The Killing Moon by N.K. Jemisin
Reviewed by Erin Horáková
18 July 2012
Gujaareh and Kisua are two city-states with a lot of shared history, culture, and religious beliefs. But there's nothing a person hates more than someone almost her twin, who likes what she likes, but likes it all wrong. Kisua resents Gujaareh's greater wealth and, more importantly, Gujaareh's very different way of honoring Hananjah, their mutually recognized goddess of dreams. In Gujaareh, Hananja is the sole goddess. Civic life revolves around and is facilitated by her worship. Highly developed systems of justice, public health, defense, education, and legalized prostitution are administrated by her priests, who use dream magic collected from regular public tithes to discharge these offices. Gatherers, the most elite branch of Hananja's servants, execute miscreants for the greater good, and in this capacity they are answerable to no higher authority than one another. Upon request, they also grant peace to aged and ailing faithful.
The whole character of the Gujaareh people is shaped by these networks of public obligation, and by the supreme importance of balance and peace in Gujaareh worship and life. The existence of officials who can see into your dreams and judge them imposes a broader cultural sense of transparency. This makes secrets, or at least secrets not relating to properly observed religious mysteries, in and of themselves a strange violation of the public order, regardless of their content. Hananja's priest class functions as a branch of government, and is arguably more powerful than the Prince or the military caste. The devotion to peace and balance that has made Gujaareh safe, hale, and prosperous have also made it static, propping up gender hierarchies and caste structures that depend on everyone knowing their place.
In Kisua, Hananja is an important member of a pantheon, but other gods are worshiped as well. The magical practices and codes of behavior at the core of Gujaareh society are anathema to Kisua, where fear of dream magic's dark potential outweighs desire for its obvious benefits. Kisua also looks askance at Gujaareh's worshipful, infantilizing treatment of women, who the Gujaareh people see as earth-bound goddesses in the kitchen and bedroom (all very familiar from Victorian literature on gender). Kisua looks at Gujaareh's permissive, tolerant attitude towards corrupting, barbaric Northern influences—a policy Gujaareh has cultivated in order to swell its trading coffers—and sees the specter of degeneration.
As a side note, Jemisin has mentioned that some of the ideas behind dream magic are derived from Jung—which does make me wince a bit. Genre writers could pretty much never read any Jung ever again and I think we'd be better off, would lose a lot of pseudo-intellectual deadweight, and could interact with the concepts of psychoanalysis in more compelling ways. Sometimes I remember Ballard's Drowned World, another "I have read some Jung, guys!!" moment, and really wish I hadn’t.
To say Jemisin's worldbuilding is superb is an understatement. Not only can high fantasy be formed from different base materials than medieval Europe, it can be done amazingly well, with sensitivity, and can add something fresh and vital to the fantasy genre. The world of The Dreamblood Series, of which The Killing Moon is the first volume, has strong internal cohesion. Its diverse elements and tensions make sense together, and seem to arise organically from one another, creating strong twinned, inter-dependent senses of places and underlying worldviews for Gujaareh, Kisua, and other locations this story touches on but doesn't explore in depth.
The world's heterogeneity opens up new dimensions for argument. Two of the main characters, a Gatherer named Ehiru and his apprentice Nijiri, have a complicated relationship which interweaves elements of romance, filial and parental feeling, identification and religious duty. The Killing Moon could be a valuable means of thinking about the distinctions between types of relationships, and the power and responsibilities those forms of love entail. Ehiru, Nijiri, and the Kisua ambassador Sunandi play out a mature discussion about the personal and cultural implications of faith and its intersections with power. Jemisin doesn't sneer sophomorically at belief, which is as easy and popular as it is pointless. Instead she avoids easy moral determinations—none of the three major characters gets the gold star of righteousness at the end, really—and uses this fantasy world to illustrate the psychology and cultural impact of faith.
This thorough use of its fantasy setting sets The Killing Moon apart from admittedly well-written novels like The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie (2011). The Heroes was nominally fantasy—which was fine. If that's how the author wanted to market or contextualize it, dandy. But barring a few, not-plot-essential pages, and some broad interactions with fantasy tropes, The Heroes didn't specifically need to be a fantasy novel to get its business done, whereas The Killing Moon fundamentally does, and gets a lot out of its interaction with genre.
Set in a mythical never-was Egyptian-and-Nubian influenced past, this is a novel primarily about people of color. It reverses the One Minority Friend trope, using Sunandi's white companion, Lin, to illustrate how the characters think about race and personhood. The treatment of a white woman in a black world subtly brings the ways we deal with these issues for characters of color in traditional fantasy novels to the surface. Female characters—Speaker Sunandi, Lin, Sister Meliatua, etc.—are plentiful, distinct, and interesting.
Jemisin's prose is smooth and competent, employing carefully balanced archaisms and neologisms. The novel's strategic use of speech—including variations between characters, situational registers of formality, classes, cultures, and in-world languages—complements and supports her world. The transitions between storytelling modes, character points of view, and characters' different mental states happen easily, providing narrative richness and effectively conveying information about the characters, setting, and plot. The book earned its four hunded pages, and could have been longer without losing its muscularity and strong sense of purpose.
Opposing factions in The Killing Moon have the decency to all have reasonable, sympathetic or at least comprehensible motives for doing and wanting what they do and want. Ehiru, Nijiri, their fellow priests, the Prince of Gujaareh, Speaker Sunandi, and her city's ruling Protectors all have different priorities. When the two city states seem at the brink of war, your emotional investment is with almost all of them, irresolvably divided. This not only yields a sturdy, readable plot with the strong thematic content alluded to above, it also helps develop rounded characters, almost all of whom I'd be happy to know more about, yet who I also feel I know enough about for this story. Jemisin has a gift for empathy with her characters. Her compassion for them shows through, making their problems emotionally resonant and meaningful, creating emotive ties between the reader and the text, and even between the reader and the writer. Without even knowing Jemisin, I somehow feel proud of her for having written this excellent, thoughtful, and deeply felt novel.
The Killing Moon isn't flawless. There are plot points that could have benefited from more elucidation. I'm not entirely sure why Ehiru and Nijiri go with Sunandi to Kisua (they ultimately don't really find out much information), other than that the plot wanted them to be there. I don't believe Ehiru could not know about a problem as widespread as the one the Prince reveals to him near the end of the novel—it seems to involve too many people and be too much a part of the fabric of social life in Gujaareh not to be a quietly known thing. Et cetera.
The emotional arcs might also have been given more play. Ehiru's relationships with the Prince and his own former mentor might have been more rich, and thus more affecting, if more time had been spent on them—if Ehiru had seemed closer to these men. While the novel's craftsmanship impressed me, the story as a whole left me a little cold. I can't easily determine whether my reaction is a product of the aforementioned slight underdevelopment of the plot and emotional arc, or simply a case of my not having been in the right frame of mind to appreciate the book at the time, as sometimes happens. Despite not having connected with the novel as strongly as I might have liked to, it's so well-written and engaging that I highly recommend it. If it wasn't the book for me, it will be—and it deserves to be—the book for someone.