The Shadowed Sun is the second book in acclaimed fantasy writer N.K. Jemisin’s Dreamblood Duology, and it is perfect. Can I say that? It is imaginative and other-worldly while still grappling with struggles familiar to our human world. It is both complicated and gripping; detailed and fast-moving; rich in character and setting, and also suspenseful and shocking. It is a giant Renaissance oil painting, but it is also a comic book, and I can’t get enough.
The Shadowed Sun picks up where The Killing Moon left off, with a vibrant city stifled under foreign occupation. The opening chapters lay out characters like tarot cards, most of them new strangers, and Jemisin wastes no time testing them. A healer apprentice, a prince in exile, a wealthy family wrangling for power, and others. Jemisin does a fine job carrying the reader from person to person, refreshing our memories at the beginning of each chapter, but it’s still a relief when their stories start to merge. And it feels like these books would be newly satisfying on second reading, since there’s so much more to absorb once the characters are cemented in our minds.
But even on first reading The Shadowed Sun is as rich as the best curry you’ve ever tasted, hitting a full range of complex flavour notes at the same time as being, simply, good. I often pictured the characters waiting for me at times that I wasn’t reading, like avatars in a video game, standing in the middle of a desert encampment scratching their chins or pacing bedrooms contemplating big problems, goading me to pick up the book again. Their lives feel real, and the tastes of them linger.
This is partly due to Jemisin’s word-to-word writing, but also her mastery of scenes. She’s ruthless in her structure, showing us only the moments of serious impact, and she crafts these to push the story on various fronts. Some writers might need to show a three-second clip of a phone call, a snippet of conversation that proves motive, or a glimpse of a character fingering a keepsake, but Jemisin doesn’t need these little conjunctions to make her story work. The curtain goes up, the players work the set, they argue and challenge and search for ulterior motives, and then the curtain goes down to set a new scene. She tells the story with the confidence of someone who sees the whole chessboard, each scene a deliberate move towards checkmate.
There’s also something refreshing about the way Jemisin writes about war. I don’t enjoy reading gore, but Jemisin sprinkles details and strategies in a way that solidifies the mental picture:
“The battle began with a late-afternoon rumor, which quickly grew to an alarm. A dust trail had been spotted against the horizon, diminishing rather that growing with nearness, and it eventually became an army passing from the dusty foothills into the wetter greenlands, then coming along the irrigation roads toward the city. It would arrive in hours. Kisuati units that had been dispersed throughout the city to keep the peace quickly responded as runners brought new orders from Yanya-iyan. Some went to the walls in defense; others prepared to defend the defenders, aware that the city presented a greater danger than the army outside. Still others went to Yanya-iyan, there to marshal their forces for the biggest battle of all.”
Jemisin has said that there could be more to the Dreamblood series, with further books centering other professions. So far we’ve read about the Gatherers, who enter people’s dreams to take their souls to the afterlife, and the Sharers, who enter people’s dreams to heal physical and mental injuries. But there is more to this vivid world, and I hope one day Jemisin finds the time to write it.