A review by Nalini Haynes
Shyla is ‘sun-kissed’, born with brown skin but blonde hair, so her parents left her to die in the desert. An order of monks found her, a highly unlikely coincidence in the described conditions. The monks raised her until she was 18 then, when she refused to take her oath to join the order, they kicked her out.
Now she’s a researcher, accused of stealing a treasure she located on a map. Shyla wasn’t in on the find. She never goes on dig sites, she stays with her books and maps. Instead of diggers and guards accompanying him, Banqui went alone to unearth the priceless Eyes of Tamburah. Then he was mugged in a ‘locked door’ mystery. Even more amazingly, Shyla doesn’t immediately suspect Banqui of the alleged theft for which she has become a Wanted Criminal with the death penalty hanging over her head. The Water Prince buys Shyla’s services with the promise that, if she locates the Eyes, he’ll release Banqui instead of executing him.
The Water Prince and the captain of the guard who oversees and helps Shyla are both sexy specimens of manhood. Shyla focuses on their sexiness when meeting with them, instead of focusing on how she could end up dead. By their orders.
If this was a different category of Harlequin novel, I suspect Shyla would be jumping their bones before page 100. As it is, one of the most intriguing aspects of the novel is determining who is supposed to be Shyla’s love interest because she ogles every good-looking man she meets. Damn, girl, self-stimulation is an option if you’re that wound up! It seems this category of Harlequin novel either omits the sexitimes or waits until later in a series.
By the end, Shyla has recapped the novel and reviewed her to-be-solved issues a number of times. Pacing is a little bumpy. But there’s fun, promise of adventure coupled with intimacy, and a quest before our heroine. Overall, The Eyes of Tamburah is an imperfect but engaging speculative fiction romance novel. Below I delve into commentary on representations of disability, race/racism, invented units of measurement and more, with varying degrees of spoilery-ness. So read on at your own peril.
The emergency exit is entry only
During their expedition to search for the Eyes by tracking the alleged mugger, Shyla and Banqui enter the temple through an emergency exit. This emergency exit requires a large drop INTO the temple. There is no ladder or means to actually escape in case of a cave-in, which was Banqui’s ENTIRE JUSTIFICATION for building the emergency exit.
Other plot holes include things like “we were complete and utter assholes so you’d learn to trust us”, which blew my mind. And then there’s the classic “You just met us, we told you we’re good people after we kept you prisoner for a few weeks, so now you have one day to choose to pledge your loyalty to us forever. If you pledge loyalty, we’ll trust you. If you don’t, we won’t.” Face palm.
On page 36-37, Shyla is talking to the Water Prince who has hired her to find the Eyes, then he asks if he can touch her hair. His wealth and power make it impossible for Shyla to say no, so he strokes her hair. As a child with albinism, complete strangers used to touch and stroke my hair without permission or with the permission of adults around me. Although I suspect Snyder’s intent here is for sexiness, the Water Prince crossing this boundary evokes disgust in me as a reader.
Shyla claims to be so passionate about first-hand experience of the world that she forsook her place in the monastery, choosing instead to be alone and isolated, shunned for being different. Instead of seeing the world, Shyla now pores over maps all day, selling the information she gleans. These irreconcilable contradictions require a Quest. The Water Prince who, from his first appearance, is obviously Shyla’s Romantic Interest, pulls her away from her parchments and pushes her out into the world.
Shyla suffers discrimination for having ‘yellow’ hair in a society where everyone is black or brown with black or brown hair. Although she has ‘tawny’ skin, Shyla is positioned as a ‘white’ (European normative white) in this novel. Calling ‘yellow-haired’ people ‘sun-cursed’ and killing them is
‘an ancient prejudice over people born with yellow hair… It’s barbaric and something I’ve been wanting to stop…’ (Dialogue by the Water Prince on p. 93).
The Heliacal Priestess ‘rewards the pious for murdering their own children’ (p. 93) in the name of religion. This has parallels in white supremacy today.
If Shyla is interpreted as having albinism, Snyder exposes the most evil aspect of discrimination against people with albinism: in some countries, in some religions, children with albinism are murdered. This is prevalent in Africa. In countries like Tanzania, their bodies are used as ingredients in witchcraft. ‘Christian’ Nigeria does it differently: witchcraft is outlawed but other means achieve similar ends. Human trafficking, murder-by-exorcism and murder-by-abandonment by parents avoiding church charges for exorcisms or church-imposed consequences for refusing exorcisms are part of Nigeria’s culture. Ironically, Nigerian churches also require family members of disabled people to undergo expensive exorcisms, so abandoning disabled children does not avoid the expense or stigma. However, Snyder’s ‘sun-kissed’ has ‘tawny’ skin, good eyesight and only blonde or ‘yellow’ hair, so she is better positioned as a normative white person experience racism and racial vilification.
As a normative white person, Shyla’s experience can be equated to that of slaves in America before the Civil War. White owners were entitled to kill their slaves and their slaves’ babies if they wished. Now Shyla, a ‘white’ person, experiences the same treatment. As such, Shyla is the White Victim of Black Monsters: nasty black people discriminating against innocent Shyla for being ‘white’. This trope fuels white supremacists’ rhetoric.
Shyla then becomes the White Saviour of black people who cannot save themselves (Hughey, 2015).
Many of these award-winning performances by African Americans were in films that follow the narrative structure of what I call a “White Savior” film. A White Savior film is often based on some supposedly true story. Second, it features a nonwhite group or person who experiences conflict and struggle with others that is particularly dangerous or threatening to their life and livelihood. Third, a White person (the savior) enters the milieu and through his or her sacrifices as a teacher, mentor, lawyer, military hero, aspiring writer, or wannabe Native American warrior, is able to physically save — or at least morally redeem — the person or community of folks of color by the film’s end. Examples of this genre include films like Glory (1989), Dangerous Minds (1996), Amistad (1997), Finding Forrester (2000), The Last Samurai (2003), Half-Nelson (2006), Freedom Writers (2007), Gran Torino (2008), Avatar (2009), The Blind Side (2009), The Help (2011), and the list goes on.
The White Saviour trope infantilises people of colour, reducing them to a narrative prop proclaiming white superiority. Selma (2014) was passed over by the Oscars and slammed by critics for not reinforcing the White Saviour trope, allegations based on the focus of the movie being about the black people who suffered racial terrorism and risked their lives fighting for freedom and equality (Hughey, 2015). Thus a pattern is established: reinforce the white saviour trope or white critics won’t be happy.
Shyla experiences discrimination for ‘being sun-kissed’ (having blonde hair). This is finally challenged for the first time on page 76 when Rendor, a guard captain, growls at deacons who are, for the second time that day, barring Shyla’s path to her pre-paid meal while tormenting her. Although previous exposition was annoying and the discrimination is reversed, this scene and many others like it evoke the reality of ongoing harassment for minorities. It takes people in positions of power, like Rendor, challenging bigotry to instigate change. This is a lesson for people who would be feminists and allies of minority groups in the real world.
Although the Water Prince declares his desire to stop culturally-mandated murder of ‘sun-kissed’ people (p. 93), he calls Shyla ‘sun-kissed’ repeatedly instead of using her name. It takes several interactions for him to elevate her to personhood by using her name. I also wonder if Snyder intentionally fetishes Shyla in that scene where the Water Prince strokes her hair.
Rendor calls Shyla ‘sunbeam’. The way this is conveyed, it is the equivalent of calling a person with albinism ‘snow cone’, a common insult.
Shyla grappled with that comment. She ignored sunbeam… for now (p. 109).
The narrative shows that insulting Shyla is not acceptable although Shyla, as a reviled minority, is powerless to combat discrimination. However, Rendor’s ‘sunbeam’ was in response to Shyla telling him his muscle would turn to fat in old age. Australians have a cultural tendency to insult people they like and respect; formal politeness can be an indicator of wariness and dislike. Therefore I believe Snyder uses this exchange as banter in what appears to be a developing friendship and escalating sexual tension. If you ask people with albinism if they find vilifying epithets endearing in a would-be lover, I think you’ll find the majority yell ‘hell no!’
After Shyla is abused and assaulted repeatedly, The Eyes of Tamburah says
… it infuriated [Shyla] that everyone just… took from her…. As if she wasn’t a person, but an object to be used (p.176).
Shyla thinking this reduced me to tears: I see myself here. I felt (very briefly) represented.
Going Dark — extreme end-of-novel spoiler
Late in the text Snyder reveals what I’ve suspected for hundreds of pages: Shyla has the magical power to be the ‘true leader’ of the secret organisation the Invisible Sword. However, to increase her power and to be recognised by the order, she must wake the Eyes of Tamburah. To do so, she must sacrifice her own eyes.
Self-mutilation brings into play numerous issues about mental health and ‘acquired’ disability.
Had Tamburah made the same sacrifice? … he’d seemed to be obsessed with eyes. And he had also been insane. Had The Eyes taken his sanity? Or did one need to be unbalanced to wake the power of The Eyes? (p. 420).
Effectively, the person who ‘wakes the power of The Eyes’ needs to have a sufficient degree of magic and to be a religious fanatic with sufficient faith/fanaticism to be prepared to risk significant pain and self-inflicted blindness.
Zhek… muttered about the state of [Shyla’s] mental health.
This means Shyla also falls under a Mad (academic) Studies focus.
The ‘magical disabled person’ trope comes into play, as does Mitchell & Snyder’s (2000) narrative prosthesis. Narrative prosthesis is
the pervasive use of disability as a device of characterization in literature and film. It argues that, while other marginalized identities have suffered cultural exclusion due to a dearth of images reflecting their experience, the marginality of disabled people has occurred in the midst of the perpetual circulation of images of disability in print and visual media.
Furthermore, narrative prosthesis is used, for example, for the benefit of nondisabled characters who are defined by their treatment of disabled people, to teach or humanise nondisabled characters, to inspire nondisabled audiences or to justify villainy in a character whose disability is symbolic of a character flaw.
After having her eyes removed, ‘[Shyla’s] world turned black’ (p. 423). Nope. When the optic nerve is damaged or severed, you do not see black. You just don’t see. I am a (partially) sighted person; my optic nerve was overloaded after watching Avatar in 3D. My eyes simply shut down for about 10 minutes afterwards. (Optic nerve damage is common in people with albinism so this was probably the cause while the trigger was overload due to watching a movie requiring both eyes trying to work together.) Even though I usually have sight, I did not perceive this as blackness, it was just nothingness. This experience of nothingness as opposed to perceiving blackness has been confirmed by completely blind scholars and activists. Author, if you’re going to appropriate disability as a narrative prosthesis for your story, do your research!
Then, on page 425, Shyla fulfils the blind-but-can-see trope, one of my pet peeves. And on the following page, the blind-but-can-see character acquires telepathy. This is such a common trope that people have seriously asked me if I have telepathy because I’m vision impaired.
David Bolt, as a blind academic, says a lot about blindness and its appearance in literature. In my opinion any nondisabled or differently disabled author writing blindness or other low vision tropes should first read his The Metanarrative of Blindness (2013).
From Time To Time
Snyder invented her own measurement of time, a ‘sun jump’. I tried guessing what it meant, coming up with several possibilities, then Shyla asks “How do you know when the sun starts its jump?” (p. 38). ‘Sun jump’ appears to be an awkward verbose way of talking about daylight but the usage is inconsistent. I found it perplexing because even angles (degrees) are divided into minutes and seconds. I was so irritated by Snyder’s use of ‘angles’ as unit of time measurement that I translated ‘angles’ into real time: one angle is 4 minutes. 60 angles are 4 hours. Generally introduced units of measurement detract from a story because they are distracting. Even more so when the unit of measurement isn’t explained from the outset. There is always time for an explanation. (Credit to the minion for the pun.)
The Eyes of Tamburah may well be the subject of future academic dissection as well as book club debates because there are many issues — like representation of race, the White Saviour trope, the White Victim Black Monsters trope and more — are worthy of unpacking in this fun adventure romance.
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Publisher: HQ books, (Harlequin, HarperCollins)
Release date: 2019
Format: paperback, pp. 480 plus extras
Category: Young Adult, fantasy, romance
Bolt, D (2013). The Metanarrative of Blindness: A Re-reading of Twentieth-Century Anglophone Writing. University of Michigan Press.
DuVernay, A (2014). Selma: Pathé, Harpo Films.
Gorrie, N (2016). ‘White Victims and Black Monsters: Why I have no time for Becky Feminism’: Junkee, accessed 17 July 2019 https://junkee.com/no-time-becky-feminism/85193.
Hughey, M (2015). ‘The whiteness of Oscar night’: Contexts.org, American Sociological Association. Accessed 17 July 2019 https://contexts.org/blog/the-whiteness-of-oscar-night/.
Mitchell D & Snyder S (2000). Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse. University of Michigan Press.
Rapid Tables converter, accessed online 17 July 2019 https://www.rapidtables.com/convert/number/degrees-minutes-seconds-to-degrees.html.
Snyder, M V (2019). The Eyes of Tamburah: HQ Books, HarperCollins.