Last month, N.K. Jemisin treated the world to The Killing Moon, a brilliant new fantasy novel set in a strikingly original world and populated by some of the most fascinating characters I’ve met in years. Now, barely a handful of weeks later, here’s the second and (for now) final novel in the Dreamblood series: The Shadowed Sun.
If you haven’t read The Killing Moon yet, you should probably stop reading this now and instead go take a look at my review of that first novel (or better still, just read the book) because the rest of this review contains spoilers for The Killing Moon. If you’re just curious whether this second novel is as good as the first one before committing, rest assured: it is. Actually, it’s even better. Just don’t read the rest of this review if you haven’t read that first book yet.
The Shadowed Sun starts ten years after the events portrayed in The Killing Moon. King Eninket’s ambitious bid for immortality and conquest has been stopped, but at a great price: the powerful city-state Gujaareh is now under the control of the Kisuati Protectorate. The resulting changes in the world’s political setup have created a whole new set of tensions, as the Gujaareen citizens and the Hananjan clergy chafe under Kisuati rule and, outside of the Dreaming City, the desert tribes jockey for position.
Hanani is the only female Sharer-Apprentice in the Hetawa. In order to blend in, she is forced to hide her femininity and dress and behave like a man. Her character initially feels somewhat similar to The Killing Moon’s Nijiri: a devout priest-apprentice with a complex pupil-mentor relationship who is on the verge of graduating in the Hetawa. Fortunately, she quickly takes on her own identity and eventually turns out to be one of the most interesting characters across both books. In the opening chapter of The Shadowed Sun, Hanani conducts a failed healing ritual that introduces one of the main plotlines in the novel: a mysterious disease that kills dreamers in their sleep.
Chapter Two introduces the second main character of the novel: Wanahomen (or Wana for short), whose name you may remember as the late King Eninket’s young heir. Ten years after we last saw him, he’s now a young man in exile with the Banbarra tribes, plotting to overthrow Kisuati rule and retake the throne that is rightfully his. This “prince-in-exile” plotline may seem a bit too recognizable, but it brings its own layers of complexity: Wana is an outsider in the Banbarra tribes, a complex culture with its own spoken and unspoken rules, and uniting the various tribes behind his banner isn’t an easy task.
Hanani and Wanahomen drive the plot of The Shadowed Sun, aided by several new and a few returning characters. Sunandi has become the Kisuati Governor of conquered Gujaareh and continues to be the voice of reason, now as an intermediary between her homeland’s rulers and the Hananjan clergy. An incredibly twisted noble family in Gujaareh is maneuvering to gain advantage from Wanahomen’s war planning. A few Gatherers who played prominent roles in The Killing Moon make memorable appearances in the new novel, including “little killer” Nijiri, who by now has fully assumed the fearsome gravitas of his erstwhile mentor Ehiru. It’s a testament to the quality and depth of N.K. Jemisin’s characterization that meeting some of these characters for a second time is so incredibly thrilling. Especially the scenes with Nijiri are highlights in an already very strong novel.
An interesting aspect of this series is the diversity of its cast of characters, but even though it’s as diverse as anything I’ve encountered in fantasy, this never feels forced: it’s just a logical consequence of the nature of this fantasy world. From sexuality to race to religion, the characters never feel like figureheads or tokens: they’re real people, with real motivations and feelings. That’s probably also why some of the stunning plot resolutions in this second novel have such a powerful emotional impact: the labels we apply to people are often fairly meaningless in this world.
Instead, characters are defined by their actions. The level of moral complexity is amazing: there are very few people who are purely good or evil, and many more who are occasionally willing to stray into the grey area to accomplish their goals. We meet characters whose mentalities are completely alien, not only to our sensibilities but also to those of people who live within traveling distance in the same world. The Shadowed Sun adds to this complexity by putting a third major culture in the picture: next to the Gujareen and the Kisuati, a large part of the novel focuses on the “barbarian” Banbarra tribes. For all intents and purposes, “barbarian” is probably best defined here as “someone who lives in the desert outside the city walls” because Jemisin makes it abundantly clear that, in some ways, the Banbarra are considerably more enlightened than you’d expect. Some of the most fascinating scenes in the book happen when a character who has led a very sheltered and repressed life ends up living with the Banbarra.
And as for the rest? Suffice it to say that, if you enjoyed The Killing Moon, you’ll probably be delighted with this sequel. The writing is once again simply gorgeous, combining elegance with density in a way that feels deceptively effortless, but is clearly a labor of love. In fact, The Shadowed Sun delivers everything the first book did — except that initial disorientation of getting used to the setting. Don’t get me wrong: just like the characters, the setting continues to gain depth in this new novel. The differences between Gujaareh and its conquerors, as well as the internal structure of Gujareen society, become more and more clear. However, by now you’re familiar with the religion, the vocabulary and most of the main players, and that makes this second novel considerably more accessible and instantly enjoyable.
Between them, The Killing Moon and The Shadowed Sun deliver more depth and originality than anything I’ve read this year in fantasy. I hate to throw around terms like “modern classic” too casually, but well, these two novels simply have it all. Absolutely brilliant.
This review was originally published on Tor.com on June 12, 2012.