Other than reading the “Riddles In The Dark” chapter of The Hobbit and mostly finishing The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe as a child, I only started reading science fiction and fantasy recently.
This is partly because I’m typically bored by worldbuilding. I want to get to know the characters first, and care about them and what’s going on in their lives. Then, maybe, I’ll care more about the politics and the world and what’s going on around them. If I’m not invested in the people in the world, then it’s unlikely I’ll be interested in the world itself.
The Bruising of Qilwa, a new, short fantasy novel (It’s only 180 pages long, and I finished the entire book in a single afternoon at the beach) by Naseem Jamnia, is an extremely fast-paced, engaging read — probably because Jamnia focuses primarily on the specific struggles of our protagonist and lets the worldbuilding happen in the background.
Bruising didn’t feel like young adult fiction, and our protagonist is somewhere around 30 years old, but with its simple, straightforward prose it read like it. This simplicity belies, however, its heavy adult themes and quite a bit of somewhat graphic violence. The novel jumps right into the action instead of giving an in-depth overview of the world, region, planet, or political power players. These elements end up being crucially important to the plot, however, and toward the end their reveal leads to a very satisfying payoff that wouldn’t have been possible had their been a few dozen extra pages of exposition at the beginning.
Instead, we know enough to care: Our main character, they-Firuz, and their family — a teen brother and mother — are slum-relegated refugees in Qilwa, because they were chased out of their homeland Sassanid, to some degree because of war with a third nation, and to some degree because their people are being targeted, apparently because some of them practice “blood magic,” which is forbidden.
Firuz wants to be a healer and gets a job at the last free clinic in Qilwa, which operates to the benefit of all, including refugees — despite the government’s attempts to buy it out and thus gut it — using the acceptable forms of magic and science they know and hiding the fact that they are an adept blood magician. They come across a refugee girl, with the tell-tale signs of also being adept at blood magic, and attempt to teach her how to wield it — though her natural skills may be too strong for Firuz to handle. Even worse, more and more of Firuz’s patients are afflicted with a mysterious illness that, as it seems to target the blood, could be the work of a rogue blood mage.
Magic is part of the everyday fabric of this world and is presented as matter-of-factly as their language attaching gender pronouns to names during introductions. Queerness is entirely normalized, and “alignment,” what we might think of as a form of gender transition, is somewhat normal but still difficult, even when aided by magic. At least, it was normal in Sassanid, but now Firuz’s family are refugees in Qilwa. And as their brother begins puberty, getting his alignment underway, made even more difficult in a foreign land, another crisis is added to Firuz’s plate.
When one character does explain to another some of the intricacies of the political situation toward the end of the story, it gives context without being overbearing and complicates the narrative by raising tense, unanswerable questions. Qilwa is a newly independent nation in the shadow of its former colonizer, and Sassanian refugees in large numbers arrive seeking refuge. But are all of the power relationships between these three nations, with shared but strained and often divided cultures, as clear-cut as they seem? What do “homeland” and “immigrant” mean when one’s people have occupied a region for millennia — after originally colonizing its indigenous inhabitants? What does it mean to be a marginalized person living within and benefiting materially from the actions of a settler colonialist nation? What obligations do we have to “our people” and what to humanity as a whole?
These aren’t the only difficult questions The Bruising of Qilwas expertly explores. When the main villain reveals their actions, they — like all of the best villains — have an entirely admirable outlook and intention, but difficult-to-justify methods. They-Firuz is presented with multiple competing priorities: the refugee crisis, their job as a healer, the material well-being of their family, the young girl they’ve chosen to mentor, the mysterious illness spreading. They can’t do it all at once, and when they choose to act, according to their best approximation of ethics and morals, it’s not clear how they should prioritize or what the right move should be.
This fast-paced, deceptively simple, and thoroughly enjoyable short novel would be a wonderful introduction to fantasy for someone wanting to dip their toes in without committing to an epic like A Song of Ice and Fire. That being said, the world is so fascinating, and the characters so fully developed, I would happily read as many other stories as Jamnia decides to set in this world. It’s a tense exploration of weighty themes that can be easily mapped onto present-day issues, but grounded in lovable, sympathetic characters — many of them queer — and fun fantasy elements that are easy to understand but deep in their implications.