2018’s Hidden Sun is the first volume in Jaine Fenn’s Shadowlands series.
Disfigured in a mishap, aristocratic shadowkin Rhia disregards convention and indulges her scholarly interests.
Dej is also unconventional, but she’s not as lucky. She’s a skykin and so a lesser being in the eyes of the shadowkin who run the creche that raised her. Rhia can flout rules; Dej cannot. She is punished for disobedience and eventually sent back to her people, the skykins, who lead hard lives under the bright sun of the skylands.
Who would expect that these two women, of such different backgrounds and tastes, would ever meet?
Dej’s return to the skylands is not a triumphal one. She has been branded a discipline problem by her creche, so she does not rate a proper animus. An animus is a symbiote which allows the skykin to survive exposure to the unshielded sun. Dej is assigned a potentially defective animus. It’s functional enough to keep her alive, but dysfunctional enough to mark her as an outsider and outcast.
Rhia is also traveling outside the protected shadowlands, in search of her brother Etyan. He fled the city state of Shen after being accused of a brutal rape and murder. Word has come that he has been seen in distant Zekt. Rhia joins a covert expedition dispatched to retrieve Etyan. Shen and Zekt are not on good terms. Best not to draw official attention to Shen’s expedition.
She manages to extricate him from Zekt, but the pair don’t make it back to Shen. They are crossing the skyland when they are attacked by bandits and taken prisoner. As luck would have it, Dej is one of the bandits. A meet-cute.
Rhia, Etyan, and Dej survive a landslide and find themselves marooned in a hostile wilderness, dependent on each other for survival. A meet-cute on steroids.
Etyan didn’t commit all of the crimes of which he is accused, but he committed enough of them that it’s hard to like him. Rhia is willing to give him a pass, because brother. Aristocrats: justifying well-maintained guillotines wherever found. Dej I liked.
Readers may wonder why there are still shadowkin, why the entire population has not embraced symbiosis with the animuses. Aside from the matter of prejudice (shadowkin look down on skykin) and the question of whether there are enough animuses to go around, there are practical considerations. Life with an animus entails physical and behavioral changes. Skykin life expectancy is shorter than that of the shadowkin.
Hidden Sun is marketed as science fantasy. I am not convinced it is fantasy at all. It is hinted that there are mundane explanations for elements of the setting that seem inexplicable or fantastic at first glance; the author’s science background suggests that those explanations will make sense. I was left with the impression that animuses are engineered solutions to life on a hostile world and that the shadowlands owe their existence to orbiting sunscreens. This reminded me of Kirstein’s Steerswoman, in which a fantastic setting is revealed to be a hostile world being terraformed.
Hidden Suns is one part castle opera and one part scientific mystery. The castle opera stuff (aristocrats scheming for power and/or revenge) I can do without, but I liked the scientific mystery. So I’m looking forward to the upcoming sequel.