Naseem Jamnia: The Bruising of Qilwa (2022, Tachyon Publications) 4 stars

In this intricate debut fantasy introducing a queernormative Persian-inspired world, a nonbinary refugee practitioner of …

Bruising of Qilwa

4 stars

This book was a delight in a lot of ways. I'd describe this as a medical fantasy ~mystery with a non-binary[*] refugee protagonist Firuz, their trans brother Parviz, and the orphan Afsoneh that they've rescued and included in their family. Firuz overworks themselves in a local clinic to support their family while trying to keep their blood magic a secret and also investigate a mysterious illness.

Even though there's plenty of heavy topics here, it is refreshing how queernormative of a world this is. Firuz and Parviz are never mispronouned. There's one character that has two moms that is unremarked on. Parviz is looking for an alignment spell (i.e. magical gender transition) and Firuz has gone through the same. Firuz's Sassanian culture introduces people with pronouns almost like a title, e.g. they-Firuz or she-Afsoneh which is a fun detail.

In some ways, this reminded me in some ways of The Witness for the Dead in terms of the urban-centered medical fantasy mystery setup. However, this book doesn't really fit into the mystery genre. It's certainly the main plot arc, but Firuz is not an investigator; if anything they are an overworked clinician who doesn't really have time to do more than worry and whose own secrets and fears prevent them from looking too closely into much until it's too late. I think the other failing on the plot front is that some of the motives of the antagonist are only revealed quite late and would have been better if there had been more room to stretch out with foreshadowing.

I appreciate that there are no easy answers to anything here. Firuz is trapped between hating the lessons of their youth but also respecting some of their wisdom. Qilwa is clearly treating Sassanian refugees poorly, but it turns out there's some historical reasons for that persecution, even if awful. (The author's notes gets into some of this, re: Persians and the idea of the historical oppressors becoming the present day oppressed and how to hold both of these things at once. It reminds me of the dynamics in Robert Jackson Bennett's City of Stairs doing similar things.) Firuz is not a perfect character and even while they overwork themselves to support their family, they struggle in their family (and found family) relationships. The antagonist here has their own reasonable motives for what they're doing.

I enjoyed this a lot personally especially for the richness of the world and characters, but there were also some rough edges in the plot structure. I will absolutely read the next thing Naseem Jamnia writes.

[*] I know pronouns and gender are separate things, but in books without explicit identity labels it's hard to know how characters see their own gender; I do see that the author's own copy about the book says non-binary, so I think it's a fair usage. I also read Firuz as trans here, as they went through their own alignment process, which honestly makes this the only book I've read with a trans and non-binary character, let alone protagonist. Also bonus footnote aside that Firuz is also ace.