I am a poor hand at recaps (such boring work), so the dust jacket will have to do:
The comfortable world of Martris Drayke, second son of King Bricen of Margolan, is shattered when his older half-brother, Jared, and Jared's dark mage, Foor Arontala, kill the king and seize the throne. Tris is the only surviving member of the royal family aside from Jared the traitor. Tris flees with three friends: Soterius, captain of the guard; Carroway, the court's master bard; and Harrtuck, a member of the royal guard. Tris harbors a deep secret. In a land where spirits walk openly and influence the affairs of the living, he suspects he may be the mage heir to the power of his grandmother, Bava Kava, once the greatest sorceress of her age. Such magic would make Tris a Summoner, the rarest of magic gifts, capable of arbitrating between the living and the dead.
Now that the basics are out of the way, it is time to delve into the deeper mysteries and literary worth of The Summoner, or lack thereof. The novel, for all intents and purposes, opens with the aborted rape of a hapless serving girl by Jared, a.k.a. the evil half-brother. Cliche? Slightly, but the scene sets the tone for the rest of the night, which incidentally is a fantasy retake on Halloween, where the dead get to party with the living. Good times, laugher, and drink ensue with the heavily foreshadowed murder of the royal family, minus of course our fortunate protagonist and his companions.
One daring escape later, the would be adventurers find themselves on the road to restoring Tris to the throne. I'm glossing over the minutia, obviously, but it all seems so remarkably unremarkable. Slavers and daring escapes follow, with Tris steadily but surely remembering the magical teachings of his grand mother. As the title of the novel suggests, Tris is a Summoner. He is capable of seeing and talking to the dead and doing nifty things with his own spirit to ward and help heal others. Generally, the magic system is vague and somewhat incoherent. The seasoned fantasy reader will scoff at the number of times Tris uses "every shred" of power available to him, or some variation thereof - so much so that his ability seems to have an on / off switch with nothing in between.
Stumbling blocks out of the way, The Summoner is a simple and straightforward tale that fulfills the requirements of generic adventure fantasy. It has royal heroes and villains, an ex-soldier turned sell-sword pushed towards redemption, and a court bard handy with daggers (*cough*, Wheel of Time anyone?). A healthy heaping of romance later, The Summoner seems to me to be targeted at a younger audience easily satisfied with the consumption of fantasy cliches and sadly ignorant of the rich potential of the genre.
I readily admit that Martin's writing and plot is solid and consistent. My only complaint is that the prose lacked the descriptive richness or je ne sais quoi necessary to plunge readers into the story - D&D with a poor dungeon master if you will. Not that I ever played, but it seems an apt analogy. What shocks me most is that the depth of knowledge and passion Gail Z. Martin shows during interviews seems absent in the novel. The Summoner is without a doubt an entertaining tale, but by no means a gripping one; it falls just short of being really good and contends itself with passable. So, to sum things up, not bad but also not the best.