The Shadowed Sun by N.K. Jemisin

It’s getting hard to keep track of (let alone rank) the Jemisin novels I’ve read, but this feels like one of the best. I was absorbed by The Killing Moon (book one in this duology), but this feels better still. We’ve returned to the same world, where Hananja is the most revered Goddess in Gujaareh. We’ve kept the systems – for example, Hananja’s worshippers following the four Paths to become Sharers, Teachers, Sentinels and Gatherers; but now, ten years after the action of book one, Kisua rules Gujaareh as an occupying force. Sunandi, who we know from book one, returns as Kisuati governess of Gujaareh; despite her role as occupier, she retains a certain sympathy and understanding for those she rules over, and an uneasy near-friendhip with the Gatherer Nijiri (also returning from the earlier book). Our protagonist is new: Hanani is a Sharer-Apprentice, the first woman to serve on any of the four Paths (the Sisters are an unofficial fifth route of service, but not as respected or formalized in the same way on the Council). Hanani experiences the prejudices and underestimation you would expect as the first woman in her world, but she soldiers on, so to speak.

Both within the city of Gujaareh and outside of it, revolution is brewing. The occupiers’ forces have begun to step out of line, the locals have begun to chafe, uppercaste nobility are angling for advantages, and a would-be prince of the Sunset Lineage has surfaced, living with the nomadic and so-called barbarian Banbarra tribes of the desert. Meanwhile, a nightmare plague (literally – it is spread, and kills, in dreams) is racing through the city, even infiltrating the Hetawa (Hananja’s church). In an unlikely turn, Sharer-Apprentice Hanani is given an opportunity to prove herself through a most difficult trial, which lands her in the desert, in a canyon full of Banbarra tents, and in the company of Wanahomen, heir of the Sunset Lineage.

Wana is a prickly one, and despite the lingering traces of Hananja’s Law and Wisdom in his memory and his heart, he has been with the Banbarra long enough to be quite a cultural leap away from Hanani’s devout obedience to her faith. (Hint: the “barbarians” are in some ways the more enlightened.) The two are bound together by a common goal to save Gujaareh, and soon by shared traumas and a bit of something like chemistry to boot. They will struggle sometimes against each other but often together, both learning about themselves and from the other. They grow into stronger versions of themselves in hopes of saving their shared homeland.

Wana is an interesting and eventually sympathetic (although never perfect) character, but Hanani is the star, followed by other women she meets along the way, including Wana’s mother and his former lover, a really fun one who helps outfit Hanani with Banbarra clothing, ornamentation, wealth and customs. Hanani fears that as the first and only woman in her line of work, any mistake she makes will reflect on her entire gender (isn’t that familiar), but eventually learns that this also means she gets to chart a course no one’s ever known. I love what she does with that.

Reading these two books in proper sequence is a must, and familiarity with the world of the first absolutely enriches the second. This was one of the deepest, richest pieces of fantasy reading I’ve done lately. Only wish there were more.

Rating: 8 polished rubies.

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