Tachyon Publications has just released two short fantasy novels with winsome, lovely covers, both set in secondary worlds on the brink of crisis. In Naseem Jamnia’s Bruising of Qilwa the setting is the political powder-keg of Qilwa, a fractious city-state under pressure from an influx of desperate refugees and an uncaring and manipulative authoritarian government. Jamnia’s work feels like the beginning of a larger story, giving us characters and a setting to explore in future installments. R. B. Lemberg’s work The Unbalancing, on the other hand, is the final chapter of a world that is ending, an Atlantis re-telling of sorts in which we feel the wonder of a new landscape just in time to watch it slip beneath the waves.
In the early sun-swept hours of the morning, when purples and pinks smeared across the sky like blood, Firuz-e Jafari looked for a job. (Bruising, p. 11)
With the opening line of Jamnia’s novel, readers are immediately situated alongside an immigrant searching for work, and Jamnia’s prose does an excellent job maintaining a sense of displacement which mirrors that experienced by the main character. Qilwa is a new place to us; as readers we’re in the same shoes as the non-binary protagonist, Firuz, and like them we are unfamiliar with the city’s language, people-groups, and politics, though we learn quickly that things are changing in Qilwa under the forces of migration (an “other” whom Jamnia emphasizes in their opening epitaphs on migration and identity, which are taken from Kenyan and Iranian-American poets).
In and around Qilwa, Jamnia imagines a fantasy Iran in which the Muslim invaders of the Sasanian Empire were never expelled, resulting in “[t]he Dilumini Conquest of Sassanid, where the Dilmunis invaded from the sea and settled in our homeland, on command of their First Prophet of the Nameless God” (Bruising, p. 57). This is not explained immediately, and readers only get the history in bits and pieces. Firuz is Sasanian and as an immigrant to the city of Qilwa is twice displaced: once historically, in belonging to a conquered people, and again immediately, as a pogrom against Sasanians drove Firuz out of their homeland of Dilmun. In this island city off the mainland, Firuz finds work as assistant to Kofi, the only healer in Qilwa who refuses to raise prices on his services and continues to treat refugees.
In the novel’s setting, Jamnia creates a rich landscape of overlapping ethnicities and languages, laying a foundation for a world-building which proceeds very much out of Iranian culture. This richness informs the book’s vocabulary. Dialogue and description are filled with references to and many other Farsi terms. Gender identity and pronouns are part of this landscape as well. Many characters mentioned in passing have non-binary pronouns—ey, eir, zhe, hos, hu, as well as pronouns used exclusively for a deity. These are used casually and without explication, making them a seamless part of the cultural background. Jamnia’s prose makes their world feel more like a—to this reader previously unknown—corner of the real world, with occasional magical details to remind that it is indeed fantasy.
The narrative follows Firuz, who is trying to support their family, including a younger trans sibling who is desperate for Firuz to find a spell to bring his body into alignment with his gender. In addition to these concerns, Firuz worries someone will discover their own secret: that they are a blood-magic adept, able to interpret and manipulate their blood and that of others, a skill recognized in their homeland but frowned upon in Qilwa. Overlapping tensions build as Firuz meets another refugee, a young girl with blood-magic, and begins secretly training her to control her power. Simultaneously, a new illness begins spreading through the city, one that causes strange bruising on bodies which die but do not decompose.
Jamnia’s physiological, almost clinical descriptions of bodies are some of the sharpest points in the narrative, especially in a scene where Firuz attempts to use blood-magic to save a young boy effected with the new illness:
Blood had poured from Ahmed’s eyes, pooling in the hollows of his cheeks. His lips were bright red and drawn back from his gums, tongue lolling to the side, teeth bared in a frozen grin. Firuz had left a red handprint on his torso, and the place they’d cut was splayed open several fingers’ width. […] A thin red bubble bloomed on Ahmed’s chest, ballooning like a bladder. (Bruising, pp. 130-1)
Here readers should turn away should they wish to avoid a significant spoiler. The story climaxes when Firuz learns that Kofi, the gentle healer who took Firuz in and is helping align their brother, is responsible for the spreading sickness. Kofi’s justification—that the illness started as an experiment to prevent a return of a more serious plague—feels unconvincing, but that doesn’t prevent the sympathy Jamnia creates for Kofi throughout the narrative from making this betrayal emotional and unexpected.
Whereas Jamnia’s book focuses on an immigrant outside a society’s power structures, R. B. Lemberg’s The Unbalancing, a new novel set in their Birdverse universe, starts from the opposite direction, with two protagonists who move in their society’s centers of power. The narrative is set on an archipelago of islands and introduces a non-binary, neuro-diverse character named Erígra Lilún who communes with the ghost of her ancestor, a cranky guardian to the restless star that sleeps beneath the sea and is tethered to the islands of Gelle-Geu. Lilún is an ichiri, a gender neither male nor female which exists in at least four variations in Gelle-Geu society (but not, it is made clear, recognized everywhere else in the world of the story). These ichiri variations structure Lemberg’s book, though they don’t mirror Lilún’s path in the narrative (Lilún eventually identifies with a specific variation); rather, they provide a poetic framing for the novel—appropriate for a book based on Lemberg’s poem “Ranra’s Unbalancing,” published in Strange Horizons in 2015 and winner of that year’s Readers’ Poll for poetry.
Besides gender, Lemberg does an admirable job making Lilún’s neuro-diversity an essential part of their character. Never given a label, readers learn that Lilún prefers quiet, constraint, and limited touch, and Lemberg helps readers experience how overwhelming sensations can feel to Lilún and how texture and touch help focus and calm them. For instance, in the midst of a dramatic scene involving shouts, crumbling buildings, and a creaking island, we get Lilún’s perspective:
My world narrowed to a single piece of stone in front of me. It was reddish-gray and a bit jagged, and it fit nicely in the palm of my hand. It felt dusty to the touch, not unpleasant, but not what I was expecting. I would have dropped it, if not for the ridge of it pressing on my palm, a refreshing sensation that made me think of cold water, made me want to feel wetness on my hands. […] I tucked the stone into my pocket and stood up, not looking at Ranra. “I will follow you, but I cannot look or touch right now.” (Unbalancing, pp. 113-14)
As the story develops, Lilún’s world is disrupted by meeting the stubborn, tempestuous Ranra Kekeri, the dramatic engine who drives the narrative. The relationship between Lilún and Ranra is not a will-they/won’t-they romantic tension, or at least not for long. The question is whether the calm, reserved Lilún—who some on Gelle-Geu believe should have been named starkeeper—and the fiery, powerful Ranra—who has in fact been named the new starkeeper at the book’s beginning, can learn from each other quickly enough to make a relationship work—and do this against the backdrop of catastrophe.
One of the many beauties of Lemberg’s book is its easy acceptance of magic without labored explanation. Readers learn slowly that the goddess Bird brought several stars to the world and that these stars are nexuses of magic tethered to or tangled with specific landscapes across that world. Magic here functions based on deepnames, with a person’s magical strength depending on how many deepnames they hold and the number of syllables those names contain. Lilún and Ranra discover a new method of locking names together into a network by which a single user can call on the strength of many names. This seems to be the best method to save their islands, as their star begins to wake from a fitful sleep—and in this waking threatens to tear the islands apart through volcanic eruptions and earthquakes.
Whereas family and identity are major themes in The Bruising of Qilwa, consent is a central theme in The Unbalancing. The star is alive and aware, and Lilún urges Ranra not to impose her magic on it or compel it, in this way guiding their new lover through the importance of consent both in how Ranra manages her responsibilities to the star as well as in their own relationship. “The stars are people,” Lilún tells Ranra at one point, “and you do not fix people” (p 92). Lilún suspects the problems with the star’s bond with the land come from the fact that it was never woken and asked to be so bound. Its fitful sleep lasted a thousand years, but no starkeeper had ever received its consent.
As the situation on the islands becomes critical, Ranra organizes the named strong of Gelle-Geu into the magical network she and Lilún discovered, drawing on their combined power to establish contact with the star before its thrashing destroys their homeland. It’s in this moment that Lemberg shows how central consent really is to their story, as Ranra learns the true nature of the star itself: it is a network of linked names, from an earlier episode in the history either of this world or another, in which a similar network was created by a leader trying to save her own land—but who instead ended up absorbing the names, magic, and lives of her people, thus becoming the tortured collection that is the star.
Ranra realizes she could destroy the star, and save her own lands, by herself absorbing all those who are connected with her—but none of them, including Lilún, consented to such a step. Instead, Ranra makes a much harder choice, stepping back from the brink and choosing to allow the destruction of her land. Rather than a heroic confrontation, the narrative becomes one of exodus and escape. The power of Lemberg’s tale is that it’s clear by the book’s end that the Ranra from the beginning of the story, from before she met Lilún, would never have made the same choice. Ranra’s decision to value respect and consent over saving the islands means the star wakes and the islands sink beneath the waves—but not before most of the people (somewhat conveniently) escape, carrying their culture with them and ending where Jamnia’s book begins: with migration.
Both The Bruising of Qilwa and The Unbalancing are powerful in giving voice to marginalized or dispossessed characters without being flat, formulaic, or overly discursive. In The Bruising of Qilwa, the affirming, accepting healer who welcomes refugees becomes someone willing to take horrific steps to protect his city, and the protagonist is forced to face the moral ambiguity of Kofi’s decisions. In The Unbalancing, one protaginist begins at the center of her society’s power structure, but her desire for the novel’s other lead opens her up to understanding a positive self-abnegation in relationships—even at the cost of her home. It’s a compelling contrast: one a view of damaged idealism from a place of little social capital, the other of a character at the center of her society’s hierarchy finding a new sensitivity and humility. Most importantly, both novels deal with the respective costs.