The Killing Moon by N.K. Jemisin
We’ve all read zillions of fantasies set in medieval Europe, or the equivalent thereof. But lately we’re being treated to fantasies set in cultures that are very different from Western civilization (or even Western Dark Ages), and set instead in places like China (Daniel Fox’s MOSHUI: THE BOOKS OF STONE AND WATER), Mexico (Aliette de Bodard’s OBSIDIAN AND BLOOD) and Arabia (Saladin Ahmed’s THE CRESCENT MOON KINGDOMS). And now N.K. Jemisin is taking us to Africa — more specifically, a variety of Egypt — in The Killing Moon, the first book of THE DREAMBLOOD.
It’s a trip worth taking. Ehiru is a sacred assassin, a priest who ushers the souls of the dying into the dream world, Ina-Karekh, and gathers their dreamblood. When we first watch Ehiru gather a soul, we get a picture of the peace inherent in the process: the elderly and dying are granted surcease and left in paradise. But a priest can also get a commission to gather one who has no wish to die, who is in the fullness of life and has no belief in Hananja, the Goddess of Dreams whom Ehiru serves. When he is tasked to gather the soul of a foreign traveler, the traveler’s resistance surprises Ehiru. Most surprising is the traveler’s assertion that some gather for pleasure, instead of as a sacred duty, something Ehiru considers abomination, obscenity. But the traveler asserts that Ehiru is being used, and in something like panic Ehiru bungles the job of gathering his soul, setting it loose in the nightmare hollows of Ina-Karekh for all eternity.
From this beginning, we begin to get a picture of the plot: something is awry with the way the priests of Hananja are being used. Worse, though, we soon learn that something is wrong with Ehiru. And worse yet, there seems to be something wrong in Gujaareh, Ehiru’s country. We learn much of this from Sunandi’s point of view; she is a highly-placed diplomat from the country from Kisua and, not coincidentally, a spy. The countries were united at one time, but Kisua does not worship the Goddess of Dreams in the same way that Gujaareh does, gathering the dream humors for their various uses. In fact, it considers such practices barbaric. And Kisua is hearing whispers about what the monarchy of Gujaareh is up to. In particular, as the book proceeds, we read of a Reaper: one who gathers souls randomly, greedily, for purposes other than the worship of Hananja. Any priest might become a Reaper if he does not control his practice properly.
And, to his shame, regret and fear, Ehiru finds himself on the thin edge of a knife between proper worship and the descent into the madness that would make him a Reaper. His apprentice, Nijiri, works hard to keep this fate from Ehiru, but there are politics at play of which he knows nothing. When the two undertake a journey to Kisua with Sunandi to find the truth behind the rumors of a Reaper, as well as to determine whether Sunandi warrants Gathering, the danger to Ehiru is enormous.
Jemisin writes smoothly and transparently, a style well suited to her tale. She does not overwhelm the reader with the details of the worship of Hananja, which is the foundation for her book, but explains the religion organically as one reads, through discussions with others and descriptions of the religious practices as they are performed. The characters are well-developed; one comes to feel a real kinship with Ehiru, especially, as he finds his faith and his very humanity come into question, and to understand Nijiri’s love for his mentor.
One of the real joys of getting to the end of The Killing Moon is finding that one need not wait a year to read its sequel. The Killing Moon easily stands alone; there are no threads left hanging. But there will obviously be consequences to the events of The Killing Moon, and the world-building that Jemisin accomplishes is so strong that one wishes to visit that world again to find out what happens next. Fortunately, The Shadowed Sun is already available — and, so far, it’s just as enthralling as The Killing Moon.
Jemisin is new to the fantasy field with the publication of THE INHERITANCE TRILOGY beginning in 2010, the first book of which, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, was nominated for the Nebula, the Hugo and the World Fantasy Award. This new world of hers shows that success was no quirk, and that she is here to stay. She’s now on my list of “read everything she writes” writers.
N.K. Jemisin is my favorite fantasy author of this decade. In just six years, she has already established herself as a major force with three fantasy series to date, INHERITANCE (2010-2011), DREAMBLOOD (2012), and BROKEN EARTH (2015~). What makes her so distinctive is her incredible world-building skills, strong and complex characters and themes, and insistence on avoiding the overused conventions of the genre. One of the best and most original fantasies I’ve ever read was her 2015 book, The Fifth Season, the start of the BROKEN EARTH series. In her DREAMBLOOD series, she takes the ancient kingdoms of Egypt and Nubia for inspiration, but rather than simply changing some names and using thinly-disguised history as her template for The Killing Moon, she introduces an entirely new religious and social system, one centered around the worship of Hananja, the dream goddess represented by the moon.
In the land of Gujaareh, power is divided between the priest class, the royalty, and the military. But the priest class is the most powerful thanks to its Gatherers, specially-trained priests who harvest dream blood from the sick, dying, and corrupt and use it for healing the sick and injured. So while they provide succor to the suffering on the one hand, they also deal out justice to the corrupt on the other, which makes them far more complex than the usual ‘healer’ role. Because they can delve into people’s dreams, they can also access private thoughts to root out the corrupt. Gatherers take the suffering souls and escort them to the dream world of Ina-Karekh. It is a sacred duty and considered an honor to be sent to the next world. This extends even to the corrupt and criminals, for which it is considered an act of mercy. This theme of euthanasia, or death with dignity, is woven throughout the book. So is the potentially corrupting influence of wielding power in the name of the greater good.
The story of The Killing Moon centers on several main characters: senior priest Ehiru of the Hetawa; his young apprentice Nijiri; Sunandi, a female diplomat and spy from neighboring Kisua; the ambitious Prince Eninket who harbors a dark secret, and many supporting players. The political struggle between the city-states of Gujaareh and Kisua is played out among individuals at various levels of society, and the motivations of both sides are complex and convincing. It is a fully-developed and engrossing world, since the political involvement of the Hetawa priests is so pervasive in Gujaareh. When Ehiru and Nijiri begin to uncover corruption that points to the leaders of the Hetawa itself, they are forced to question the principles upon which their whole lives have been devoted to. We also are shown the political system of Kisua and its Protectors, who are opposed to the use of dream-gathering as they consider it dark and corrupting magic. Many of the most astute social observations come from the diplomat Sunandi, whose role as a spy for her kingdom serves as convenient device to reveal details of the world organically as the story unfolds.
There is certainly a flood of neologisms at the beginning of the book, which creates some confusion, so readers will likely be flipping to the glossary to get their bearings (something audio listeners cannot do), and the author eschews exposition in favor of throwing readers into the story from the beginning, then letting us slowly piece together the world and characters she has created. I actually prefer this approach, because it allows the reader to be rewarded with insights into the world without slowing the pace much. So while there is definitely a learning curve, you won’t feel like you’re reading an encyclopedia.
It’s also worth mentioning that The Killing Moon centers on people of dark skin inspired by the ancient kingdoms of Egypt and Nubia, a refreshing change from the dominant influence of medieval Europe on the bulk of epic fantasy, and while this is not an overt element of the story, it is great to tap into such a rich and rarely-used source of inspiration. Jemisin also is quite subtle in describing the sexual dynamics of the characters — it is only by mid-story that we discover that same-sex relationships are part of the social fabric in some cases. This becomes particularly poignant for two of the main characters, but I will say no more. There is also a lot of exploration of gender politics and the roles of women in the two societies, something I look forward to when reading her books because she refrains from stacking the deck to favor a given agenda. Instead, her characters are complex in their motivations, and there is a lack of cookie-cutter heroes or villains. Our understanding of the main characters grows throughout the story, as they themselves evolve and struggle with thorny ethical and political struggles. Even the character who turns out to be most ‘evil’ has his own reasons for doing what he does, though he clearly has lost his sense of perspective along the way.
Much of the pleasure of the book derives from the slow reveal of the social, religious, and political details of the two societies, so I will not spoil it any further. Suffice to say that Ms. Jemisin has clearly thought it out in great detail and could probably create many stories in this world. But The Killing Moon is self-contained and comes to a dramatic conclusion, though whether it is satisfying or not I will leave to the reader to decide. There is a second book set several years after called The Shadowed Sun, which features some of the same characters but introduces new cultures and perspectives, and dives even further into gender politics and the role of women in this ancient imagined culture. At this point I plan to read everything Ms. Jemisin writes, as she has earned my respect and admiration with her challenging and excellently-crafted work.
Dreamblood — (2012) Available for download at Audible.com. Publisher: The city burned beneath the Dreaming Moon. In the ancient city-state of Gujaareh, peace is the only law. Upon its rooftops and amongst the shadows of its cobbled streets wait the Gatherers — the keepers of this peace. Priests of the dream-goddess, their duty is to harvest the magic of the sleeping mind and use it to heal, soothe… and kill those judged corrupt. But when a conspiracy blooms within Gujaareh’s great temple, Ehiru — the most famous of the city’s Gatherers — must question everything he knows. Someone, or something, is murdering dreamers in the goddess’ name, stalking its prey both in Gujaareh’s alleys and the realm of dreams. Ehiru must now protect the woman he was sent to kill — or watch the city be devoured by war and forbidden magic.