The city-state of Saraykeht dominates the Summer Cities. Its wealth is beyond measure; its port is open to all the merchants of the world, and its ruler, the Khai Saraykeht, commands forces to rival the Gods. Commerce and trade fill the streets with a hundred languages, and the coffers of the wealthy with jewels and gold. Any desire, however exotic or base, can be satisfied in its soft quarter. Blissfully ignorant of the forces that fuel their prosperity, the people live and work secure in the knowledge that their city is a bastion of progress in a harsh world. It would be a tragedy if it fell.
Saraykeht is poised on the knife-edge of disaster.
At the heart of the city’s influence are the poet-sorcerer Heshai and the captive spirit, Seedless, whom he controls. For all his power, Heshai is weak, haunted by memories of shame and humiliation. A man faced with constant reminders of his responsibilities and his failures, he is the linchpin and the most vulnerable point in Saraykeht’s greatness.
Far to the west, the armies of Galt have conquered many lands. To take Saraykeht, they must first destroy the trade upon which its prosperity is based. Marchat Wilsin, head of Galt’s trading house in the city, is planning a terrible crime against Heshai and Seedless. If he succeeds, Saraykeht will fall.
Amat, House Wilsin’s business manager, is a woman who rose from the slums to wield the power that Marchat Wilsin would use to destroy her city. Through accidents of fate and circumstance Amat, her apprentice Liat, and two young men from the farthest reaches of their society stand alone against the dangers that threaten the city.
by Daniel Abraham
22/25 (88%) 4.5 stars.
A brilliant, slow start to the series, filled with clever intrigues and ambivalent characters who struggle through ethical dilemmas and hard decisions; blessed with a brilliant writing style and an original and fleshed-out setting. Abraham truly has created something unique here, and he has done it without needing a single action scene, for the depth of the intrigues and decisions his character must make suffice to carry this story.
The worldbuilding is chef’s kiss, almost Sandersonian. The citys of the Khaiem have their own customs and idioms, all rooted in their language which is a mixture of actual oral language and hand gestures. The latter ones are constantly used to express feelings, attitudes, and status, and it all comes together perfectly, from the individual gestures to the influences they have on the language – the most obvious one is that hours are called hands. And of all this is done . . . adequately. There are no info-dumps and overambitious descriptions of this new world, instead Abraham shows us just as much as we need.
And while I don’t talk about magic systems very often, I have to mention this one: it’s based on djinn. They’re called andats, but they’re basically djinn in human form, called upon by poets and forced to serve their needs – obviously those andats never stop trying to break free. It’s intriguing, it’s original, it’s fascinating.
„In all my particulars, I am who he would have been, had it been given him to choose. But along with that, he folded in what he imagined his perfect self would think of the real man. Along with beauty and subtlety and wit, he gave me all his hatred of (himself.)“
„Gods,“ Maati said.
„Oh, no. It was brilliant. Imagine how deeply he hated himself. And I carry that passion. Andats are all profoundly unnatural – we want to return to our natural state the way rain wants to fall. But we can be divided against ourselves. (…) I am divided because I want freedom, and I want to see my master suffer.“
Abraham’s character work is outstanding as well, and I especially enjoyed those bathhouse intrigues that reminded me so much of Dijkstra in Witcher 3. There is no obvious good and evil in this world, no clear right and wrong, instead each of the protagonists has to make tough decisions that will end up hurting someone either way – magnificent, as is Abraham’s prose.
This is filled with intrigues, as I said. If you’re looking for a fast-paced, swashbuckling swordfight adventure, you’re wrong here, though that will probably come later in the series – I guess ‚An Autumn War‘ will include a war. What you get here is a fascinating, slow buildup of this world and the characters, of intrigues and motivations that will spark the grand conflict later. Beautifully executed, one of the best first books in a series I’ve ever read. Onto the next one!
Writing Style 4