Review by Ian Sales
Nyxnissa is a “bel dame” on the world of Umayma, which means she is a government assassin charged with killing deserters from the army. Because Nasheen has been at war with neighbouring state Chenja for generations – so long, in fact, that no one is really sure what they are fighting over. All Nasheenian men must fight at the front, and many women also volunteer. The end result of this is a female-dominated society at home, much like Britain during World War II.
But Nasheen is also an Islamic state – or rather, its state religion is one which appears to be descended from Islam. The Nasheenians have mosques and a holy book called the Kitab (which is Arabic for “book”; and, in Islam, members of the Abrahamic religions are known as “People of the Book”). There are further clues in the names of people and places – although a reference to the Kitab being written in a “the ancient language of prayer” (p 91) suggests that the Nasheenian language is not true Arabic. This may explain why some of the female characters have male names, such as Bashir, Husayn or Zubair. Or indeed why some of the place-names don’t entirely convince as Arabic – Chenja, for example: Arabic has no “ch” phoneme. And also Ras Tieg, another nation on Umayma: Arabic has a “j”, though it is pronounced as “g” in Egypt. (None of the nations’ name are entirely parsable either – ﻧﺶﺀ (nash) means “youth”, and -een could be the dual ending; Ras Tieg – ﺭﺍﺱ (ras) is “head” or “headland” but I can’t find anything close to “tieg”. But perhaps the names are not intended to mean anything.)
As muslims, the Nasheenians are moderates – possibly unsurprising, given that the society is matriarchal. Many of the teachings seem to be ignored, if not flouted – such as those prohibiting the consumption alcohol (Nyx drinks a lot of whisky during the story). Chenja, however, is far more orthodox. It practices polygamy, and its women wear the veil. One of the other characters, Rhys, is Chenjan, and while Nyx may be lapsed he certainly is not. He speaks a translation of bismillah ar-rahman ar-raheem (p 91), and also recites the ninety-nine names of God (p 80). Nyx further mocks him for “pounding [his] head on the pavement six times a day” (p 78). It is also implied that the Chenjans venerate saints, suggesting perhaps they are Shi’ites to the Nasheenian Sunni muslims. Though, according to Rhys, this cannot be the case as the two nations comprise “… believers from different moons, united in their belief of God and the Prophet and the promise of Umayma. For a thousand years, they had carved out some kind of tentative peace, maneuvered around a hundred holy wars … Chenjans would submit only to God, not his Prophet, let alone any monarch who wanted to sever God and government.” (p 78)