The Killing Moon by NK Jemisin
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 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.
There is a small movement afoot recently to bring Egyptian mythology and settings into the mainstream. It started stylistically with Indiana Jones (while never set in Egypt, Raiders owes much of its back-story and mythos to it) and later was picked up by Stargate and all of its television incarnations. It continued in Lost, which added many, many tenants and figures from Egyptian mythology. Rick Riordan, he of Percy Jackson fame, created a similar series (recently completed) based on Egyptian gods. And then there is N. K. Jemisin. Jemisin is a speculative fiction (read: fantasy) writer who uses non-traditional (read: non-feudal European societies) as the settings for her books.
Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy was a fresh take on the “gods are warring and humans get caught up in it” story. The fact that the book jumped forward hundreds of years between installments was unique, as was the way the gods themselves both depended on and interacted with humans. She had an expansive and creative back story not just for each character, but for the creation of the universe and the worlds and creatures within it. Motivation and personality played huge parts in those stories. As a reader of her blog, I was heartened and impressed by the work she did at building a world and system of “magic”, as well as the time, care, and seriousness with which she viewed her work. To her, fiction is not just a story, it is an opportunity to address social issues and discern the motivations and foibles that move us and make us human.
The Dreamblood Series (a duology, both books of which were published within 6 weeks of each other this summer) takes place in an Egyptian styled society. And it blends a new-agey type of dream magic with the class system found in ancient Egypt. There is a figurehead of the society – a pharaoh like individual – who commands ultimate respect and is above the law. There is also a deference to a priest class who speaks for and does the work of the gods in the society. The tension and balance, as well as separation, between these groups closely mirrors the Egyptian societal breakdown. But this is not Egypt. This is a society that is built around complete respect for and obedience to the goddess of dreams. Chaos and disloyalty are taken care of, Judge Dredd style, by Gatherers. Gatherers are a special section of the priest class who go around collecting, or freeing, souls that are in pain or have transgressed. They have the ability to sense, and free, the razor-thin chord that tethers the waking world body to the soul in the dreaming world. Sometimes this is done in compassion – when someone is sick or in terrible pain – and sometimes it is done to bring peace, the dreaming goddesses ultimate goal. These Gatherers have ultimate authority, immense power, and are both beloved and feared by the people. The souls they gather they then carry to other priests in their order who can use them to heal others, in body and mind, and, it turns out, to do far more.
Nijiri is an apprentice Gatherer who has just passed his final test and needs only gather his first soul to join his mentor and surrogate-father, Ehiru, the most powerful and beloved of all Gatherers. The book begins with a lovely and cinematic look at the city they inhabit, Gujaareh, and the work of a Gatherer. But something goes horribly wrong, leading to the possibility that the peace and serenity, and possibly the unwavering devotion of the Gatherers and their like, may be horribly misplaced or covering up a far deeper, darker secret than anyone wants to admit. History is written by the victors, but at what cost and how much pain and suffering does peace and abject loyalty cover up?
Jemisin is at her best when she take strong, purposeful characters and forces them into situations that strain their beliefs, comfort, and boundaries. And she does that here extraordinarily well. She has crafted a full, vibrant, living culture (cultures) that fits together so well, she need not explain everything – although she often does. Jeminisin does exposition well, if sometimes it is a bit overused. But it is lovely and exotic and it pulled me in from the first. I felt that I knew and understood the characters and their motivations, why they gave loyalty and in to duty blindly, and how the society fit together. Characters were compelling and fully drawn, with shading and nuance that was logical and human. There were equal parts action, politics, and religion without any overuse of one over another.
I am excited to read the concluding book, The Shadowed Sun, in a few weeks. But more so, I am excited to see what other stories and worlds Jemisin creates. She is one of the most unique and intriguing writers of the genre out there, and part of a growing group that is moving it forward into exciting new directions.
Brian Herstig, 9/10
In the first of her Dreamblood duology, N K Jemisin presents a vivid world of dreams and reality, sanity and insanity, and the stories of the people caught up within it. It’s a compelling tale of corruption and justice and the lengths people will go to in pursuit of both.
What immediately stands out in The Killing Moon is the author’s unique creation of her dreamscape: the collection and distribution of the dreamhumors (dreamseed, dreambile and dreamichor), the ‘gatherers’, ‘reapers’ and ‘sharers’ and their place within society. Modelling her civilization on Ancient Egypt, Jemisin intricately establishes her world in a way that seeps sleekly into the mind as if it had always been there. Blending world-building tightly between characterisation and action results in her world being established, explained and made utterly believable without the reader even registering it.
Also well sculpted are Jemisin’s characters. Ehiru’s breakdown and his estranged relationship with his brother make for a truly intriguing lead character, while his more emotional and naive apprentice Nikiri is similarly interesting. Nikiri’s reverence, love and occasional lust for his mentor reveal a more textured side to the Hetawa (the temple of the Hananjan faith) making him one half of a dynamic central duo. Working as a spy for Kisua (a neighbouring city-state), the author’s enigmatic leading lady, Sunandi, is adverse to the notion of Gathering and at odds with Ehiru’s beliefs, but she puts this aside to work with him and reveal the truth about his people. Each character’s perspective is presented so convincingly that it’s difficult not to root for each one of them every time their opinion is proffered.
Perhaps the most fascinating character of them all however is the Prince – Ehiru’s brother. His motives remain unclear for a substantial length of time, making him the most curious presence between the pages. When his plans are finally revealed, his actions make up some of the most intense scenes in the book.
It may take a while to fully grasp Jemisin’s world and all the facets that comprise it (her magic system is based on Freudian dream theory and Egyptian medicine) but time can be saved by using the glossary in the back of the book where you’ll also find an enlightening interview with the author that contextualises many of her ideas.
Powerful, enchanting and unlike anything else out there, The Killing Moon is feast for the fantasy senses.
Alice Wybrew, 9.2/10
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