Stakes that are neither too high nor too low. Facing discrimination and prejudice as a refugee who belongs to an ethnic minority in their new city. Dealing with the complicated history of one’s culture, one’s past. Pushing back against for-profit healthcare. These are all powerful elements in The Bruising of Qilwa by Naseem Jamnia. Thanks to NetGalley and Tachyon Publications for the eARC!
Although novella-length, this book brims with plot. Firuz, a Sassanian refugee, joins a free healing clinic run by Kofi. There, they study under Kofi while also secretly practising the blood magic they learned from their homeland. Once, the Sassanians ruled a vast empire. Now, their homeland conquered, they are the targets of genocide. As more Sassanians arrive in Qilwa, anti-refugee sentiments rise, and plagues and disease do not help matters. The title of the book refers to the most obvious symptom of a mystery disease that Firuz spends much of their time diagnosing—when they aren’t helping Kofi with the political battle to keep the clinic open, or teaching their adopted charge how to control her blood magic, or feeling like a bad sibling for not helping their brother with a gender realignment spell … yeah, Firuz’s life is complicated, hectic even.
It’s through such an embattled narrative that Jamnia explores questions of identity and motive. Firuz hides their blood magic use, because in Qilwa, blood magic is the stuff of nightmare legend. They know they would be ostracized. Yet, despite the considerable abuse they endured at the hands of their Elders while being trained, Firuz is also proud of their abilities and their ability to heal with blood magic. As the novella progresses, we see Firuz wrestle with larger questions of identity, such as what it means to be a member of an ethnic group that is now marginalized but once was the conquering power across this continent.
Throughout this story, Jamnia finesses the scale of the narrative with impressive skill. It’s always tempting to see the novella as merely a “short novel,” but that would be like saying a 22-minute television show is simply half a 43-minute television show. The novella demands more character development than seen in a short story, yet the shorter length means different pacing from its longer cousin. Jamnia has Firuz encountering the Governor of Qilwa and pleading for assistance on a municipal level, yet they also have Firuz essentially down in the trenches, fighting against the bruising disease on the level of individuals. This is a story where the smallest action matters, yet large actions also have correspondingly large consequences. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it cozy fantasy, but there are certainly some moments of more intimate joy and sorrow here, especially as Firuz navigates their relationships with their chosen and found family members.
Jamnia has created a queernormative world here, one in which diverse sexualities and genders are respected as a matter of course. As I have said in other reviews, this should essentially become the norm within fantasy (and any genre, I would hope), for the idea that a fantasy world must somehow be “historically accurate” is … contradictory at best. Yet a queernormative world doesn’t mean that queer people are free from struggle, as Firuz’s relationship with their brother, Parviz, illustrates. For all Firuz’s magical talents, they don’t quite have the skill or knowledge to realign Parviz’s body (i.e., magical gender-affirming transformation, omg) to match his gender. As a result, Firuz blames themself for Parviz’s ongoing struggle with dysphoria. Qilwa might have allowed refugees to settle on the outskirts of its city, and it might be accepting of gender diversity, but this society still had broken and jagged edges and prejudice against certain types of medical treatments or the magic used to provide them. That’s why Firuz must teach Afsoneh blood magic in secret, even as she chafes under such restrictions and Firuz wrestles with whether or not they do Afsoneh more harm than good by trying to be a teacher without any formal training as such. In this way, Firuz’s relationships intersect with and inform the political dimensions of the novella, which in turn lead to Firuz’s involvement with the main conflict.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the construction of The Bruising of Qilwa is the way that the antagonist is revealed only at the climax of the novella. Honestly, this is the part I found least interesting. This character’s motives, while clearly explained by Jamnia, are not all that compelling—perhaps because I spent so much time with Firuz that this antagonist feels less developed as a result. While the physical and magical conflict that ensues is a fun and tense moment of action, I would have liked to see more pages spent drawing out the antagonist’s plot in a way that builds more suspense. That being said, I really enjoyed how Jamnia depicts Firuz’s sense of betrayal and the way that this overall influences their outlook going forward.
So The Bruising of Qilwa is a good time. It’s a novella of deep, layered relationships between characters who all have well-defined personalities despite the deceptive brevity of this book. The main character in particular is so flawed and fallible yet still someone I want to cheer for. While I can acknowledge the Persian influences Jamnia weaves in here, I can’t comment too much on those given my ignorance, except to say I’m here for it. I’ve kind of slid sideways into Persian-inspired fantasy stories with the likes of Girl, Serpent, Thorn. But I love seeing the genre move away from thinly veiled analogues of Eurocentric feudalism or appropriation-driven attempts at mirroring other cultures at the hands of white writers. Mostly, though, I loves me some urban fantasy set in a secondary world, where characters are free to be themselves even as the world around them feels like it’s coming apart at the seams.