Review: “The Shadowed Sun,” N.K. Jemisin

Pros: Such delightful characters and plot!
Rating: 5 out of 5

N.K. Jemisin’s The Shadowed Sun (The Dreamblood) is the second book in The Dreamblood Duology. And frankly, I can’t stop giving 5-star ratings to all of these Jemisin books! This volume takes place ten years after the events of The Killing Moon. The Kisuati rule Gujaareh in an uneasy peace. Prince Wanahomen has been living among the desert tribes of the Banbarra, attempting to raise an army. He may finally be ready–a number of Gujaareen nobles and merchants have pledged soldiers to his cause and the tribes of the Banbarra will soon cast votes to see if they will follow him to take back Gujaareh. Even the Hetawa is willing to back war–they’ve sent their first female Sharer-Apprentice, Hanani, along with her mentor Mni-inh, to aid Wanahomen by healing him and his troops as needed. Hanani is our protagonist, and she has much to learn of Banbarra social customs as she comes to live among them. Among the Hetawa she has had to live largely as a man since the Hetawa has never had a female Sharer before, and now she has to learn to be a woman. But where the men of the Hetawa fear and resent her presence–with a few exceptions–some of the women of the Banbarra take her under their wing and help her to finally come into her own. Meanwhile, there’s a horrible nightmare traveling through the dreamers of Gujaareh–one that is contagious, and can literally kill! When it contaminates the majority of the Sharers, the Hetawa falls into disarray.

The society-building is exceptional. For instance, it isn’t just a case of one society empowering women while the other doesn’t–it’s more nuanced than that. It’s only because of the Kisuati that the Hetawa has finally inducted a woman, but on the other hand, there are ways in which the Gujaareen see women as higher beings as well. And the Banbarra have their own mixed treatment of women. It’s much more interesting than stories in which women are treated monolithically by each society. The same is also true of slaves and servants in this society. The Kisuati and the Banbarra keep slaves, while the Gujaareen keep a servant caste. Again, it isn’t straightforward who has it best or worst.

I do have to include a content warning for attempted rape, rape, and incest. There are some dark themes in this book, particularly regarding who has power over whom and how they wield it. It’s handled well, however, and is never made to be titillating or prurient.

I love the characters in this book, and the relationships between them. Hanani is a very involving protagonist, and I got terribly wrapped up in her situation. The story was intense, and I loved being carried along for the ride. The characters have a lot of depth to them, and this makes for interesting evolving relationships. Hanani and Wanahomen, as well as Hanani and Mni-inh, have really interesting interactions. We do get to see Gatherer Nijiri again, and it’s interesting to see him through Hanani’s eyes.

Obviously I’ll try not to spoil anything, but I will say that I was very pleased with how things worked out. Hanani is allowed to be a strong character with plenty of agency and depth to her. She doesn’t have an easy time of figuring things out for herself, but that’s okay. That’s part of what makes her so interesting.

He had grown up watching Gujaareen noblemen offer ten layers of insult with a shift in tone and an out-of-place bow. Banbarra were so direct that he found them refreshing, even when they meant to be rude.

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