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Purple book cover for The Shadowed Sun shows a flaming sun eclipsed by a purple disc over a mountain top scene

N. K. Jemisin has cruised her way into my list of favourite authors over the last few years with her Inheritance Trilogy – three books that mix fantasy, romance and politics into an epically seductive potion. In 2012, she published the Dreamblood Duology and launched a new science fiction world that was just as fascinating as that found in "The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms".

I enjoyed "The Killing Moon", the first book in the duology, and got knocked down by its ending. Still, it didn’t quite take over my life and emotions with the same force as the Inheritance trilogy. After reading about the order in which Jemisin finished her novels I think that the writing just wasn’t polished enough to effortlessly suck me under. Techniques are tried out in "The Killing Moon" which felt more assured in "The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms", and the novel sometimes handed important information to the reader in a clumsy way. While "The Killing Moon" told an absorbing story its technical side was perhaps not as accomplished as the three later books built with more experience.

Enter the duology’s second book, "The Shadowed Sun". Maybe my heart beats so strong for this book because it benefits from Jemisin’s experience of having finished "The Killing Moon" and submitted it for publication? Perhaps being familiar with the world helped me to dive into the story more easily? Or it might just be that the character’s in "The Shadowed Sun" were more my kind of people. I just know I’m now this novel’s newest ambassador.

Let me count the ways I love it – the five wonderful elements that mean you should shove this novel into the limited space on your shelves right now.

World-building and Women

The men’s practise of veiling, for example; it was not simple unfriendliness. Yanassa explained that a man might bring in spoils from hunting and raiding forays, but it was the duty of his female relatives – who were less likely to be recognized, arrested or killed – to parlay those raw goods into usable wealth by trading in cities. Thus men cultivated a habit of concealment around strangers, while women learned the skills that would help them bargain for the tribe’s needs. “I was taught Gujaareen and four other tongues by my mother along with writing, figuring and investing,” Yanassa told Hanani proudly. “She did not bother with my brothers. But me she doted on, for she knew I would one day bring great wealth to our clan.”

In "The Killing Moon", Jemisin introduced readers to the fictional cultures of the Gujaareen and Kisuati, which both had their own distinct history and details designed to excite readers who enjoy world building. In "The Shadowed Sun" she adds a third culture - the seasonally nomadic Banbarra tribes who live in the desert. At the beginning of the novel the reader finds out that one of these tribes is housing the exiled Gujaareen Prince Wanahomen. Wanhomen is trying to build up an army in order to defeat the Kisuati occupiers who took over Gujaareh at the end of The Killing Moon.

I can’t stress enough how fascinating this Banbarra tribe is or how deftly Jemisin draws their society and home. There are so many elements of their life that I could talk about, but it’s me so predictably I’m going to focus on the women right away.

The tribe that Wanahomen lives with is led by Unte, a man. However, there is also a strong female power structure within the tribe. Women are important to the tribe because they are in charge of driving economic exchanges. It seems that by performing such an important function for the tribe, women have gained the right to power – possibly because wealth is crucial to status in Banbarra culture and the women control the influx of wealth for the tribe. Women also control the tents, which are another symbol of status. And women can negotiate in trade matters and become independently wealthy which again adds to their status in the tribe.

This societal set up reminds readers that in our own world the worth of a woman has often been dependent on how much money she can secure her family. However, Jemisin’s novel turns the usual connotations of this idea on its head. In her world, women are in control of their own wealth and their material worth can’t be stripped from them by men or transferred to male partners through marriage. Having independent wealth, wide education and being able to generate more wealth gives the women power and allure. They have the power to buy, bargain, dress as they wish, educate their children and initiate or end sexual relationships even though their tribe is run by a patriarch. In many ways they outrank the regular Banbarra men, and their tight female community is equally as important as the male warrior world. They also intimidate the men – you’ve got to love intimidating women.

While Kisuati and Gujaareen life continues be interesting and central to the novel, it was the Banbarra camp I was always eager to return to. The Banbarra women are only one of many groups represented in this novel, but the detail with which their world is built make them so alive and interesting that it would be easy to spend a whole essay analysing their community. What does their capitalist society say about female empowerment in our own world, and what are the limits of capitalist benefits for women? How do traditional female roles feed in to these women’s power base? Could there be a female warrior in Unte’s tribe? And perhaps most importantly, how did Yanassa get to be so awesome?!

Even when the novel wasn’t focusing on the female members of the tribe, the politics, parties and the community of the tribe made this community feel so vibrant and real that I was swept up in all their activities.

And Wait, There’s More Feminism!

“Don’t forget yourself, when you go back to that place,” Yanassa said, her eyes intent. “If you must go back to them, go back on your own terms. Serve your Goddess your way.

You will never be a man, Hanani, no matter how tightly you bind your breasts. You don’t want to be a man. And they may never accept you, no matter how well you follow their rules and ape their behaviour. So why shouldn’t you embrace what you are? And serve in whatever damned way you want!”

Hanani faltered, thrown by the very idea. Only then did it occur to her: what she did would be regarded as precedent, if ever another woman sought to join the Hetawa. Everything she did, all that she achieved, would set the pattern.”

Anyone who has read the Inheritance Trilogy will know that Jemisin is skillful at building feminism into her fictional worlds. She understands that the feminist movement isn’t composed of women who fell out of the womb peaceful and enlightened. Feminism is not about being nice – it’s about equality, and inequality. And because Jemisin includes all kinds of women with all kinds of perspectives in her novels readers get to see a fuller, more interesting picture of what feminism can bring. Jemisin’s narratives always build conflict, education and a range of personalities into her female cast and "The Shadowed Sun" is no exception.

As I mentioned above, this novel contains the Banbarra women, who are prickly, powerful and confident in the female positive power structure they’ve built inside a male ruled tribe. Excitingly, they aren’t the only female characters who provide interesting feminist commentary - there’s also Hanani, one of the novel’s main Gujaareen characters. Her experience of female power is very limited until she meets the Banbarra women and it’s wonderful to see her confidence and understanding grow throughout the book.

Hanani is the first female apprentice Sharer to be accepted to Gujaareh’s religious order, which is run from the Hetawa. As the only woman she has a tough time. The other Sharer’s, even Mni-inh who acts as her mentor, don’t know how to make a place for a woman in a system set up for men. She is told to ape their ways – dressing as a man and proving herself as a male Sharer would.

Hanani is thrown into Banbarra culture when the Gatherers of Gujaareh use her as a hostage in order to form an alliance with Wanahomen. She must drastically adapt to survive while living with the tribe, and while adapting she learns much about female culture and power. The Banbarra culture values women, but the way it values them is very different from the way Gujaareen men society values the female sex. Banbarra woman are respected and obeyed, but they are not thought to be goddesses as women are in Gujaareh. They aren’t treated specially or ‘sheltered’ from particular work because they are female. Instead they are all respected and are individually treated as their financial status demands in the context of the tribe’s rules.

Most importantly, the women of the tribe know their own worth and control their own femininity. One of the most emotive scenes in the novel comes when Hanani is given female hair decorations which mark her first period and her first sexual relationship. While this shouldn’t be the only way to marking ‘womanhood’ in our own society, it works effectively in this book as it visibly counters what Hanani has been told by a male Sharer – that because she follows the path of a celibate Sharer she will never be a true woman and that she is lesser because she lacks this womanly experience. Yanassa laughs this off with her, reminding Hanani that women know best what it means to be a woman, and it becomes an empowering moment that reconfigures Hanani’s world view. Loved it.

And this brings me neatly on to the community element of the novel…

Close Community

By nightfall, Hanani knew she was going to break. Wanhomen had been right about the silence. She sat in her tent for another hour, staring at the saddlebag and fighting the urge to fetch the urn, unwrap it, curl herself ‘round it and open it to see whether it smelled like her mentor, knowing full well that to do so would leave her gibbering. Finally she had no choice; she might hate the Banbarra for rejoicing when Mni-inh was dead, but hating them was better than missing him. So finally she emerged from the tent.

I said above that I liked reading about the Banbarra community, but let me take a moment to mention how wonderful this community is for Hanani. She’s lived with a close group since she joined the Sharers, but they have never accepted her fully. The Banbarra take to her much more quickly and several people go out of their way to make sure that she is safe, welcome and respected.

Chief among those people is Yanassa. Readers learn that Yanassa took Wanahomen as her lover and bore his son, but the two are now estranged. When the hostages arrive he approaches Yanassa and asks her to teach Hanani how to live among them. She agrees on condition of payment, but by the end of the novel she is much more than a paid watchdog; Hanani and Yanassa are firm friends, and the end of the novel indicates that they continue to be important to each other when Hanani moves back to be near the tribe. Yanassa was one of my favourite characters – confident, vivacious, firm and kind. And I enjoyed seeing a friendly relationship between two women who had loved the same man because that is so, so rare in fiction these days.

Hanani also finds many champions and friends among the rest of the Banbarra. Her magical ability to heal is almost unique, and she is valued both as a healer and accorded the respect due to a woman of the tribe. And while her time with the Banbarra is full of trouble, I think it says a lot that at the end of the novel she returns to live near them. They’re family to her now.

Complicated Romance

“I don’t love you, Prince,” she said, looking troubled. “Do you understand that? I want to, but there’s part of me that withdraws. I’ve lost everyone I loved, lately. It’s easier – safer – not to love you.

Taken aback, Wanahomen sat up on one elbow, and considered this. In a way it was only to be expected. She had coupled with him in the midst of mourning to ease her heart. Would she have wanted him at all if not for that? Impossible to say. The waking realm was not like dreams; one could not will it to change as one wished. He could only accept or reject what was given to him.

And he did not want to reject her. That much, if nothing else was clear.

I don’t have coherent words to describe the romance in this book. So complicated, so human, so hawt! At the beginning of this novel, I would never have expected to be genuinely routing for Hanani and Wanahomen to stay together. Wanahomen is a ruthless jerk, who at one point sets Hanani up to be assaulted. And Hanani is not at all suited to be a queen for Wanahomen; a man who holds everyone too tightly according to Yanassa.

Turns out, it was impossible for me to fight their connection, especially when you factor in the touch trope sex scenes that Jemisin has created. By the end of the novel they’d been on such a journey together and their connection was cemented. And Hanani had made Wanahomen come to her entirely on her terms, through a series of entrancing and empowered encounters. My favourite of these moments was probably the one that began it all. Hanani publicly drops an earring to invite Wanahomen to her tent. That small gesture is so loaded with meaning and desire, and that’s very much to my taste.

Recently, I’ve been spoiled by reading a slew of intelligent SFF romance from female authors. Kate Elliott, Kristen Cashore, Maggie Stiefvater and Jacqueline Kowanagi have all provided some stellar, complicated and sexy romances. It is just the absolute best feeling to be able to dig into a romantic storyline and see it acknowledge the complexities of trying to form a relationship in this messy, messy world. Even when the specifics of an SFF romance don’t relate to my own romantic issues it is still comforting to see writers expand romantic situations and show other options, other romances, other paths. Jemisin consistently does this in her writing, and I was very attracted to that element of "The Shadowed Sun".

Romancing the Dick

Perhaps I’d better marry her; that might shut her up

Of course, your mileage may vary on the romance side of things because Wanahomen is consistently kind of a dick. This quote comes just a few pages from the end of the novel. He’s learnt a lot about women, love and respect over the course of the book and thoroughly apologises for some of the mistakes he’s made, but this is still his go to thought when negotiating with a woman from outside the Banbarra. It’s undeniable that he still carries around some of the misogynistic baggage of the culture he was brought up in. Once a Gujaareen…

And for some readers the incident where he sets Hanani up to be assaulted, which ends in her killing a man, will be a deal breaker. It was easily as bad as the thing Andevai did to Cat in Cold Magic which I am still not over, so I understand if your reaction is to imagine Wanahomen burning in a firey pit. I won’t try to convince you otherwise.

While the devious trick he plays on Hanani is undoubtedly shady, I liked that the book was comfortable he was still an imperfect person at the end of the novel. However, I think I was only comfortable with Wanahomen’s specific imperfections because he had to eat a lot of crow before the end of the book and because Hanani is able to take so much control for herself. I think it’s their tandem development that I liked the best. I liked the way the book granted Hanani gifts to mitigate any consequences of Wanahomen’s less attractive nature. And I was interested in his desire to change when her goodness points out his flaws. This is one case where male emotional growth allowed me to stick with a romance which involves a vicious hero. I’d love to hear how everyone else feels about this side of the novel, so please drops comments if you’ve read it.

"The Shadowed Sun" was a fantastic way to cap off this duology, although the enjoyment it provided made me rather sad that there isn’t a third book set in this world. Imagine a book by a male Sister of Hanaji that takes place as the Gatherer’s rebuild Gujareeh under Wanahomen’s rule. I guess failing that I’ll just settle down with the bonus novella "The Awakened Kingdom". At least, until her next novel The Fifth Season comes out. How many months until that again?!

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Date: 2014-07-02 06:43 pm (UTC)
kass: Giles with a pile of books (Giles)
From: [personal profile] kass
I am right there with you on pretty much everything you wrote about in this post. \o/

Date: 2014-07-03 12:02 pm (UTC)
kass: kitten face (Default)
From: [personal profile] kass
I read this one a while back, but if memory serves, I really enjoyed the romance -- even though Wanahomen can be, as you say, a bit of a dick. (I think I came away wanting post-book Yuletide fic exploring the two of them, actually -- I should search the AO3 and see if anyone wrote any. :-)

Date: 2014-07-04 12:49 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
OKAY I WILL READ IT THEN. It has been sort of a while since I read my last NK Jemisin book -- long past time to wade back in!


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