I haven't yet read The Fifth Season, but I was absolutely delighted when N.K. Jemisin was nominated for a Hugo this year, despite the best efforts of certain slates. I've now read four of her books, and been impressed by every single one. And seriously, I think The Shadowed Sun might go to the head of the list as my favourite, which would be a very hard choice indeed.
Which is strange but not strange, for a specific reason. I've been ranting a lot recently about the inclusion of rape as either a throwaway or as a lazy way of denoting badness. And a lot of it has come down to "I need to fucking read about fewer rapes." Here I am turning around and talking about a book that includes a fair amount of sexual violence, and saying it's really excellent. And it is. I've had to do a lot of thinking about why this book works for me when Proxima threw me into fits of frankly unhealthy rage.
Here's what I came up with: it's not titillating. It's not throwaway. It isn't just there for flavour. It is, in fact, absolutely central to one of the storylines, and comes out of who the abuser is and everything about him. Which is gross and awful and uncomfortable, but it's rooted in the specific, the real, not the generic or the surface. For this storyline to happen the way it does, an act this horrific must have occurred, and it did.
It still makes me uncomfortable, but it doesn't make me enraged. It makes me sad, because despite the fact that this is a fantasy book, it feels disturbingly genuine. It's a difficult storyline, but it's not gratuitous, and it doesn't treat the women concerned as props to make the point that men are bad.
So, on to the story! Taking place some years after The Killing Moon, life in Gujaareh has settled uneasily. They're ruled by the Kisuati now, although Sunandi has made efforts to try to make the occupation less burdensome. She's cut off at the knees by the Kisuati elite, and the situation starts to spiral out of control.
Hanani, the first female Healer ever, is sent out of the city on a mission to the desert tribes, because Wanahomen, the son of the last Prince of Gujaareh, is assembling an army there to take his city back. Wanahomen hates the Hetawa because he blames them for what became of his father. (The Hetawa are the magical elite, including the healers.) So much of this book is about clashes of culture, around women's roles, around magic, around power and how it should be wielded.
It all feels so precise, so beautifully drawn, that, as with the first book, I find it hard to pick sides. There is no side that has all the good attributes vs. one that has all the bad, and that is so disappointingly rare. These are real ethical dilemmas, and there are times that I was made uneasy by turns of events, but then would remind myself that death itself has a different meaning in this fantasy world, and that what makes me uncomfortable stems from my own cultural context.
The story is largely about Hanani and Wanahomen, and it's really marvellous. (And at times, damn sexy.) The struggle, the slow trust, the betrayals and anger and grief, Jemisin has captured them all within a striking storyline, and then woven it against a much larger canvass. I'm a big fan of this book, and a big fan of hers.