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Fantasy Review: ‘The Shadowed Sun’ by N. K. Jemisin

The author has done something pretty cool here.  The second book of the Dreamblood duology is set in the same world as “The Killing Moon.”  It features some of the same characters.  It requires all the set up that amazing first book provided to work.  But it reads like something completely different, going in its own unique direction.  “The Killing Moon” was focused on what makes right and wrong, the price of peace, and saving the city; “The Shadowed Sun” is more focused on roles of people within the society, taking place after the city could already be lost.

While two main characters from the first book, Nijiri and Sunandi, do have prominent roles, most of the story revolves around two new characters, Hanani and Wanahomen.  Hanani is the first women to be admitted to the Sharers, a sort of magical healer.  Though change has been made necessary due to the occupation of Gujaareh, she is still looked upon with suspicion even from those she is meant to help.  Wanahomen is the exiled son of the now dead Prince of Gujaareh, and thus heir to a city under occupation.  The people of the city are not content to stay occupied, and most of the book deals with several plans to bring Wanahomen back to the throne.

So the attempt to retake the city makes up the main story, but much its predecessor this book is impossible to define by one plotline.  A magical sickness is affecting people in the city indiscriminately, and curing it may shake people’s since of right and wrong.  The author seems to be pushing against traditional fantasy a bit in this book; looking a little deeper at the caste society she has built, and showing people with completely different reactions to acts and threats of sexual violence.  And just to keep it interesting, a rather sweet love story is built through the second half of the book.

I liked most of the new characters.  Wanahomen was built to be a Gujaareh prince, and as such struggled between doing right by his conscience and doing right by his people.  We first meet him as a leader of desert nomads who must consistently prove he is not an outsider to them, despite eventual plans to leave them.  A strong secondary character was a woman who in a typical fantasy book would have been cast as the jealous ex who makes the new girl miserable; in this book she was the woman who eventually earned the trust and confidence of Hanani. 
“The Killing Moon” had some darkness to it, but most the violence took place in dreaming.  Scary, but rarely was it hard to read.  For the squeamish this book may be a bit harder to get through.  As the peace has been shattered by the occupation there is much more bloodshed.  A fathers unnatural love, a violently stopped assault, and particularly painful to read about dismemberment should drive home that this isn’t a children’s story.

I can’t say that I liked the book as much as its companion.  While still very good, more things bothered me this time around.  The truly unique world was still present, but until the second half the story could have taken place in almost any world; it was a more generic occupation story.  Also, outside of Sunandi the occupying forces seemed comically inept; at no point did it seem they had a handle on the town they controlled.  In this case the “secondary” story lines were much more interesting to me than the main one.

Still, it was a great conclusion to the two book series, and I am so glad to have found the Dreamblood set.  I hope lots of people read Jemisin, because I can’t wait to see what other stories she has to tell.

4 Stars

The Dreamblood
The Killing Moon
The Shadowed Sun


Fantasy Review: ‘The Killing Moon’ by N. K. Jemisin

“In the ancient city-state of Gujaareh, peace is the only law. Upon its rooftops and amongst the shadows of its cobbled streets wait the Gatherers – the keepers of this peace. Priests of the dream-goddess, their duty is to harvest the magic of the sleeping mind and use it to heal, soothe . . . and kill those judged corrupt.” Cover blurb from ‘The Killing Moon.’

How to describe a book as unique as this?  Assassin tale?  Well, maybe, but to lump this in with the thousand books with a man in a cloak on the cover would be a travesty.  Several have tried to make their assassins unique, but in this book the protagonist would resent even being called an assassin.  Try again.  Distopia?  After all, the limit of what humanity will allow in keeping such a long and stable peace works right in with Orwell and the like.  But perhaps not, distopias usually deal with a possible future, and this is still very much a fantasy novel.  Vampire tale?  Hell, I was three quarters through the book before I recognized that this may be the most cleverly hidden vampire tale I have seen, I certainly don’t want it lumped in with that over saturated genre.  I guess completely unique epic fantasy is the best I can do.

A lot of important little touches went in to building this unique experience.  While there is an Egyptian flair, it was not the typical “add a pyramid and now it’s not a western influenced fantasy.”  Rather the author changed everything; flood cycles instead of years, counting by fours, and adding a caste system that varied between the different city states.  As readers we are dropped right into the world, with no long info dumps holding our hands.  This may slow down the early book as a reader tries to keep up, but also worked to keep the book from every feeling bloated.  The religion is unique, the world is alive, and the city of Gujaareh feels completely real.

The story itself deals with a Gatherer named Ehiru who discovers that corruption may be staining everything he thought he stood for.  He is a hard man to like, as the gatherers are in effect assassins fully confident that they are doing the blessed work for the Goddess Hananja.  They have the ability to walk into dreams, displace the soul and send it to a better place, and gather the ‘dreamblood’ which they take back to sharers who can use it healing.  At times they are used as a euthanasia, helping send the terminally ill out with honor.  At others they are sent to ‘gather’ from those judged corrupt by the order.  All combined, this process makes the city a virtual utopia.  Very little crime or sickness, lack of corruption keeps starvation and other problems down.  A true ‘city on the hill.”

Though Ehiru is the focus, it is through Nijiri, his apprentice, that we really understand him.  They share a bond that neither want to call love, and the trials they go through together near the end of the book are powerful moments.  Sunandi is the last piece of the main cast, a woman Ehiru is sent to ‘gather,’ but instead provides information that may prove life changing for all of Ehiru’s order.  She also provides a conscience to Nijiri that he was never given during his training.  Is there cause really just?  How much is peace worth, and how far should a man be able to go to achieve it?  If gathering is beneficial to all, why is it so hard on the gatherers, and more importantly, so hard for them to stop?

My qualms are so minor as to be almost not worth mentioning.  I didn’t quite understand how Gujaareh had avoided war with its neighbors for so long, even with the use of magic.  And I didn’t understand how an entire city could be serviced with so few gatherers.  And that is it, usually I have a list of nitpicks even on my favorite books, and in this book I have two.  The book was so good I even read the glossary provided at the end to see if there was anything more about the world I could pick up.

5 stars, highly recommended.

The Dreamblood
The Killing Moon
The Shadowed Sun

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