After Tana French’s IN THE WOODS, what I wanted was something I could be absolutely sure I would love. And since NK Jemisin’s duology earned this review, not to mention this one, I was confident it would be a good choice.
It was. But it’s taken me a week or so to take a stab at putting my thoughts about this pair of books into words.
First, assuming you’ve read NK Jemisin’s first trilogy, the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms trilogy . . . let me say that this duology really doesn’t have the same feel. Instead of the very close first-person narrative, here we have a much more scattered third-person narrative. In THE KILLING MOON, we have three main pov protagonists: the Gatherer Ehiru, with whom we start and who felt to me like the primary protagonist until quite far into the book; Nijiri, his apprentice, who grows up the hard way during the course of the story; and Sunandi, from a neighboring country. Plus certain scenes are presented from yet other points of view: The Prince, Eninket, who starts off sympathetic before we realize that he’s actually, well, I don’t want to say ‘ruthless’ because that wouldn’t be strong enough. Also one of his generals, Niyes, briefly. And I’m sure there are others.
All these characters are handled well, but the effect of using a scattered third-person is that this duology feels slower to start than the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms trilogy. There you are drawn at once into close sympathy with the narrator; here you have to accommodate the shifting narrative. Plus the choice to use third person holds you at a slight distance from the characters. For me, this meant that the first quarter or third of the first book was not that engaging.
After that, well, I definitely did get drawn in! By the end, I cared very much about Ehiru and Nijiri and Sunandi. And about all the secondary characters, and the city of Gujaareh, and the country of Kisua. What I liked best about the main characters: none of them were perfect, all of them were different and complicated and felt like real people, all of them were very sympathetic, when they came into conflict with one another, it was for good reasons and they all learned to understand one another (pretty well, at least) by the end.
I was surprised to find that the first book stood very well alone. Events in the second book grow directly out of events in the first, but both books are surprisingly self-contained.
In THE SHADOWED SUN, Nijiri remains a minor character, so does Sunandi, and I was glad to see them both. And there’s a good scattering of other minor pov characters as well. But the main pov protagonists are the prince’s heir, Wanahomen, and the first woman healer-priest, Hanani. I had no trouble at all getting drawn into the second book, partly because I had already been drawn into the world, but partly because I loved Hanani a whole lot.
People are always talking about “strong female characters,” though what they mean by “strong” doesn’t always impress me very much; and the “first woman whatever” is a pretty common trope, of course. Jemisin handled Hanani and the society around her just perfectly. We get to see why women haven’t been allowed to be healer-priests (it’s not why you think) and why Hanani was an exception and the obstacles she runs into and the obstacles she doesn’t run into – all beautifully handled – and she does not become an honorary man even though she also does not accept a traditional woman’s role. My favorite thing in the whole second book is how Hanani at the end builds a life for herself that steps outside everyone’s expectations. Good for her!
The setting: everybody says this duology is set in an alternate fantasy world based on Ancient Egypt. Oh, come on. Sure, there’s a river that floods annually, creating a fertile region within a wider desert. Yes, we have a cosmopolitan and wealthy city set by this river. Details of clothing and jewelry and architecture may be similar. But there is no resemblance between the society of Gujaareh and the society of Ancient Egypt. None. Seriously, none whatsoever. So please, lighten up with the Egypt comparisons, people! What we plainly have here is a secondary world fantasy, and a very well done secondary world it is, but it’s nothing like Egypt. If you’re dying for a fantasy involving Egypt, how about LORD OF THE TWO LANDS by Judith Tarr? That’s a really good book. Or CLEOPATRA’S HEIR by Gillain Bradshaw, which is a historical novel rather than a fantasy and simply outstanding.
What we actually have in Gujaareh: a fabulous city, beautifully detailed, with a token secular ruler and a fascinating tripartite priesthood based on a unique and wonderfully-drawn religion. Plus a wider world around that city that is also well drawn and believable. What we have in this duology: a complex yet understandable and believable plot, with all the elements beautifully woven together. Wonderful characters. A beautiful and fascinating world. A satisfying conclusion to the first book, and an even more satisfying conclusion to the second. Highly recommended.