The Magic of Poetry
By Cheryl Morgan
Scarcely a week goes by these days without some publisher sending me a book whose author is claimed to be the "new George R.R. Martin," or words to that effect. (Iíve yet to see, "Comparable to George R.R. Martin at his best," but Iím sure it will come.) It is a refreshing surprise, therefore, to receive a new fantasy that is not compared to Martin, but recommended by him. A Shadow in Summer, by debut novelist Daniel Abraham, is a very different type of book to the Song of Ice and Fire series, but Martin has a good eye for quality and I can see why he likes Abrahamís work.
Of course being a fantasy book, it is only part of a series, the Long Price Quartet, but at a little over 300 pages long A Shadow in Summer is around a third of the length of one of Martinís volumes, much to the relief of reviewers everywhere. When he gets to the end, however, Abraham may find readers clamoring for more.
The world of The Long Price appears to be an amalgam of oriental cultures that works fairly well though Iím a little unhappy about the names. Iím not sure that Abraham has a consistent linguistic system, but I donít know enough about China and Japan to say for sure. That, however, is a minor issue. What matters is that the story takes place in a relatively prosperous merchant culture threatened by outside civilizations. The people of the Khaiem survive thanks to the andat which are, wellÖ
"You know, donít you, that andat are only ideas. Concepts translated into a form that includes volition. The work of the poet is to include all those features which the idea itself doesnít carry."
Now thereís a fantasy idea for you. The people of Khaiem have working sorcerers. They work because their job is to fashion andat out of ideas, and use those andat for the benefit of trade. For example, the andat of Saraykhet is called Removing-The-Part-That-Continues (Seedless for short). His power is very simple ó he can magically remove cotton seed from harvested cotton. This means that the cotton doesnít need to be manually combed before it can be spun. Thus Saraykhet is a major center for weavers, dyers and tailors. Thus merchants from all over send their cotton to Saraykhet to be processed. And thus the Khai, the cityís ruler, is a very rich man, as long as the andat continues to do his job.
Good grief, a fantasy world in which the author has thought about the economic uses of magic! There are not too many of those around.
Yet, as I said, it is not all easy for Saraykhet. As I explained, the andat are created, or rather captured, by poets. It is the job of the poet to think of an idea and, by incantations, render it into living form. There is, of course, a great deal of difference between an idea and a person. People have thoughts of their own, and so do andat. And occasionally those thoughts will turn into ideas. Ideas such as "slavery" and "hatred". So if a Khai wishes to retain his wealth and power, he needs a good poet, not just to create his andat, but also to keep him under control.
Obviously being a poet is a difficult job, demanding rigorous training. The book actually begins at the poetsí academy, which we find to have a brutal regime designed to teach the young students discipline and sort the weak from the strong. Our hero, Otah Machi, doesnít think much of this, and suspects the regime breeds a taste for power and cruelty. This is bad, because whatever traits a poet might have are likely to be transferred to the andat he creates.
We donít see Otah again for a long time, but we do see a great deal of political intrigue in Saraykhet. The Galts, a neighboring warlike people, have identified Saraykhetís andat as a potential weakness. You see Seedlessís powers are not limited to cotton. He can remove other seeds too. Thus his services are in demand by women, or by those who own women. There are possibilities here for creating a scandal, and political currents shift accordingly. Threats are made to people in no position to refuse, even though they know what they are asked to do is wrong.
"Puppets. Puppets and the puppets of puppets. You should have more sympathy for me, Wilsin-cha. Iím what I am because of someone else, just the way you are. How could either of us ever be responsible for anything?"
And this is where Abraham really starts to stretch his wings. A Shadow in Summer has a cast of wonderful characters, all of whom are trapped into a developing plot. Thereís Marchat Wilsin, the Galt merchant blackmailed into becoming a spy. Thereís Amat Kyaan, his senior overseer, torn between her master and her city. And Liat Chokavi, her pretty and ambitious apprentice, chosen for a major role by Wilsin because sheís too dim to realize what is going on. Thereís Heshai the poet, driven to drink by the constant antagonism of his andat, and Maati, his naïve young student, targeted as a tool by Seedless. All of these people are beautifully drawn, and all of them suffer terribly for one reason or another as the story progresses.
There are no wars (yet) in Abrahamís book. No kings are overthrown, no sorcerous race threatens to overrun the land, and the book does not end in the mass slaughter of major characters. But there is a lot more to a George Martin novel than the obvious fantasy trappings. Martin writes great characters who stay with you long after you have finished the book. So does Abraham. Which I suspect means that his books will do very well.