ARC Review: “The Bruising of Qilwa” by Naseem Jamnia

(thanks to Tachyon Publications and NetGalley for granting me an ARC of this book!)

Read if you like: blood magic, an overall science-based magic system, multicultural setting, healing, plants, sibling dynamics, a celebration of queerness, mentor figures, personal stakes, community, mystery, medicine/medical science, competent characters

Triggers: blood, dead bodies, disease, racial discrimination

Goodreads Summary:

In this intricately layered debut fantasy, a nonbinary refugee practitioner of blood magic discovers a strange disease causing political rifts in their new homeland. Persian-American author Naseem Jamnia has crafted a gripping narrative with a moving, nuanced exploration of immigration, gender, healing, and family.

Firuz-e Jafari is fortunate enough to have immigrated to the Free Democratic City-State of Qilwa, fleeing the slaughter of other traditional Sassanian blood magic practitioners in their homeland. Despite the status of refugees in their new home, Firuz has a good job at a free healing clinic in Qilwa, working with Kofi, a kindly new employer, and mentoring Afsoneh, a troubled orphan refugee with powerful magic.

But Firuz and Kofi have discovered a terrible new disease which leaves mysterious bruises on its victims. The illness is spreading quickly through Qilwa, and there are dangerous accusations of ineptly performed blood magic. In order to survive, Firuz must break a deadly cycle of prejudice, untangle sociopolitical constraints, and find a fresh start for their both their blood and found family.

Powerful and fascinating, The Bruising of Qilwa is the newest arrival in the era of fantasy classics such as the Broken Earth Trilogy, The Four Profound Weaves, and Who Fears Death. 

(Goodreads book profile here)


My Review:

Novellas have this peculiar innate power that always takes my breath away. They read succinctly—the shorter word count demands a scarcity of words, after all—yet there is such depth to unpack behind this succinctness that it can feel quite daunting as a reader to delve into.

Naseem Jamnia’s The Bruising of Qilwa also has this depth.

Plot and prose take a backseat in this book, thus allowing character, world, and thematic resonance to be the driving forces that hook the reader to the pages.

For starters, this is a book that includes minorities of all kinds. Ethnic minorities, sexual minorities, linguistic minorities, immigrant minorities, cultural minorities, religious minorities, political minorities—all types of minorities. The representation is thorough and consistent, and while we are dealing with minority groups, Jamnia still makes the world feel inclusive to the reader. Natural. As it should be. A large part of this is thanks to the great characterization of the nonbinary refugee main character, Firuz, and the way that we view the world through their eyes.

This is an extremely political book, at its depth, meaning it’s largely about the power of the individual within a group and how groupthink starts with the individual. We have an ideological clash in Qilwa (the main setting) that paints nobody a hero or a villain. Instead, the book invites us to consider the rise and the fall of power. Specifically, it invites us to discuss what it means to be an oppressed people when you were once an oppressor yourself. Jamnia derives from their own Persian heritage for this discussion, presenting the compelling answer of putting aside judgment and joining migrants (and other marginalized people) in creating a brighter tomorrow that isn’t built on fear and otherness.

To this end, the plot of the book is centered on the question of family. Of blood, as the title indicates. Firuz is a refugee practitioner who heals with blood magic. In the world that Jamnia has created, magic has a scientific basis. Magic is, in short, energy. It operates like energy. The transfer of energy becomes magic. In using the energy of their own blood, Furiz can heal the blood of others, for example. There are other types of magic as well. Structural and environmental. And they are all based on the principle of energy transfer.

The plot specifically revolves around stimulated/magicked parasitical blood that can kill (think an autoimmune disease), warping bodies to stay active even after (brain) death has occurred—and that’s all the spoilers I’ll give you.

Lastly, I want to talk about thematic resonance. I want to do so by bringing the title of the book into play. This book is about how blood bruises you—both literally and figuratively. It’s about bruises. About healing. It’s about whether you should hide your blood or use it for good at the risk of pain. It’s about what happens when a minority of any kind is not allowed to be at their best, to offer their best as they want to offer it, and to use their best to help others become better as well.

You will love this book if you enjoy thematic resonance and a character-driven plot, but you might find yourself less entranced if you’re looking for a twisty and unpredictable plot. What truly shines here, as far as I am concerned, is the theme, the world, and the characters.


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ARC Review: “Saint Death’s Daughter” by C. S. E. Cooney

(thanks to Rebellion Publishing and NetGalley for granting me an ARC of this book!)

Read if you like: lyrical writing, necromancy, family, legacy, inheritance, thematic worldbuilding, setting as character, multicultural setting, linguistic detail, nontraditional gender norms, skeletons, ghosts, fierce women, soft men, birds, catacombs, whimsy, death magic, epic battles, history with consequences.

Triggers: animal abuse, emotional abuse, physical abuse, child neglect, child torture, mutilation, dismemberment, gore, blood (note: while these triggers are present, they’re not overly graphic, and since the main character is a necromancer, she doesn’t describe these things with a “horror” intent in mind, hence why this book can also be described as whimsical; this juxtaposition is part of its style)

Goodreads Summary:

Life gets complicated when Death gets involved.

To be born into a family of royal assassins pretty much guarantees that your life is going to be… rather unusual. Especially if, like Miscellaneous “Lanie” Stones, you also have a vicious allergy to all forms of violence and bloodshed, and an uncanny affinity for bringing the dead back to life.

To make matters worse, family debt looms – a debt that will have to be paid sooner rather than later if Lanie and her sister are to retain ownership of the ancestral seat, Stones Manor. Lanie finds herself courted and threatened by powerful parties who would love to use her worryingly intimate relationship with the goddess of death for their own nefarious ends. But the goddess has other plans… 

(Goodreads book profile here)


My Review:

What ultimately shone the most for me in this book is the way that theme, metaphor and worldbuilding all blend so seamlessly together to the point that I even struggle pulling them apart now, but I’ll do my best.

Let me start with the things that I enjoyed about the worldbuilding, specifically.

We’re dealing with a protagonist who performs death magic (Lanie Stones). This makes the setting and the plot inherently macabre, yet somehow Cooney manages to make death feel… whimsical and aphrodisiacal. There is a colorful whimsy to the world, particularly with the way that Lanie’s death magic works, and it gives me strong Studio Ghibli vibes. I’ve seen this book comped to Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir, but I honestly don’t think that’s a good comparative title. If anything, it’s only a comparative title insofar as the necromancy itself goes. And I even hesitate to say this because Lanie’s necromancy doesn’t carry the same vibe as Harrow’s. Rather, it carries the opposite. Lanie’s necromancy—indeed, Lanie herself—is all about love. Lanie loves death as a mother, treats death as a mother, as the God that Death is—and she makes us love death in return. She helps up make peace with death. And that’s where the theme sneaks in, but I’ll save that for a couple of paragraphs just yet. So, let’s continue with what I enjoyed about the worldbuilding.

I enjoyed the multicultural setting. We have three nations whose cultures and histories are so interlinked that they become mirror images of each other. This doesn’t mean that they’re not distinct. On the contrary. They are incredibly distinct. What it means, is that we’re dealing with a setting where natural assimilation between cultures has occurred over decades, maybe even centuries, yet each culture still retains its own independence. From my own point of view, this reminded me a lot of the relationship between Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. To give an example: the nations share (some of) the same Gods, but call them by different names. To give another example: there are schools dedicated to one nation within another nation. Another example: each nation has wizards with wizard marks, but they all have a preferred type of magic, dependent on the God in question.

Speaking of the wizard marks, I found those to be a fun conceptual twist to the more familiar concept of a witch mark as these have been used both in fiction and in history.

But, going back to the multicultural setting, this also helped ensure that all the characters had incredibly distinct voices. One nation’s speech is built around rhyming and body language, to give an example. A lot of thought has gone into the linguistic elements of this book. Both in this sense, but also when it comes to placenames and people’s names. You have a constant sense of all these cultures mingling, yet staying distinct at the same time, all based on the terminology used.

Lastly, I loved the constant, but always subtle, subversion of gender norms both through clothing, make-up, and mannerisms. You won’t find traditional gender norms here—and it’s a delight to read.

Transitioning from the worldbuilding into the theme, this wasn’t really a book about death for me. This was a book about love. And that’s why I personally find Harrow the Ninth a misleading comparative title. This book has so much love—unfurling from Lanie’s own large capacity for love—that it didn’t give me the same vibe of Harrow the Ninth at all. But you also have to read a good part of the book before this starts to become apparent to you. The book opens with death, grief, echo wounds, and a literal allergy to death, but it ends with love as the answer to death. It’s about coming to terms with death through love. It’s a love-letter to funerals across the world where people smile through their tears.

Adding onto that, it’s also a question of where you put your love.

In the Gods? In your family? In your friends? In yourself?

Lanie uses love through death (magic) to set herself free from the bonds of her family legacy, all the while still honoring that legacy. And Cooney asks us, the readers, to remember that death is forever the sister to love. Or perhaps daughter, in this case.

As a last and slightly more critical note, I’ll say that the pacing and the plot both slow down at times. I struggled slightly towards the middle, personally. It’s a long book, basically, and that means it naturally will lose momentum at times. For most readers, that is. And especially for YA Crossover fantasy, which is what I would classify this as, age-wise, although there seems to be a general confusion about this (both from the audience and the publisher side). Cooney has magnificent prose, and that prose is allowed to flourish in this book, which can both be good and bad insofar as the pacing of the plot goes. Primarily, for me, it was good, even if I did struggle in places.


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Understanding Story Structure via Midpoints

This idea seems really simple, right?

The midpoint is, of course, the middle of a story.

What’s hard about understanding that, yeah?

Well, for me, it used to be incredibly hard—because it left me with the problem as to what a middle actually does for a story. What’s the point of a middle? Quick, tell me the answer, in one sentence, go, go, gogogogo—but you can’t, right? And if you can, it doesn’t feel like enough, does it?

We all know what a beginning and an ending both do. They start and conclude. Build and tear down. It’s the framework of a barn. The outline of a geometric figure. Two points that naturally connect. It’s payoff. It’s cost and outcome. It’s cause and effect. The midpoint doesn’t do any of that. In fact, the midpoint can sometimes feel as if it stands in the way of the barn framework and geometrical outline—and that’s where a lot of writers go wrong, I think, in that they view the midpoint as an obstacle. They want to get from point A-B rather than A-B-C.

And I think that’s a very natural thing, actually. And I think it relates to how we learn about stories as children, in part. As children, we’re told stories because they have universal, basic lessons that help us grow as human beings. They have morals. Ideas. Values. This is all very intangible stuff—and intangible stuff is clearest if you think of it as A=B, not A=B=C. Beginning and end. Payoff. No middle in sight.

In my opinion, two factors contribute to the “sagging middle syndrome”:

  1. A lot of writers (myself included) naturally understand stories via A=B payoff.
  2. A lot of writers (myself included) are inherently afraid of telling too much to the reader.

I already talked about the A=B payoff, so let me talk about the second factor.

A lot of writers make the mistake of keeping their cards too close to their chest, afraid that the mystery of their book will disappear if they don’t—but that only means they end up leaving the reader too confused, with too much mystery, and that leaves the reader frustrated.

Think of it like a carrot on a stick that you’re dangling in front of the reader, yeah?

You have to show that carrot, enough of that carrot, for the reader to keep running for it.

For me, what I tend to initially think of as the ending of my story… is actually my midpoint. This is because I’m inherently afraid of telling too much to the reader. I’m afraid of showing them too much of my carrot. And this is a mistake. It drags the pacing down. It undermines the full potential of my story. I always have to let go of that fear when I start a book. Always.

It amounts to this: “Don’t save the cool stuff for later, but trust that even cooler stuff will come if you don’t.”

A lot of agents will also tell you that this is a mistake writers make when they write trilogies. They save too much of the cool stuff for the later books. When the agents reject their books, the writers say that the really cool stuff happens on page fifty, so please keep on reading. These “laters” are red flags. If you save all the cool stuff for later, then what about now? We’ll never get to the cool stuff later because we’ll never get past the uncool stuff right now, you know?

I don’t claim to be an expert in story structure, but I will claim that story structure has been my greatest weakness, which has led me to study it in far greater depth than I’ve studied anything else insofar as storytelling goes.

And this is why I’ll confidently say that I never understood how story structure worked until I understood that the midpoint is what makes or breaks your book.

More specifically, it makes or breaks the pacing of your book.

And, honestly, pacing can make or break your book in turn.

Or, at least, the first draft of your book.

Focusing on the midpoint in a first draft will give you solid pacing from the get-go, meaning less developmental edits for your later drafts, and it will also allow for more freedom insofar as acts go.

If you have a solid midpoint, then it doesn’t really matter if you have a three-act structure, or a four-act structure, or a seventeen-act structure, you know? You have a middle. You have a focal point that can stretch in two directions, left and right, up and down, and then you can stretch it however much you want in both directions, yeah?

You can think of it like drawing a circle with your compass; the tip of the compass is your middle and the circle you draw is your story. Or the potential for your story, I should say, because starting with the middle as your focal point demands that you scrabble through a lot of potential beginnings and ends before you find the ones that fit together—but once you do, your structure will inherently be well-paced.

This is less of a linear way of thinking about structure.

If this “freehand compass method” clicks with your brain like it does with mine, then it assures that the middle of your book won’t sag, and I fully, absolutely, 200% recommend that you try thinking of structure like this.

And, because I’m a proud nerd, please have a very simple, conceptual visualization of what I mean by this method: