The Bruising of Qilwa

There has been much fun had, and even more hot air wasted, on Twitter of late about the difference between science fiction and fantasy. It all started with a speech given by Ted Chiang, in which he somewhat foolishly ventured into that territory. Ted, bless him, is one of the last people who should be making pronouncements like that. The same view of the world that allows him to obsessively craft plot-perfect short stories can also make him prone to pronouncements that lack nuance because the real world is way more horribly messy than he would like.

Anyway, Ted’s words were mangled and regurgitated in ridiculous form by Joyce Carol Oates, who is apparently a respected novelist but these days seems to spend most of her time crafting troll bait on social media. Poor Ted quickly found that the internet had fallen on his head. Or at least he would have done if he used social media, which I very much doubt that he does.

Fan and author Twitter quickly followed up to pour scorn on Oates and provide amusing takes on the difference between science fiction and fantasy. The truth of the matter, though, is that your answer to that question depends very much on your starting point. The world does no fit neatly into analytical boxes.

Naturally the discussion mentioned the fact that by some definitions Star Wars is clearly science fiction (space battles, robots), and by others fantasy (Campbellian hero’s journey, The Force). It is usually held up as an example of something that looks like science fiction but is “really” (whatever that means) fantasy. The usual example of the opposite of this (looks like fantasy but is really SF) is Anne McCaffrey’s Pern series. But from now on (and you were wondering where I was going with this, weren’t you?) I will be quoting The Bruising of Qilwa instead.

The Bruising of Qilwa is a novella by Naseem Jamnia. It centers on they-Firuz, a refugee from the kingdom of Dilmun who has sought sanctuary in the free city-state of Qilwa. Firuz is a member of the Sassanian minority ethnic group in Dilmun who are currently facing persecution because some of their number are believed to practice blood magic. Of course, magical talent is something you are born with, not something that you choose, and Firuz has that talent.

There are three main schools of magic in the world of the book. Environmental magic works by balancing humours in a way that would be familiar to a Roman doctor. Structuralist magic uses a sophisticated system of runes that might have appealed to John Dee. But blood magic works by forging a connection between the mage and the subject, through the subject’s blood. As you can imagine, it can be put to terrible purposes, hence the pogrom, but it is also a very powerful tool for healing.

It so happens that Qilwa is currently suffering from a plague. Firuz has taken their family to the free city in the hope that they can get a job as a healer. They have studied Structuralism as a cover so that they look to be doing less controversial magic. It is a good plan. Firuz quickly gets a job with a clinic run by an irascible doctor called Kofi, and together they work on combatting the plague. Firuz becomes a trusted member of society, and the plague is slowly overcome.

However, Firuz begins to notice a new type of sickness afflicting the city. It is a sickness that appears to be being caused by an incompetent, untrained practitioner of blood magic. This could cause serious trouble for Firuz and their family.

This is where the science fiction comes in. As a doctor, Firuz has to spend quite a lot of effort studying this new disease. It is connected to the victim’s blood, perhaps spread by it. It involves extreme fatigue and the mysterious bruising of the title. Eventually Firuz works out that it is a disease of the body’s own defences. What we call the auto-immune system. To put it simply, the people of Qilwa are contracting AIDS.

The explanation might be “blood magic”, but the way in which Firuz tracks down the nature of the illness is pure science fiction. There are references to “physicking science” scattered through the book and at one point we get:

“But Firuz did believe in the science that was magic, and that would have to be enough.”

It is beautifully done. Even the explanation for the origin of the sickness works well as science fiction. And yet I guarantee that the book will be seen as fantasy.

Along the way, the prose is lovely, and there is some great gender content that I haven’t remarked upon because it is seamlessly worked into the worldbuilding as something entirely normal. Talking of the worldbuilding, there is enough in this book to fuel an entire trilogy of novels. I do hope we get more stories set in this world. Or indeed anything by Naseem Jamnia who is clearly a new talent to watch.

book cover
Title: The Bruising of Qilwa
By: Naseem Jamnia
Publisher: Tachyon
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
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