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.

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