities among the Khaiem, a merchant-republic kind of society that seems equal parts Renaissance Italy and Silk-Road khanate. The world outside these cities is vast and has the potential to be treated in detail, and perhaps that will happen in future installments, but in this first novel of the Long Price Quartet, the action is geographically confined. Moreover, the city itself is fleshed out only to the extent that seems necessary to establish a sense of place and a background for the main characters.
The decision to tell the story like this, I think, pays off with large dividends. This is because one of the most important themes of A Shadow in Summer is the conflict between love and justice, and how difficult it is even to put comfortable limits on either love or justice. All the sinister intrigues that threaten to shake up the world order are predicated on motivations grounded in love and hate and executed with misplaced proclamations of justice and injustice.
There are really only five POV characters in this epic fantasy novel, but their actions and motivations are so deeply developed, even between the lines on the page, that one feels an entire emotional world opening up beneath the engrossing details of Khaiate society. As the plot moves forward, all these characters' lives become intertwined in impressively varied ways, and by the end, there is a complex love triangle clashing disturbingly with an unwanted abortion and the dark movements of political intrigue that run deep and powerful like a tide that threatens to pull our characters out to sea. By the end, too, no one's situation is the same as it was in the beginning, and the world order teeters on the precipice.
The course of these events runs forward as everyone involved makes seemingly impossible moral calculations. Far from being cynical amid the grim, dark deeds of this intricate plot, our characters agonize over every decision, aware of its implications and forced to accept ethical compromise. This is the kind of moral dilemma that I find interesting, and it certainly enriches this novel.
I mentioned in an earlier post that there is a strong hint of Gene Wolfe in the early chapters of A Shadow in Summer. But I found the book feeling less like Wolfe as I continued to read. Yes, there is an undercurrent of identity/memory issues in Otah's story, and yes, the prose does marvelously weave together plot, character, and theme (as Wolfe did in Shadow of the Torturer). But, tellingly, the dialogue does not at all resemble Wolfe's style, nor is the importance of symbolism so front and center. Abraham's opus is a thing in itself and wholly of its own author. He nods to the greats, but this new masterpiece is his alone.
I say "masterpiece" even though the narrative does occasionally frustrate readerly pleasures. But this is to the good, ultimately. Consider especially the role of the andat, Seedless, in this book. At first, his nature and purpose are fascinating, but after a while, his character seems only to degenerate into a confusing muddle of ideal form and real manifestation, while his true motivations are constantly called into question. By the end, however, a drastic change of status occurs (I won't spoil the nature of it!), and the symbolism that he bore early on comes to the fore once more, and upon reflection, it becomes obvious that his character is representative of the entire world order, and his own vicissitudes mirror that of his world. Contemplate further upon his symbolic presence, and you (as reader) come to understand more deeply the nature of the society that created him.
Far more lies beneath the surface than can be revealed from just this one novel. Abraham has created a world that he refuses to spoon-feed to the reader but has made it interesting enough that, at least in my case, I cannot wait to delve deeper into its mysteries -- even as it changes! And indeed, its seasons change from the summer of Saraykeht's dominance to the winter of... its discontent? Well, we shall see in A Betrayal in Winter.