By the time Melishem returns to her birth-city Tessellated Talyut, there is little of her that anyone can recognize. Her gaze burns unhuman amber, her bare scalp glistens with meteorite blood, her articulated arms murmur with live moths. Antennae peek through the gaps in her joints, more delicate and superb than any lace.
Her bare feet track salt across the earth, leaving shriveled worms and withered grass in her wake. She has been walking a long time, unresting and unseeing of any sight save her objective.
She arrives before the Gate of Glaives at sunrise, the sky green and trembling behind her.
“I’ve come back,” she rasps in a voice of burnt honey and rust, more bitter than sweet, “to fight Sikata Lantern-of-God.”
There’s a common wuxia premise: the wandering martial artist who seeks to become the best of the best. Their method of proving themselves is brute – they go around challenging warriors (sometimes entire schools), armies, and so on. They take extreme measures to improve themselves, years of brutal training; they may come across and aid those in distress, though this is somewhat incidental to their quest of improving their skills. It’s a romanticized ideal, but it’s also a self-destructive obsession – these wondering warriors have virtually no other concerns or desires but to prove themselves the ultimate swordsman or martial artist.
In ‘Under She Who Devours Suns’, Melishem should have been one of her birth city’s champions, but the laws dictate there can be only one – and her friend Sikata took the title by besting her. This is what happens after someone like that has remade herself in order to achieve the title of the best. It’s a bit Claymore in that the system around them forces fighters to obsess over who’s the best and who ranks above whom, and it’s also a bit Claymore in that the women in the story have a complex, deadly relationship with each other.
(I don’t call the god in the story a goddess, even though she is gendered female. I’ve grown quite resistant to gendered common nouns, but more on that when my next fantasy story goes up.)
A reader has been very kind and thorough about this story, providing such close reading that would have been equal to any novel review easily. It’s a tremendous and lovely gift to be read, let alone so exactly and thoughtfully.
Work such as Under She Who Devours Suns demonstrate that we are indeed living in a SFF renaissance, even if there are those who resist and desire to pull us back into a “golden age” that was never that golden and didn’t really exist. While there has always been excellent SFF the genre sections at bookstores and libraries were usually dominated by a sea of mediocre and derivative shit that, for some reason, is still defended by a group of MRA-type nerds who are content with mediocrity. Now things are beginning to change; more interesting work is being published and becoming popular. Despite the fact that some people are pushing back with an eye towards backwards literature is just a sign that the best days of “genre” fiction are upon us.
Charles Peysaur at Quick Sip Reviews was also very nice about it!
To me this is a story of longing and, in some ways, obsession. With devotion and with purpose and with missing something in the pursuit of that purpose. But it’s also, I think, about institutions and duty and how that duty can poison relationships, twist people’s lives. Pervert justice. The story features Melishem and Sikata, two women who grew up together, who were equals until the day they had to fight each other for a single position. Until the day the system they worked under, the customs and government and everything, tore them apart. And in so doing it threw the world they had built together into chaos, doubt, and dissolution. To me it shows how focusing on the best and only the best is damaging. By setting up a system where there can be only one at the top, it fosters a spirit of competition over harmony.