The debut novel from Persian American author Naseem Jamnia, The Bruising of Qilwa follows a nonbinary refugee who’s just fled a homeland where they faced persecution for being a practitioner of blood magic. Their promising new life faces its first challenge when a strange new disease begins to appear — and blood magic comes under fire once again.
Firuz-e Jafari is one of the fortunate ones who have emigrated to the Democratic Free State of Qilwa, escaping the slaughter of blood-magic practitioners in their homeland. They have a good job at a free clinic, and a kindly new employer, the healer Kofi. But a strange plague is spreading quickly through Qilwa, and the local government is quick to blame it on refugees. In order to survive, Firuz must break a deadly cycle of prejudice while finding a fresh start for both their blood and found families.
Here’s a look at the full cover, designed by Elizabeth Story, followed by an excerpt from The Bruising of Qilwa — a vivid autopsy scene involving the unfortunate victim of some rather sloppy blood magic.
Mortician Malika had worked closely with Firuz over the weeks, as Kofi’s was the closest clinic “whose healers don’t have asses for brains.” She also once told Firuz she worked with the dead because she wanted to avoid dealing with the complaints of the living.
“Malika-khan, what brings you here?” Her attention flicked towards them and back, and Firuz followed her gaze to the raised sheet stretched over an examination bed that usually did not reside there. “Is that a . . . person?”
“Technically, a corpse.” She crossed her arms. “I was hoping an adept might make sense of this.”
“Not another plague victim, then?”
“If it is, then the plague has changed, and we’re mucked.”
Despite the progress made over the last many months — getting people from all parts of the city access to clean water; a volunteer band of magic users who went through the streets and destroyed any waste that might contribute to disease; a recent donation by one of the wealthy merchant families of much-needed food — up the death toll still ticked. If more migrants arrived from Dilmun, the city would be in even more trouble, especially if the ancient Aziza Kiwabi Academy continued to oppose their entry on the grounds of “public health.”
Firuz grabbed the gloves Kofi offered, although he wasn’t wearing any. “Kofi-khan?”
“We already talked about it.” As was his habit, Kofi motioned with his chin to Malika, whose arms were crossed. “I did a preliminary exam, and I don’t want to bias either of us. Let’s hear what you see.”
After snapping on the mask, they folded the sheet away from the corpse’s face. “I take it I should not ask what’s unusual about this one.” Seemed normal enough; they fingered the sagging jaw, the bloated cheeks, before pulling the sheet further down.
The stomach, already green with the telling patch of decay, distended around their touch. Gases expelled into the air, smelling of sulfurous rotten eggs and sun-heated garbage. Firuz turned their cheek to breathe in the scent of dried herbs the mask had been nestled in, as Malika coughed. Kofi waved a hand in front of his face.
Firuz was familiar with decayed bodies along with live ones. They didn’t need to access their magic to feel something about this one was very, very wrong.
Under normal circumstances, the gut spilled into the blood, consumed the body from the inside out. The marrow no longer cranked out new life, and over time, only bones remained. The marrow here was doing . . . something, even though it should have long been still.
“How long has this one been dead?” Firuz retrieved surgical tools. The putridity — or rather, the lack of it, after the initial discharge — concerned them.
Malika bounced a fist against her thigh. “One week.”
Firuz’s head snapped up. “Excuse me?”
“That’s why I brought it here.”
At one week, the body should have been well into decay, its odor a mix of wet rot, too-ripe fruit, and rancid meat. The initial gases had resembled that bouquet of scents, but there was no real skin slippage as Firuz pinched the arm, no telltale yellow marbling. It was as though the body had begun its decay, then stopped, or had picked parts of the process to continue the way a farmer picked dates.
Their blade slid through the chest like a ripe mango, the skin curling as the pressure released. Firuz suppressed a gag. The body was rotting, all right, although the outside didn’t mirror the internal goo. Firuz used a rag to wipe down the flat bone connecting the ribs before tapping it, but did not hear the expected hollow-ish ring.
Kofi already held out the handsaw, then flipped the skin back so Firuz could work. “You suspect the marrow?”
“Maybe. Something is stopping full putrefaction.” They did not elaborate, did not want to utter the fears nipping at the small of their back.
In normal circumstances, bones were home to spongy crisscrosses of red or yellow fibres, the site of blood-making marrow. As a person aged, so, too, did the composition of these fibres change. Yet those here were dense, resembling a newborn babe’s. A chunk of sternum in hand, Firuz stepped to the magnifying lens set on the back counter, but there was a more precise way to puzzle out what was happening. With their back to the others, they freed the tip of the needle sewn in their sleeve and pressed it to their wrist until a drop of blood welled up.
Blood would tell, as it always did.
Red smeared against white, they used the energy surging through their veins to explore the bone’s makeup, even as they pressed their cheekbones into the eyepiece of the lens. The magic allowed them to feel the internal structure, run invisible hands along the matrix inside. The blood still present felt wrong, lacking something, and the bone was too thin, as if eroded away. And the marrow? Most of it was silent, but a part of it thrummed, even now trying to create without the prerequisite ingredients.
Which was . . . impossible. The person was dead, literally cut open by Firuz’s own hands. Still, the bone whispered its life, its desire to create. No, there was something — or someone — behind this, playing with bodies with a carelessness or disregard that twisted Firuz’s insides.
Kofi moved one hand over the open chest cavity. The gooey innards shifted in tandem as his other directed the spinning waterwheel in the corner, from which he drew his energy. “Viscous like it should be. No stirring of the muscles. Dead, but not yet decayed.” He dropped the motion.
“Some kind of preservation spell, with maybe food as the medium.” The lie slipped out without a second thought as they dumped their tools in a bucket and reached for the mixture of herbs bundled for a cleansing solution. “Though why someone is preserving bodies is beyond me.”
The truth was, thought Firuz as they washed their hands, this was the work of the most incompetent blood magic user they’d ever seen.
Excerpt from The Bruising of Qilwa by Naseem Jamnia reprinted by permission. Copyright Tachyon Publications.
Naseem Jamnia’s The Bruising of Qilwa will be released in July, and you can pre-order a copy here.