Archive | May, 2019

Guest Post: Speculative & Fiction: SF as Two Genres

30 May

Written by Leo Champion

Speculative & Fiction: SF as Two Genres

Sven Hassel writes the worst cozy mysteries. The first of his that I read for review, Wheels of Terror, absolutely failed to meet my expectations of a whodunnit among gentry in vicarage gardens; it contained an absolutely excessive amount of murder and not a single adorable kitten. However, a resolute reviewer, I gave him another chance with The Bloody Road to Death, hoping this second title would contain an adequate number of intrepid old ladies knitting.

I was bitterly disappointed. Hassel’s comfortable caper in rural England at an indeterminate time period was historically inaccurate, being set in Russia during the Battle of Stalingrad, and featured not a single obscure poison. Furthermore, Hassel depicts his amateur sleuths implausibly as ragged soldiers more interested in drinking than solving any of the murders they themselves commit. The Bloody Road to Death is also sorely lacking in depictions of sleepy basset hounds, and its lovably incompetent village constable acts terribly out of character by leading a Gestapo murder squad.

I am unsure whether Mr. Hassel is merely ignorant, or whether he is disrespecting the cozy genre by refusing to follow its conventions, meet its expectations, or deliver the type of story its readers expect. It is almost as though he thinks he is writing something else entirely.

We will now resume a post about speculative fiction, an area where two radically different types of story – written along entirely different criteria, with entirely different objectives, for entirely different reasons, for generally different audiences – are judged by the same criteria.

It’s time to acknowledge that speculative fiction isn’t one genre – it’s two distinct ones, and it has been since its birth in the late 19th century when both Jules Vern and HG Wells were inspired by Mary Shelley. Wells wrote scientifically-grounded speculation, stories about ideas in which his characters were primarily observers. Verne used ideas as a means and a setting for his characters to have adventures.

Wells would have won Hugos and Nebulas. Verne’s fans would have been Sad Puppies.

Every so-often, on the Baen’s Bar forums in the mid-00s, someone would grumble about how their favorite publishing house never got any respect in the awards scene. It was said by conservative-leaning Barflies that there was left-wing bias, maybe even a fannish conspiracy against Jim Baen for publishing Newt Gingrich. Maybe there was some of that, but Lois Bujold’s repeated Hugo Awards are proof it wasn’t all-arching. When a Baen author wrote the kind of Wells-style “literature of ideas” that Worldcon voters favor, the Worldcon voters would happily bestow gold rockets upon them.

The actual reason Baen titles may have gone unrepresented at awards was that the Hugo Awards have always been for Wells idea fiction, not for the Verne-style action stories (SF as the setting, not the subject) whose purpose isn’t social commentary or cultural discourse but raw entertainment. The finest orange at the show isn’t going to place well in the apple contest.

Eventually some of the Verne (or Burroughs, who defined ‘SF as a setting’) fans decided that their entertainment fiction was good entertainment, and deserved award recognition.

The Wells fans were appalled at the low quality of the action- and plot-driven excuses for literature (no subtexts or themes, no greater meaning and no cultural value – it’s almost as though the authors had something completely different in mind) being shoved into their literary awards. Well, yeah. The judges of fine wine contests don’t appreciate it when kegs of beer get nominations.

There is, of course, overlap between Wells and Burroughs fiction. Wells fiction, the literature of ideas, can include breakneck stories built around those concepts. And there’s got to be some speculative element in Burroughs fiction, even if it’s just giving Dirty Harry a storm bolter. Some authors do both really well – they illuminate and they entertain.

I always learn from reading a Neal Stephenson book. He introduces dizzying arrays of interlocking ideas that have changed my perspective on subjects.

I usually learn something about guns from reading a Correia book, but that’s not why I pick him up. It’s because I want a fast-paced adventure story to entertain me. Correia – or Christopher Nuttall, or any of Chris Kennedy’s crew, any more than Burroughs back in the day – does not promise any more than that, but if he’s done his job as he intends there’ll be plenty of the action I’m giving him my money for.

I’m associated with both sides. As a small publisher, I have authors who write beautifully-phrased works of meaning and substance. I also have authors who write exploding spaceships for the sake of pure entertainment. (No, I don’t cross-promote those guys. I haven’t even introduced them to one another. They have nothing in common and wouldn’t get along.)

Both have their merits as themselves… but compared to each others’ standards, they’re abysmal. Some readers prefer one type, some prefer the other, some prefer both, for many of us it depends on the day and the mood. Either way, the best Hugo-worthy foie gras in the world is a one-star disappointment when you ordered, and were expecting, a burger and fries.

Of course the fans of the ideas-driven literary Wells fiction were going to object when ideas-incidental, literarily meritless popcorn books started being pushed for awards.

Of course the fans of the action-driven entertainment-for-its-own-sake Burroughs fiction wanted their books to get recognized as the great entertainment they are.

Until about a decade ago, Wells and Burroughs fiction did uncomfortably share a home – they had the same publishers. The rise of Kindle Direct Publishing (best thing to happen to the book industry since Steve Gutenberg) has allowed indie authors (and small presses like mine) to mushroom, writing and publishing whatever we like.

Burroughs fiction is now overwhelmingly indie – KDP, Kindle Unlimited, $2.99 to $4.99 for a novel that took the author six weeks to write. Wells fiction literati who scoff at this are completely missing the point. Of course it’s terrible by the standards of the Wells fan, it wasn’t written with those standards in mind. It’s never going to win a Hugo and maybe it shouldn’t. Good luck in Atlanta, though!

Wells fiction hasn’t gone anywhere – large houses (and more than a few small new ones dedicated to literary and conceptual work, indie isn’t all Burroughs) have long pipelines of painstakingly-written and carefully-edited masterworks all hoping for a golden rocket.

Some authors write one kind or the other (me, because I live in an expensive city and have this strange obsession with paying the rent, I’m entirely on the pulp side. I’m also fonder of eating than I am of laboring endlessly over breathless prose). Some vary between both. Some people have even managed to successfully write both simultaneously.

But never mistake the idea-driven, literary, Wells-fiction and the entertainment-driven pulpy Burroughs fiction for each other. You’ll be disappointed every time.

OUT NOW–The Right of the Line (Ark Royal 14)

11 May

The war is on the verge of being lost.

The alien virus has begun its offensive, punching through the human defences and sending advance elements to threaten Earth itself. HMS Invincible and her crew, having barely returned from their last mission, are thrown into a desperate mission to strengthen the inner line of defences before the virus can smash them too and destroy the human race. The stakes have never been so high. Defeat means the end of everything.

But when the virus continues its offensive, brushing through all opposition, Invincible must mount a desperate raid deep into enemy space to win time for the human race …

… Or watch, helplessly, as humanity faces a fate worse than death …

Download a FREE SAMPLE, then purchase from Amazon US, UK, CAN, AUS or Draft2Digital (multiple site options.)

OUT NOW–CURSED (Schooled in Magic 17)

11 May

King Randor has been defeated. Queen Alassa has taken her throne. The Kingdom of Zangaria can look forward to a new age of peace and prosperity. But their victory came at a terrible price. A moment before his death, King Randor hit Emily with a powerful curse.

She’s lost her magic. She’s losing her mind. She may soon lose her life.
As rumors start to spread, as her enemies start to gather, Emily searches desperately for the key to unlock the curse before it is too late. But the only hope seems to rest with House Fellini, an enigmatic family of magicians.

Crippled, powerless, helpless, Emily places her life in their hands. If they can’t help her, no one can.

But House Fellini has its secrets. As the family struggles to undo the curse before it’s too late, Emily is drawn into a decades-old mystery that threatens to destroy the family, shatter her life …

… And smash the entire world beyond all hope of repair.

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REE SAMPLE, then purchase from the links here!


10 May

Well, good news first.

Cursed has a cover design, so I’m hoping that the volume will be available for sale – at least in eBook format – in a week or so. The Right of the LineArk Royal 14 – is currently going up for sale now, so hopefully you will be able to purchase it tomorrow. I’ll post here and elsewhere when done.

Cursed_med TheRightOfTheLine2

I’ve learnt a lesson about not posting too many future plans online <grin>. But my current project is Debt of Loyalty (Angel 6). I can’t post too much about it because Debt of Honour (aka The Embers of War) was significantly delayed and just about anything would be a spoiler. Sorry.

Future plans:

June – The Family Pride (Zero 6)

July – Mirror Image (SIM 18)

Aug – Their Last Full Measure (A Learning Experience 6, probably the conclusion)

Sept – The Artful Apprentice (SIM 19)

Obviously, I’m not sure how solid any of this actually is. I do want to write another The Empire’s Corps book, either a second story about Stalker’s past or a post-collapse storyline, and I will need to complete the final Angel book too. I intend to do that after the middle book is edited, so it may displace one of the others.

No promises <grin>.

On a different note, I finished the course of radiotherapy, despite some side effects that were more unpleasant than I’d hoped. Now, I’m just waiting to see the results. Right now, I keep having aches and pains and brief moments of headaches … sigh. (Of course, that could just be the demands of life <grin>.) I wound up spending a day in hospital after I caught something, which I could have done without. <sigh>


Musings on Group Inclusion

9 May

Musings on Group Inclusion

This is a bit of a ramble, for various reasons, but bear with me a little.

If you happen to run a club – any club – and you deny membership to a black girl because she is a black girl, you are being cruel, stupid and self-defeating.

You are being cruel because you are penalising someone for something outside their control.

You are being stupid because you have made yourself look like an asshole.

You are being self-defeating because you are limiting the membership – and thus the lifespan – of your club. On one hand, very few people want to join a club run by an asshole (and those who do aren’t the sort of people you want around); on the other, what happens when you and your core membership move on (however defined)?

One of the fundamental truths about clubs – and any form of social group – is that they are organised around a single core-point. A chess club, for example, exists because its members want to play chess. This is what they have in common. They are not a bunch of people thrown randomly together, but people who want to play chess.

The chess club, therefore, has two core purposes. First, it introduces people who want to play chess to other people who also want to play chess. Second, it provides an environment conductive to playing chess. A club runs a quiet room where people can think, where the rules of chess etiquette are honoured (i.e. you’re not allowed to gloat if you win) and generally promotes chess-playing.

In a sense, the members of a club are self-selecting. To misquote Marx (the funny Marx) I wouldn’t want to join a club I wouldn’t want to join.

Now, the thing that binds a club together is the thing that all of its members have in common, whatever it happens to be. Club members organise themselves around this activity. It does not matter, on one hand, if a chess player should happen to be black and female; all that matters is that they play chess. Why would someone want to join a club centred around an activity they hate? If someone asked me to join a football club (I hate football with a passion) I would say no. Why would I want to spend an evening a week being cold, wet and miserable? I had enough of that at school.

The problem facing many clubs, with or without the interference of well-meaning fools, is that they must strike a balance between being inclusive and exclusive. On one hand, arbitrarily restricting your membership is bad for your future development; on the other, widening the membership to the point where the core-point is diluted is equally bad. This is a problem that strikes all subgroups, sooner or later; they must steer a course between keeping the essence of whatever they are while bringing in newcomers who will revitalise the subgroup.

This isn’t easy. It can get nasty – very nasty – when a club forgets its core-point (or, perhaps more likely, is overruled by well-meaning outsiders.) A chess club becomes a games club becomes a games room becomes a common room … an environment that is no longer welcoming to the original chess players. I’ve seen it happen and it isn’t pretty. On one hand, once you start compromising the core-point, you’re in trouble; on the other hand, if you refuse to allow anyone else to join, you’re also in trouble.

These days, sooner or later, any sizable club (or social group or whatever) will start talking about ‘outreach’. They will start insisting on reaching out to prospective members who aren’t part of the mainstream (however defined). On the surface, there is nothing wrong with this. Like I said above, a club that doesn’t bring in a certain amount of new blood every year will ossify and die. However, how far can you reach out without compromising the core-point? The people who join chess clubs, by and large, aren’t interested in missionary work; they’re interested in playing chess. If the fun gets sucked out of the club, if they are expected to do things that have very little to do with the core-point (which is why they’re there in the first place), they might leave. Or they might seethe and silently resent being told they have to reach out to potential newcomers …

… Which does no good for the club’s future harmony either.

The question that has always struck me, when people start talking about ‘outreach,’ is just how much does the club have to change? I wouldn’t join a football club unless it changed itself so radically that it could no longer reasonably call itself a football club. Whoever ran the club would alienate the current membership, without – perhaps – bringing in new blood to make up for what they lost. And this clumsy social engineering angers people because it is rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding about humanity.

Point is, a club core-point is based on what people have in common. Two chess players can play chess, regardless of the other differences between them. The differences do not matter! But, the more people talk about differences, the more people become aware of those differences and the more they separate themselves – sometimes mentally, sometimes physically – from the different people. At best, this dilutes the core-point; at worst, it fragments the group into smaller groups. And then the old ‘Us V. Them’ problem rears its ugly head again.

On one hand, no reasonable club should discriminate on issues that don’t touch its core-point. BUT, on the other hand, a club can reasonably demand that people who want to join have to be invested in its core-point. And it can reasonably throw out anyone who blatantly isn’t interested in its core-point. A ‘Superhero Action Movie’ club can reasonably kick out someone who wants to watch romance movies … and indeed, why would someone who wants to watch romance movies want to join the ‘Superhero Action Movie’ club? Why should the people who were there first, the people who created the club, change to meet the demands of a newcomer?

I’ve been a member of three school chess clubs in my life (four if you count an online platform as a club.) There were no rules banning anyone who wasn’t a straight white male from joining and playing chess. And yet, the clubs represented a tiny percentage of the population of the schools (straight white male or otherwise), had only a couple of non-white players and didn’t have any girls at all. Was this racism or sexism? A failure of inclusion and representitism? Or was it a reflection of the simple fact that they didn’t want to play? It was sadly true that very few kids wanted to join the chess club and play chess. The football club did much better when it came to attracting new blood.

You can open the door. You can invite someone in. But you can’t force them to play and you can’t dilute your core-point without risking your current membership walking away.

Point is, inclusion requires a degree of commonality. It must be something that the included have in common. At the same time, it can’t be something too common or there’s no point in joining a club to honour it. (Who wants to be a member of the red-blood club when everyone has red blood?) And the more the club – or its leadership – talks about things that have nothing to do with the club’s core-point, the more it dilutes itself.

So what does this have to do with us Sci-Fi/Fantasy fans?

We are a club, to all intents and purposes, organised around the core-point of being Sci-Fi/Fantasy fans. We are welcoming, to those who share our core-point; we don’t expect people who don’t share our core-point to join. We understand that they do not want to join, any more than we want to join them. They have their core-points and we have ours. But we are also having problems caused by people who, in wanting to be inclusive, are actually promoting exclusion.

And this, I think, is true of pretty much everywhere in society today.

Review: Children of Blood and Bone

9 May

Children of Blood and Bone

-Tomi Adeyemi

I should note, at the start, that Children of Blood and Bone is written in a curious style. The author has used first-person, immediate tense (“I walk down the street”) and – for some reason – used three separate POV characters. I’m not sure why she did it, because – while it does lend the text a certain degree of immediacy – it also makes the first few characters harder to follow. Things smooth out as the book progresses, I concede, but there were a couple of times I nearly put the book aside and gave up. Thankfully, I kept reading. I’m glad I did, because Children of Blood and Bone is a very good read.

There was magic once, in a land called Orïsha. The magicians – the maji clans – were divided into a number of different subgroups, each one possessing a different magic. But, one terrible day, the magic went away … and King Saran struck, slaughtering the magicians as they reeled from the loss of their powers. The only survivors were the children, the ones too young to come into their powers. They were allowed to live, but kept under close supervision. All hope of rebuilding, and destroying the king’s tyranny, seems lost.

However, when a mysterious scroll with the power to reawaken magic surfaces – and hints of other artefacts come into view – all this may change. A trio of characters – Zélie, the daughter of a former maji; Tzain, her brother; Princess Amari, who runs away and joins Zélie after King Saran killed one of Amari’s friends for possessing magic – set out to recover the other artefacts and perform a ritual that will bring magic back. They are pursued by Crown Prince Inan, who is himself secretly a maji. They go through hell – and a great deal of personal development – before they finally perform the ritual, although it is clear that the story is far from over (and a sequel is due out later this year).

In some ways, Children of Blood and Bone reminds me of The Age of Misrule. The main characters have to search the land for a handful of artefacts, all the while avoiding attention from the bad guys. This isn’t easy, of course, and there are a lot of similarities between the two books. However, there is more than enough to Children of Blood and Bone for it to stand on its own.

The author’s worldbuilding is very good. It captures the flavour of an alternate Africa very well, resting comfortably – as it does – in African myth. The book shifts from place to place, each one strikingly different … from each other as well as the world we know. This is not – thankfully – Wakanda. The country is presented to us as a very human land, with glories as well as horrors. Some of these are deeply personal, from the curse of growing up under a tyrant’s rule to the pleasure of indulging in minor rebellion. There is much to like – and admire – here.

She also manages to give her three main characters life, crafting them as three-dimensional flawed people rather than archetypes or one-dimensional Mary Sues. Zélie is both an action girl and a deconstruction of an action girl, with a headstrong nature that tends to get her into trouble as much as it saves her life. (The book is aware of this, as is Zélie herself.) Amari, by contrast, starts life as a passive character who grows into a heroine. The two girls have a tendency to clash at first, a moment of realism in a genre where most questing parties trust each other from the start.

Crown Prince Inan is a far more conflicted character, one who constantly – and confusingly – changes his mind. He’s trying to catch the heroes – no, he’s trying to join them – no, he’s trying to catch them again … his viewpoint keeps shifting as he gets new information, driven by both self-loathing – he’s a magician, which in his mind makes him a monster – and a growing love for Zélie. It is sometimes hard to follow him, at least in part because the character himself is unsure of what he wants to do. He spends the entire book torn between his father and his own nature, unclear on what the truth actually is.

I’m not sure, to be honest, if that was the writer’s intention. On the surface, King Saran is a monster. There is ample evidence of his monstrosity. It cannot be denied. But, at the same time, he charges that the maji were monsters themselves, beings of supernatural powers that destroyed country after country before he found out how to break their powers and crush them. It’s curious that he didn’t slaughter their children as well as the adults. And when we see flickers of the once-great magic, it’s easy to see why muggles might have been scared of them. Zélie sees her dead mother as a heroine; others, perhaps with reason, might think otherwise. And even if they were, what about their children? The kids have grown up powerless and abused. What will they do when they get their powers back?

There’s no good answer to these questions. We – our society – hasn’t found any good answers either.

The book touches – very lightly – on racism, although barely more than enough to remind us that all of the characters are black. Amari’s mother tries to lighten her skin, apparently out of fear that Amari’s dark skin is a hint that her mother cheated on her father, but she’s the only one who seems to care. (Amari’s father may be displeased with her, even before she runs away, but there’s no hint it’s because of her skin.) Inan doesn’t seem to feel any loathing or disgust at his attraction to Zélie, something that would be odd for a dyed-in-the-wool racist.

Children of Blood and Bone is on firmer ground as an indictment of classism. The contrast between the lives of Zélie and Tzain, who grew up poor and powerless, and the royal family is striking – and Zélie doesn’t hesitate to rub Amari’s nose in it. There are all sorts of little moments that illustrate how hard it can be to climb up the social ladder – and how such a society breeds prejudices of its own. Tzain refuses to believe that Inan might genuinely be falling in love with his sister, charging that all Tzain wants is to have sex with her. We know he’s wrong, because we see Inan’s point of view, but he isn’t being unreasonable. It’s difficult for the characters to work together because they are blinded by their own fears.

The author herself draws a line between Children of Blood and Bone and police brutality in the United States. In some ways, this weakens the book. (Thankfully, she put it in the afterword.) The blunt truth is that the book’s society is nothing like America, at least as far as I can tell from my vantage point on the far side of the pond, and – as I noted above – it raises the question of who is genuinely in the right? (Or, more likely, who is unable to take their boot off the underclass’s neck for fear that the underclass will spring up and tear their former oppressors apart? The problem with defusing a ticking time bomb is that even trying might set off the explosion.)

That said, the only real problem lies with the narrative style. It is sometimes hard to keep track of the POV character, which leads to some odd moments; one character’s observations on a given event are different to another character’s observations. I’m not a great fan of mixing and matching first-person POVs, although – as the book picks up speed – the problems tend to smooth themselves out. By the time the book reaches the conclusion, things are moving along nicely.

Overall, I enjoyed the book. It has good – and nicely-flawed – characters, an interesting background that is both different and understandable, a definite hint that things are a little more nuanced than either side would care to admit and, perhaps most importantly of all, a complete story that leaves plenty of room for a sequel. I await this author’s next book with interest.

Review: The Shadowed Sun

8 May

The Shadowed Sun

-NK Jemsin

“But this is not mere rudeness that we speak of, Prince; this is murder and torture. Some things are wrong in the eyes of all peoples—”

“That isn’t true.”

One of the most important things I have noted, over the years, is this: a person who demands respect doesn’t deserve it. Respect is earned, not given. Those who deserve respect – for ability, for achievement, for success – will have it. Those who demand respect as their due will get resentment instead.

In many ways, The Shadowed Sun brings that to mind.

At the climax of The Killing Moon, Nijiri – a young man/fanatic – told Ambassador Sunandi that Gujaareh would accept occupation, provided she was treated with respect. It struck me as odd at the time, if only because Gujaareh does not deserve respect. Indeed, most of the nuance of The Killing Moon is strikingly lacking from The Shadowed Sun. Gujaareh is painted as a deeply corrupt society, one that was turning monstrous even before the invasion and occupation. Sunandi herself is perhaps the only truly decent character in the book. It’s hard to feel liking for anyone else, with the possible exception of Hanani.

It is actually quite hard to summarise the book. It is roughly ten years after The Killing Moon, ten years since the occupation began. But all is not well. Hanani, the first female Sharer (magical healer), is trying to earn her spurs, while powerful factions plot to overthrow the occupiers … allying themselves with Wanahomen, the last survivor of the previous Crown Prince’s family. Wanahomen himself, in turn, has made allies amongst the barbarian tribesmen of the desert, promising them great rewards if they help him recover his family’s throne. If these are meant to be the good guys, something is deeply wrong. Tiaanet, the daughter of one of the plotters, is frequently raped by her own father; indeed, she has been treated so badly that she has simply stopped caring about anything.

The plot is driven by the combined twists of the uprising against the occupation and the spread of a nightmare plague, a curse that spreads from dreamer to dreamer and eventually threatens to bring down the entire city. Matters come to a head as the uprising begins, even as the rebellion itself fragments. In many ways, everyone loses; Sunandi gets kicked out of the city, Hanani loses her chance to practice magic (and her idealism), Tiaanet eventually kills her own father, but at the cost of losing her daughter … who is revealed to be the source of the nightmare plague.

Like before, the worldbuilding is very good. Gujaareh itself comes to life, a brimming city of wonder slowly falling into darkness. Jemisin does a good job of contrasting the city-folk with the barbarians, refusing to shy away from the simple fact that the barbarians are barbaric; Hanani’s horror is our horror. Indeed, in some ways, she succeeds too well. It is hard to feel any sort of liking for Wanahomen and his allies. They’re monsters, at least by our standards. Indeed, in some ways, the plot is a deconstruction. The ‘noble savage’ we might expect to see does not grace the pages of The Shadowed Sun.

The magic system is also expanded, in manners both logical and sensible. The refusal to take women into the priesthood actually makes sense, if only because the priests are forbidden to have children (ensuring that the dreaming gift is passed down through the female line alone) while the darker side of the system is clearly visible. There is a great deal of material here for future stories.

The book falls down, however, when it comes to characters. Wanahomen starts life as an ass, not to put too fine a point on it. He doesn’t seem to realise that anything is wrong when he is introduced to Tiaanet; indeed, he seems determined to marry her, at least until the real romance begins. There’s no acknowledgement of what happens after he learns the truth about Tiaanet.

Hanani, on the other hand, is a far more sympathetic character, if only because we’ve seen ‘first woman in a male sphere’ before and we know the tropes. And even she is a deconstruction, because she is used as a pawn by her (male) superiors and forced to question pretty much everything about her society. She fragments, first recoiling in horror from her new life and then seeking out something new for herself. The romance between Wanahomen and Hanani doesn’t read right to me, although it may sort itself out in time. It’s also easy to feel sorry for Tiaanet, although she doesn’t seem to make any attempt to escape (or report) her father. She’s an oddly passive character right up until the end.

Jemsin also deconstructs the city’s concept of treating women as queens. Hanani is shocking, to the locals, because she’s actually trying to work for a living. (They have some problems getting their heads around Sunandi, rather than her husband, being in charge of the occupation force.) And yet, as Tiaanet shows, there’s a fine line between putting women on a pedestal and keeping them under control. Tiaanet is horrifically abused, treated more as an object than a living person; indeed, she acts more like an object than anything else. The city’s women have prestige, but not power.

Like I said above, Sunandi herself is perhaps the only truly decent character in the book, although she is torn between the need for peace in Gujaareh and the demands of her superiors, who (being several thousand miles away) think she is too tolerant of local misbehaviour. In some ways, they are right. Sunandi is careful not to push too hard, at least until she is overruled by her superiors, but – at the same time – she is showing weakness. It’s never easy to find a balance between tolerance and firmness, as we learnt in both Iraq and Afghanistan. At the same time, there remains the fundamental point that Gujaareh does not deserve respect. It’s notable that the only person, at least before the climax, who expresses horror at Tiaanet’s treatment is one of the ‘evil occupying soldiers.’

The Shadowed Sun does hit on some of the fundamental truths of the human condition. On a greater level, it considers the problems when one culture – with a concept of what constitutes acceptable behaviour – is forced to interact with another culture, with a very different concept of what is tolerable. Jemsin neatly illustrates the problems with both repression and tolerance, with firmness and political correctness (in this case, a refusal to accept that some cultures are different.) And it considers the legacy of the past, from the isolation of Gujaareh (for good reason, it turns out) to the consequences of the failed war and invasion. The characters cannot get over the past, but neither can we.

And, on a more personal level, it also illustrates how hard it can be to break out of our personal hells. Hanani, like Ehiru before her, is unwilling to admit that the priesthood may be deeply corrupt, to the point where it is willing to break its most sacred laws for power and control. Wanahomen wants to reclaim his family’s throne, even though it means allying himself with monsters – both in and out of the city – when he would probably be happier simply walking away. And the city itself, given a chance at a better life, is backsliding rapidly into the morass that nearly destroyed it in the previous book. By the time the book is over, everyone is badly scarred.

Overall, my feelings are pretty mixed. The worldbuilding is great. Jemsin makes the city come alive. There are a lot of great ideas within the text. The characters are very human, but – at the same time – it is hard to see them as likable. And the book is as much a deconstruction as anything else. It is an interesting read, and I would recommend it to anyone who likes epic fantasy, but it has its limits.