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The Shadowed Sun by N K Jemisin

August 18, 2012 1 comment

Imagine a world in which any system of magic is proven real. Magic is, by definition, the application of supernatural power with practical results in the real world. Obviously, it can take many different forms and manifest in many different ways, but each of these forms and ways is a means to access and wield power. Those with more limited abilities will only be able to influence outcomes in their immediate vicinity. Some of the top exponents will be able to produce results over wide areas. One or two may even approach god-like powers which can affect the entire world. Once the reality of the power is demonstrated, there will be people who plan to control it. In the first instance, the magicians will be bribed or intimidated into doing what they’re told. But there will always come a point when the individually powered magicians assert their own independence and decide their own fates. Quite how this works out will depend on whether the magicians feel the need to take revenge for the way they’ve been treated and whether they remain personally vulnerable.

 

The Dreamblood duology by N K Jemisin which began with The Killing Moon, continues with The Shadowed Sun (Orbit Books, 2012). As before, the book focuses on the path from temptation to corruption and its results. In every culture, people respect and revere those of ability who can contribute to the society’s greatness. In most cases, these will be people with positive abilities but, when there’s internal strife or external threats, people with negative and violent abilities must also be accorded a place for they are the means of practical control and defence. In the world created by this author, there have been two cultures based on a form of dream magic. Among the Kisuati, the magic evolved into a dangerous form and the non-talented naturally protected themselves by killing all the magicians. Among the Gujaareh, there was a benign veneer spread over the use of magic. It offered the people free benefits and bribed the wealthy. However, in this peaceful coexistence, there was a deeper purpose at work. In order to advance the evolutionary power of those able to wield the magic, a selective breeding program was secretly put in place.

 

What makes the breeding program particularly intriguing is the way in which it differentiated between the sexes. The gatekeepers positively vetted all the men for ability. When boys were found, wherever possible, they were taken into training. One element in the regime was to persuade those found most powerful to accept celibacy. The intention was to prevent their genetic lines from developing through the generations. But the women were not vetted. Women were simply encouraged to assume they had no magical abilities. In fact, there was no reason in principle why men and women should not equally come into power. Significantly, although this was never admitted, the failure to train the most talented women to control their talent often led to mental instability — something that would be passed of without comment. In the midst of this controlled culling and manipulation, one or two families were allowed latitude because their genes seemed to promise personal benefits. These men were encouraged to take multiple wives and/or concubines. This group produced a lot of talented people, some of whom have very dangerous abilities.

N K Jemisin awaiting three more rings for Olympic success

 

At the end of The Killing Moon, the plan to attack the Kisuati has been thwarted and we’re now into the period of military occupation as the Kisuati decide what they are going to do about the paradox of Gujaareh society. At a superficial level, the entire culture is one of peace yet it has produced a leadership bent on war and destruction for personal gain. Wise heads on both sides have produced some degree of stability. It was not the fault of the people that their leaders were corrupt. Punishing them for the sins of the few benefits no-one. Equally, the new leadership of the Hetawa in the worship of Hananja has purged the old corrupt leaders and now keeps the people in check, thereby avoiding heavy-handed repression from the occupying troops. Yet it’s obvious this situation cannot continue as the political temperature in Kisuati shifts to policies of more naked exploitation. The remaining wealthy nobles and merchants plan their own rebellion while out in the desert, Wanahomen, the surviving son of the Gujaareh king, rallies support among the tribes. The crisis comes to a head when the Hetawa chooses sides and places a powerful but inexperienced healer, Hanani, in the desert tribes.

 

The book’s study of culture is significantly enriched by the exploration of the desert tribal community which is not unlike the Tuareg. Wanahomen has to some extent been accepted into one of the tribes, but his position is not completely secure. The arrival of Hanani is an opportunity for all sides to review their relationships. She has broken the mould by being the first woman accepted into the Hetawa. Not surprisingly, she has been the victim of considerable discrimination. To then find herself unceremoniously dumped into a radically different social system is disorienting, particularly when, at an early stage, she’s forced to defend herself against a rape attack. While she struggles at a physical level, a different form of threat emerges on to the dream scene. In the end, a positive political and social balance is struck with the immediate dream threat defused, a rapprochement reached between the desert tribes and the rebellious wealthy, and the Kisuati accepting the invitation to leave. This is easily the best and most emotionally satisfying book N K Jemisin has written so far. Whereas The Inheritance Trilogy was somewhat mechanical, The Shadowed Sun manages a significantly better blend between the world-building and the characters, and reinforces my view that this author is well worth watching for the future.

 

For reviews of other books by N K Jemisin, see
The Broken Kingdoms
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms
The Killing Moon
The Kingdom of Gods

 

The Killing Moon by N K Jemisin

 

Once again, I’m obliged to remind the readers of these reviews that I’m an atheist. This disclosure will allow you an opportunity to judge the fairness of the opinions offered. Let’s start by considering a man who puts his life completely in service to others. He lives in the community and does everything in his power to improve the lot of the individuals he meets. Obviously such altruism is difficult to maintain without belief in a divine mission. Indeed, this person becomes an inspiration to those who believe God works though him to bring comfort to society. For him, the giving is not conditional on belief. Everyone is entitled to God’s love, even atheists who deny his God’s existence.

 

Unfortunately this man is unworldly. He may deliver practical care, but he’s probably unaware of the political situation among those he does not meet. Were he to get an overview, he might find his good works are completely misrepresented by those with a different agenda. So, for example, it may suit the rich that the poor are marginalised and exploited. If some do-gooder relieves their suffering and encourages others to follow his example, the poor may rise up against those that exploit them. So our saint must be diverted on to a different path. Corruption can easily interfere with the actions of the innocent and, because they are innocent, they will never understand how their good works are being subverted until they are forced to confront the evil that has befallen them. Once the veil is lifted from their eyes, however, they must have the chance to defeat the evil even though some may call this revenge.

N K Jemisin waiting for the trained bird to land on her ear ring

 

The Killing Moon by N K Jemisin Book One of the Dreamblood (Orbit, 2012) asks us to consider a culture that uses the psychic energy drawn from dreams to heal those who are injured or sick. The same energy can also grant a calm and peaceful death to anyone who asks for it. Is it compassionate to enable death with dignity? Or is this a culture that believes in murdering people? For the record, voluntarily ending a person’s life is a homicide even though it may relieve suffering. As a dramatic example, suppose a hunter comes across a driver trapped in a burning car. The door cannot be opened. The driver will burn to death in a few minutes. It will be a painful death. As the law stands, shooting the driver is murder. Hence, the decision of states like Holland, Switzerland and Oregon to permit physician-assisted dying creates a formal exception to the general law of homicide. So, in this fantasy world, Gujaareh worships Hananja, and her Gatherers and Sharers work for the benefit of the country. Across the border, the Kisuati long ago rejected narcomancy and the government currently prohibits any use of this form of magic on its lands. This is but one of several tensions that threaten the peace between the two countries. Leaders plot and plan. Spies ply their trade. In this delicate political situation, the most experienced Gatherer takes a new apprentice. This would usually be a smooth process but, from the outset, there are problems. Fortunately, the young Nijiri is fiercely loyal to Ehiru. Indeed, it may be more than loyalty.

 

What of love? A son may love his father before he understands the meaning of the word, a servant may move past obedience, through respect, to love his master. Except, of course, when these boys grow up and experience the world, they have the chance to choose how the relationship will develop. What was love can turn to hate. Or it can change from an unthinking, instinctive love into something broader and deeper as two adults acknowledge each other as equals. Then we take this new love and treasure it for as long as we have it, for uncomplicated love always ends, sooner or later. It’s the same between Nijiri and Ehiru as it was between the apprentice Ehiru and his master Una-une — a relationship that saved Ehiru from the danger posed by his brother, Prince Eninket.

 

In pre-industrial societies, the route to rulership is often bloody. The heirs must fight each other for the right to take the throne. The strongest candidate may even help his father to step down. In such cultures, the ruler will project a reputation to inspire fear in all the followers. This is a man who was not afraid to kill his brothers. He will therefore have no hesitation in killing anyone else who displeases him. Yet there are some who, having come into positions of leadership, decide the overt use of fear and death no longer achieves the most desirable results. It may suit them to project a more caring and loving image. The more gullible in society may believe such a transformation of character is possible.

 

The Killing Moon creates a completely fascinating world with a beautifully realised system of magic. It avoids all the simple-minded tropes and dives into a complicated religious and political situation where the innocent Gatherers suddenly discover their organisation has been corrupted. Not unnaturally, they are outraged and set out to purge the corruption. Except the obstacles prove difficult to overcome. This forces Ehiru and Nijiri on the run, and inadvertently into the business of trying to stop a full-scale war from becoming more likely. This book says interesting things about the uses and abuses of power, the nature of leadership and, at an individual level, how relationships form and potentially grow stronger. As the first in a duology, this is a major step forward for N K Jemisin. Although the Inheritance Trilogy was good, this is far better, leaving me waiting impatiently for the second book to complete the story, titled The Shadowed Sun.

 

For reviews of other books by N K Jemisin, see
The Broken Kingdoms
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms
The Kingdom of Gods
The Shadowed Sun

 

This novel has been shortlisted for the 2012 Nebula Award and the 2013 Locus Award.

 

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