Thursday, September 8, 2022

[Microreview]Novella: The Bruising of Qilwa by Naseem Jamnia

 A queernormative story of refugees, oppression and the legacies of empire, against the backdrop of a magical medical mystery.

Cover art by Elizabeth Story

The Bruising of Qilwa follows Firuz-e Jafari, a healer fled to the Free Democratic City State of Qilwa to escape the dangers to their people in their homeland, and particularly for those of their people who practice blood magic. In Qilwa, Firuz has found a clinic that will hire them - Sassanian heritage and all  - and so they masquerade as a practitioner of more acceptable magics, trying to eke out a sufficient existence to feed their family and find them a home outside of the dangerous slums. But when a mysterious new disease starts to show itself, they find themself unable to resist using blood magic to delve into it.

There are three major strands to the plot and themes of the book, the first of which is the medical mystery - Firuz works in a healer's clinic that particularly is willing to cater to those who can't pay in money (or sometimes at all), and so we get to see their daily experience of illness as it affects those on the margins of society, and those who have been forced into the direst of circumstances, many of whom are refugees like Firuz. This in and of itself is well-done, but it gets better when it's intertwined with magic - magic used in small ways, day to day, for small things and as part of a broader set of healing sciences. It's a super effective way of creating a world in which magic is incredibly normalised, and giving space for us to see it as an intrinsic part of Qilwan life, as well as Firuz's life, and that of Kofi (their boss). We don't get to see the schools that teach it, or learn much about it in the abstract, but this is all in favour of seeing it as a part of people's general experience, and how it touches on daily life, rather than magic as something apart. And particularly, in the case of the mystery, it may be the only way the healers will discover exactly what's causing the lethargy, strange bruises and other ailments that seem to be increasingly plaguing the clinic's patients. While the mystery is in many ways the main plot driver, it also dips in and out of focus, as we look at Firuz's life outside of their work, but it never feels forgotten or abandoned - because the plot is so rooted in Firuz's life, and how incredibly busy they are, juggling so many different responsibilities, it feels extremely natural in context for their attention to shift between whatever the current crises are as needed, which gives the story space to put certain things on the back burner for a little while, without seeming to drop them entirely. The work in the clinic is a touchstone the plot always returns to, and the ebb and flow of patients an easy way to introduce and reintroduce themes that affect the healers and their patients.

We also get to see the intersection of the clinic's patients' refugee status and their political position, as the powers that be, and the general populace, in Qilwa, seek to blame them for the spread of plague through the city, and the effect that has on how Qilwa legislates medical care, and tries to protect itself, or the parts of itself it cares about, further.

And this is the second strand, on refugees, and how the world looks at them, treats them and holds them to account for things beyond their control. The precarity of life in a hostile world for those fleeing for their lives. The standards they are held to, the barriers they have to cross. While I can think of many SFF stories in which one could argue that the protagonist or major characters are refugees in their contexts, I cannot think of many that choose to grapple with that as one of their major focusses, and so it is extremely welcome here, doubly so because, as the story progresses, we see that the political issues at play, both in Qilwa itself and in the refugees' homeland of Dilmun, have further complexities and histories to them than we might have seen at first.

Which is the third thread, though one only briefly explored, about empire and its legacy, and how different people experience those histories. About the changing shape of nations, cultures and communities, and how power can shift and change, how people can shape that power, and those changes, based on the histories they've experienced. In their afterword, Jamnia talks about how their background, how their parents were Persians emigrating from Iran to the USA, influenced the world they created - the multidirectional tides of oppression and persecution, pride in the history of one's culture and the awareness of what that culture may have done, the flawed and the good, and how the good cannot be disentangled from the flaws in the society that made it. And this thoughtfulness and awareness constantly shows through in the story, in how they portray the three cultures, Qilwan, Dilmuni and Sassanian, throughout the story. There's very little in the way of big paragraphs of exposition explaining each's relation to each. Instead, we learn their histories primarily through how the people in the story interact with each other in the present, and how those histories have left a mark on them and their own conceptions of the world - and how those can differ, even among those who are friends. Jamnia has the knack for creating a complex world told in short ways and little space, while never sacrificing that complexity, and it is a joy to behold.

All of this is set against a backdrop of an immersive, evocative city, of which we see little, but feel very clearly, even from the first moment. It is also a city, and presumably a world, which is quietly but constantly queer-normative - we see it in the casual mentions of pronouns and terms of address (when being politely introduced, our protagonist is styled "they-Firuz", and another of their colleagues "she-Malika"), in references to people's parents or friends or mentors or past loves. We see a teenager who wants to medically alter their body's gendered characteristics as they go through puberty, and how magic can have an impact on that. None of these are the primary purposes of the plot, but nor are they sidelined or backgrounded - they are an intrinsic part of the world of Qilwa, and again, they are done with a deft hand at creating complexity in swift strokes.

The Bruising of Qilwa manages to marry an interesting medical mystery plot with the feeling of a slice of life view into moving through a fantasy world as a refugee, giving us realistic-feeling politics, sympathetic characters (who have very sympathetic disputes, where both sides have a genuine point) and above all, a protagonist who, run ragged as they are, is striving extremely hard to do good in a world that is making their life as difficult as it can be. It's a fantastic book, and I'd be extremely keen to read more from Naseem Jamnia, whether written in this world or something new.


The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 tension between protagonist and their brother is really well-managed, with both sides of the argument incredibly sympathetic
+1 being partly based (according to the author) on Anders and his clinic from Dragon Age 2

Penalties: -1 would have enjoyed seeing more of some of the other characters outside of Firuz

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10 very high quality

Reference: The Bruising of Qilwa Naseem Jamnia [Tachyon, 2022]

POSTED BY: Roseanna Pendlebury, the humble servant of a very loud cat. @chloroform_tea