The Shadowed Sun by NK Jemisin
Review by Brian Herstig
Fantasy Book Review Book of the Month, November 2012
What are you willing to destroy and who are you willing to kill in order to achieve a “lasting peace”? Can people who abhor violence use it to achieve a greater good? If a society claims women are godly and reveres them as such yet robs them of their choices, is that hypocrisy? How much do we pay for the sins of our parents?
Tough, complex questions. And yet again Jemisin has found a way to approach these difficult, thorny moral issues involving individuals and society in a way that makes you see both sides.
The concluding volume in the Dreamblood duology picks up 10 years after the close of the first book, The Killing Moon. At the conclusion of that volume the royalty had been exposed as monsters and expelled. The priesthood has lacerated the cancer growing within it. Gujaareh, the city of dreams, has been taken over by its neighbor, the forceful and cruel Kisuati. Their iron hand and punitive rules have created unrest in a city that has ever only known peace. Rebellion ferments just under the surface. Into all of this a strangeness a plague appears – killing people in their sleep with no hope of a peaceful death. We see the action through three main character – Hanani, the first woman allowed into the healing priesthood, Wanahomen – the exiled eldest son of the former Prince (and, therefore, Prince in exile), and Tiaanet – the daughter of a ruthless and ambitious merchant.
There is a lot to unpack in these books. Jemisin approaches ideas we have about sexuality and lineage. She uses the Eastern concept of women being closer to god to explore issues of personal choice and liberty in a society where some of those options are taken away “for their own good.” She explores traditional gender roles and professions by asking what would happen if another – different – perspective were introduced into them. She shows, in several ways, how sweeping unhealthy behaviors and actions under the rug creates a scar that can possibly never heal and reverberates through society. She challenges the idea that power is based on physical strength.
And she does this in a full formed society that mirrors a Bedouin lifestyle. Building upon the Egyptian setting she introduced in The Killing Moon, she adds depth and a counter-point to the regimented and controlled society she explored there. It is a compliment more than an opposing view.
Her characters continue to shine, with complexity and nuance that allows you to both understand their motivations and feel their pain with a simple look or glance. These individuals are a result of the surroundings they have grown up in. And yet each is fighting against the expectations of that society in a manner that honors their heritage. She has the ability to shine a laser on where society’s past and it’s natural development come into contact and create friction. Nothing ever stays the same, despite the desire to keep things “perfect”.
I should mention that there is a fair amount of significant and deep exploration of the power of sex. Both as a tool by one sex over the other to coerce what they want or need as well as the implications of the brutal use of it on each other and society. It is uncomfortable and chilling and a cautionary tale that feels all too real.
My review of the first book (here) says much of what I feel about this one. Jemisin is a master of the grey and forcing us to consider the other side of the argument. She has an agenda, but presents both sides with feeling and compassion. There is a right and wrong, but that doesn’t mean you can’t feel for the other side. What struck me most – and very deeply – as I read this book was how important it is that we have authors like Jemisin continuing to work in speculative fiction. She brings a different approach, a different perspective, and an important voice that not just moves the genre but propels it forward in relevancy and complexity. Much the way Octavia Butler shifted the genre and seemed to open a door that had rarely been explored, I feel Jemisin has caused a forced perspective to take place. Ignore her and her books at your own peril – in 10 years people will be pointing to her 5 novels as some type of touchstone or turning point.
Ultimately, The Shadowed Sun is a more personal tale than The Killing Moon. There is so much to love about it. But I found a few plot threads a little too easy to predict. I loved the characters and identified with each. The story grew organically and weaved together beautifully. And while, as I mentioned above, there is a significant emotional and moral discourse happening here – more so than the first book – for some reason I found myself LIKING the first book just a smidge more. Having said that, read them both. They are two of the best books I heave read all year.
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