Liz Bourke Reviews Hidden Sun by Jaine Fenn

Hidden Sun, Jaine Fenn (Angry Robot 978-0857668011, $12.99, 448pp, tp) September 2018. Cover by Andreas Rocha.

Jaine Fenn is probably best known for her Hidden Empire science fiction series, begun in 2008 with Principles of Angels, the last entry for which was Queen of Nowhere in 2013. Hidden Sun is her first novel-length publication in five years, and her first fantasy novel.

Well. For certain values of fantasy. It’s set in a low-tech world that isn’t ours, with a completely different astronomical setup, but nothing in it is outright magical. It could as easily be post-collapse-of-technologically-advanced-civilisation science fiction on a different world, and there are hints in the text that support the latter argument.

Hidden Sun is set in a divided world. In the skylands, the sun burns dangerously hot. The skykin survive there, because they bond with a symbiote called an animus, in a process that causes their bodies to change in such a fashion that they find the skylands survivable. They receive memories from the animus, and develop abilities to go with them. But because infants cannot survive in the skylands, children of the skykin are raised in crèches in the shadowlands.

The shadowlands are where the shadowkin dwell, and as far as I can tell from the text, shad­owkin are pretty regular-flavour humans. (So are skykin, apparently, until their bonding.) The sun doesn’t shine in the shadowlands with the burn­ing intensity that scorches the skylands, and the shadowlands – there are several dozen of them, separated by the skylands – are full of people and cities. The rulers of the shadowlands have agreements with the skykin to shepherd caravans between them, so goods and people can travel.

If you’re familiar with Jaine Fenn’s previous work, you’ll know that Fenn rarely stops to explain her worldbuilding. It took me a while to catch on, and I feel that a little more explicit exposition about the world at an earlier stage in the narrative would have made following the other elements of the plot a lot more straightforward.

About that plot. Hidden Sun has two main pro­tagonists, both of whom are viewpoint characters. Rhia Harlyn is a noblewoman in the shadowland city of Shen, a natural scientist – though her researches are discreet, as the shadowlands are a fairly chauvinistic place, and frown on women’s intellect – and, since her younger brother’s disap­pearance a year before, the last of her house. Her brother, Etyan, left the city in the wake of an un­solved murder, and when the city’s ruler informs Rhia that Etyan’s been located, Rhia insists on joining the small team of city militiamen sent across the skylands to the neighbouring shadow­land to bring him home. (She’s always wanted to see the world, take notes on it, and figure out how things work.) She succeeds in accompany­ing them by a spot of subterfuge, and her journey and rescue of her brother intersects with the other two viewpoint characters, fellow protagonist Dej and quasi-antagonist (experimental scientist and religious leader) Sadakh. Sadakh has injected a number of shadowkin with extracts from skykin animus, and of that number, only the younger Harlyn has survived. The reasons behind his experiments are a little obscure, but he doesn’t want to let Rhia’s brother go.

Dej is one of the skykin, raised in a crèche where she’s something of a troublemaker. When the time comes for her bonding, she’s separated from her best friend, Min, and finds the skylands far from as welcoming as she’d hoped. Her bond­ing with her animus is incomplete: she lacks the memories that “proper” skykin access through their symbiotes. That makes her an outcast. Taken in by a small band of fellow outcasts, Dej’s misery only grows, especially when she gets a woman on whom she has a crush killed. When her path crosses with Rhia and Etyan, Dej has the power to make meaningful choices for the first time in her life. When she chooses to help Rhia and Etyan, she’s choosing to align herself against the outcast skykin who took her in, and to put herself in the way of shadowkin politics.

This is in many ways a fascinating novel, but it feels oddly off-balance. The political manoeu­vring – which becomes prominent at the conclu­sion – isn’t much in sight at the beginning, and Rhia’s scientific inquiries, which are so important to her as a character, play little role in narrative events. This makes the pacing feel uneven, too.

Hidden Sun is an entertaining novel with compelling characters – although I did not enjoy the fashion in which the implication of active or reciprocated queer attraction was answered with death – but it doesn’t resolve most of the questions it raises. Fortunately, a sequel is in the works – Broken Shadows, next April – and I’ll be looking forward to it to see whether it succeeds in delivering resolution and catharsis.

Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, is out now from Aqueduct Press. Find her at her blog, her Patreon, or Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.

This review and more like it in the October 2018 issue of Locus.

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