Review: The Shadowed Sun by NK Jemisin

Warning: This review contains spoilers for The Killing Moon.

Just three weeks ago, I reviewed NK Jemisin’s The Killing Moon, a wonderfully inventive fantasy novel featuring a magic system based around dreams.  I loved the book’s rich world and its compelling characters — and I was beyond excited to realize that the second book in this duology, The Shadowed Sun, was just weeks away from its release.

If you have not read The Killing Moon, stop reading this review right now.  Go read this review instead.  But if you’ve already read The Killing Moon and want to know if The Shadowed Sun keeps up Jemisin’s incredible streak, read on.

Ten years after the death of Prince Eninket, Gujaareh is still ruled by the Kisua Protectorate.  Sunandi, the brilliant diplomat and spy from the first book, is now Gujaareh’s governor, managing the city in the name of her homeland.  But tensions are simmering in Hananja’s City.  The Kisuati soldiers who patrol the city bully and brutalize the native Gujaareen citizens.  Even a people who value peace above all else are starting to feel their anger rise.  Meanwhile, Eninket’s exiled son attempts to unite a loosely associated group of desert tribes to fight the occupying Kisuati.

As in The Killing Moon, we see these grand events through the eyes of three characters.  The first character we meet is Hanani, the only woman ever admitted to the Hetawa priesthood.  Hanani and her mentor Mni-inh know she will have to prove herself twice over to become a full Sharer (a healer), but in the book’s first chapter, Hanani’s trial goes wrong when her young assistant dies collecting Dreamblood for her healing work.  Meanwhile, Prince Wanahomen, Eninket’s son, seeks to reclaim his father’s throne, eject the Kisuati from the city, and — ideally — revenge himself upon the Gatherers who killed his beloved father.  Finally, Tiaanet, a renowned Gujaareh beauty, begins the search for a suitable husband who will further her father’s ambitious plans, but there is more to her family than their political schemes.

One of the things I love most about Jemisin’s writing is its moral complexity.  Even Prince Eninket, who tried to use the horrifying Reaper to conquer the known world in The Killing Moon, was not entirely a monster.  Likewise, although the Kisuati rule has been disastrous for Gujaareh, it is not clear that we ought to be on Prince Wanahomen’s side.  He is ruthless, angry, and still in denial about why his father was killed. It is also unclear whether we ought to root for Hanani to become a Sharer.  Despite her obvious talent for healing, being isolated within the priesthood and subject to the eternal scorn of her “brothers” seems a hard fate for the shy, compassionate young acolyte.

In many ways The Shadowed Sun is the darkest of Jemisin’s books.  A recurring theme in the novel is sexual violence and the circumstances under which a culture tolerates rape, or even uses it as a tool of warfare.  I often have mixed feelings about rape or attempted rape being used as a plot point in novels, but Jemisin’s treatment of sexual violence is anything but gratuitous.  In The Shadowed Sun, the theme of sexual violence plays into questions about power structures and the role of women in the cultures of the Dreamblood world — in other words, it’s not just thrown in to upset and outrage us, but to make the reader think.

I preferred The Killing Moon to The Shadowed Sun, largely because there were two developments in the latter that I didn’t quite buy.  (I won’t go into detail on them here, but if there’s enough interest in the comments I will open a Discussion with Spoilers on the Dreamblood duology.)  But rest assured that my objections are pretty minor and that The Shadowed Sun is well worth your time and money.  I can’t wait to read what the brilliant Jemisin writes next.

Rating: Buy It

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