The Shadowed Sun: Mature, intelligent, challenging, unafraid

The Shadowed Sun by N.K. Jemisin fantasy book reviewsThe Shadowed Sun by N.K. Jemisin

The Shadowed Sun (2012) is the second book in N.K. Jemisin’s DREAMBLOOD two-book series, inspired the ancient kingdoms of Egypt and Nubia. However, rather than simply changing some names and using thinly-disguised history as her template, she introduces an entirely new religious and social system, one centered around worship of Hananja, the dream goddess represented by the moon. The story this time is set a decade after the events of the previous book, and features some of the same characters like Nijiri, now a full-fledged Gatherer, and Sunandi, member of the Kisuati Protectorate now ruling Gujaareh. However, Jemisin introduces three new main characters: Hanani, a young Sharer priestess, the first female granted this position; Prince Wanahomen, son of the power-hungry King Eninket and now living in exile with barbarian tribes; and Tiaanet, daughter of a powerful Gujaareh family.

I am not generally a big fan of fantasy series, because they often tend to rehash the same events with minor variations for volume after volume, sometimes spawning multiple, superfluous trilogies of increasingly poor quality. But I know that Jemisin is not one of those authors content to churn out more of the same for a steady income stream (and apparently that is all their fans want, sadly).

As I mentioned, Jemisin has taken inspiration from ancient Egypt and Nubia, but has transformed it for her own literary purposes and to explore her favorite topics. In The Shadowed Sun she again examines crises of faith among the Hetawa priesthood, due to their dual calling to heal the sick and injured and also punish the corrupt. In addition, Hanani the female Sharer takes center stage as a woman in a male-dominated religion that, ironically, considers women to be goddesses that should be worshipped but not allowed active roles in political or religious leadership. When her test of certification goes terribly wrong, it is used by opposition elements as evidence that women don’t belong in the priesthood as Sharers.

As a result of this, Hanani is sent as a hostage to the barbarian tribes of the Banbarra, who live high up in cliff faces (apparently inspired by the Anasazi). They have strict social conventions very different from both Gujaareh and Kisua, and the exiled Prince Wanahomen has spent much of his life living among them. Through various complex political maneuvers, Hanani and Wanahomen find themselves involved in a plot to return to Gujaareh and overthrow the occupying Kisua Protectorate. Initially they dislike each other, but … yes, there is a love-hate relationship which will test their beliefs about the roles of men and women in healing and the use of dream magic. If this was just a standard opposites-attract romance I would have been skipping ahead, but the role of magic in their relationship makes it bearable, even intriguing.

Meanwhile, back in Gujaareh, diplomat Sunandi is struggling to maintain the position of the Kisua Protectorate as the occupying rulers of the city. She tries very hard to minimize frictions with the local political leaders and Hetawa priests, but as inevitably happens, economic and social tensions make her position increasingly precarious. Adding to this is a mysterious dreaming plague, which leaves its victims traumatized or dead. Sunandi’s relationship with Nijiiri is also complex, as they both recognize what is needed for peace is “not the absence of conflict, but the presence of justice.” But in a rapidly shifting political climate, such noble sentiments are difficult to put into practice.

As Prince Wanahomen builds an army to take back the city, forces are struggling within the city and Hanani finds herself forced to hunt down the source of the dream plague in the world of dreams, using her healer’s skills. There is a fair amount of overlap with the Reaper threat of the previous book, but I can’t fault her for wanting to re-explore this strange and original dream magic, which can as easily be used to kill as to heal.

The Shadowed Sun really pushed the gender politics agenda to the forefront, as Hanani battles against the prejudiced attitudes of the Barbarra tribe, her own Gujaareh people, and Prince Wanahomen himself. At times it detracted from the momentum of the narrative, but Jemisin is skilled enough to not let it become sermonizing. After all, if she wants to point out that womens’ positions even in fantasy societies are often restricted and inferior, then that is a legitimate axe to grind. And it’s certainly true that many religious hierarchies exclude women from the inner sanctums and mysteries. There are several instances involving rape used as a form of punishment in the barbarian tribes, and a very telling incident in which a foreign female spy is captured and the women of the tribe demand she be raped by the men, until Hanani points out that rape within the tribe is proscribed, so why should it be acceptable against a woman who happens to be an enemy? Pointing out this hypocrisy is something we should all do when people start calling for blood-revenge as a form of “justice.” The position of the beautiful Tiaanet is also a good illustration of how a power-hungry father uses his daughter for his own purposes, and in so doing creates a disastrous situation which reverberates throughout the book.

Overall, I found the world-building of The Shadowed Sun to be as good as The Killing Moon, but the occupation plot and return of the exiled prince were a bit too familiar, as was the love-hate romance of Hanani and Wanahomen. For that reason, I gave it 4 stars rather than 5, but still emphasize that anything Jemisin writes is superior to the vast majority of derivative medieval European fantasies with dragons, elves, dwarves, and magic swords and quests that still clutter bookstore shelves (to be fair, a lot of much higher quality fantasies have been coming out in the last decade, so I support this trend whole-heartedly). The DREAMBLOOD series is mature, intelligent, and challenging fantasy that is unafraid to incorporate issues from the real world, without detracting from the quality of its writing, story or characters.

Published in 2012. Gujaareh, the city of dreams, suffers under the imperial rule of the Kisuati Protectorate. A city where the only law was peace now knows violence and oppression. And nightmares: a mysterious and deadly plague haunts the citizens of Gujaareh, dooming the infected to die screaming in their sleep. Trapped between dark dreams and cruel overlords, the people yearn to rise up — but Gujaareh has known peace for too long. Someone must show them the way. Hope lies with two outcasts: the first woman ever allowed to join the dream goddess’ priesthood and an exiled prince who longs to reclaim his birthright. Together, they must resist the Kisuati occupation and uncover the source of the killing dreams… before Gujaareh is lost forever.

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STUART STAROSTA, on our staff from March 2015 to November 2018, is a lifelong SFF reader who makes his living reviewing English translations of Japanese equity research. Despite growing up in beautiful Hawaii, he spent most of his time reading as many SFF books as possible. After getting an MA in Japanese-English translation in Monterey, CA, he lived in Tokyo, Japan for about 15 years before moving to London in 2017 with his wife, daughter, and dog named Lani. Stuart's reading goal is to read as many classic SF novels and Hugo/Nebula winners as possible, David Pringle's 100 Best SF and 100 Best Fantasy Novels, along with newer books & series that are too highly-praised to be ignored. His favorite authors include Philip K Dick, China Mieville, Iain M. Banks, N.K. Jemisin, J.G. Ballard, Lucius Shepard, Neal Stephenson, Kurt Vonnegut, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, Ursula K. LeGuin, Guy Gavriel Kay, Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, J.R.R. Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, etc.

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2 comments

  1. I have not read this duology of hers. Don’t know how it got past me, but you’re awakened my interest in it, Stuart.

  2. A fantasy series based on something other than medieval Europe? Sign me up!!

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