I picked up N. K. Jemisin‘s The Killing Moon on a whim. I’d seen it floating around the fantasy shelves for a few weeks and I was in that happy space having just finished my last book without yet having found a new one. And then I saw the cover of this book and decided that any book with such a lovely cover surely would be a good read. (Note: this does not always work)
And, for the first hundred or so pages I was afraid I’d picked up a dud. Jemisin has done a lot of world building for this one and the associated jargon and specialist terms come in spades and then wheelbarrows with the occasional pickup truck full of new and interesting words to learn and understand. The book even comes with a helpful glossary at the back so you’ll spend the first few chapters flicking back and forth like a mad person just to follow a casual conversation. Thankfully, after the constant flicking had me about to flick the book into a nearby wall, I hit the plot. And damn.
The Killing Moon is set around the fantasy city of Gujaareh, which is a very religious city that revolves around the church (or Hetawa according to the helpful glossary) that worships the moon and dreams. In this world, dreams are a source of healing magic and priests can be trained in four different fields, each of which harvests a different type of dream… energy(?) in their own way. The class that we’re interested in, however, is the rarest and the most feared (of course), the Gatherers. It’s an ominous name for an ominous purpose. The Gatherer’s find the corrupt and the ill and they send them into the permanent kind of sleep, collecting valuable Dreamblood which helps with the more powerful kinds of healing. The Gathers do not view themselves as murderers, however, they see what they do as a service because those who die under a Gatherer’s thrall (always wanted to use that word in a sentence) die in blissful peace. So much so that when the people of Gujareeh know that they’re approaching death they normally invite Gatherers to come bring them peace.
But the Gatherers aren’t completely unscathed by the process. Once they’re taken Dreamblood for the first time, they can never stop. It’s an addictive substance that they can’t go without for more than a few days, a week under a controlled environment. And when they’re facing the pranje (thanks, glossary) there’s a distinct possibility that they might just take Dreamblood from people and go on a killing rampage, becoming a Reaper (cue ominous music).
So now there’s a rumour that there’s a Reaper on the loose in Gujaareh, the Prince of the city is more than a little unbalanced (killing your whole family in order to rise to power will do that to a person) and Gatherer Ehiru and his apprentice Nijiri must find the source of corruption in the city before being hunted down and consumed by it themselves.
So let’s just talk about the cool magic system for a second. Far from the normal, somewhat dubious, magic system common to most fantasy settings that has magic requiring study plus an indeterminate amount of energy, here magic is based on Freudian dream theory with a bit of Greek philosophy mixed in for good measure. The Gatherers do their work so they can give the Dreamblood to the Sharers who, true to their names, share it with the people of Gujaareh in order to bring them peace. There’s also those who harvest Dreambile, taken from nightmares, and Dreamseed, from erotic dreams. I love that this form of magic is well thought out but also so different from the kind of magic that you normally see in fantasy books. I also like that it is so comprehensive that Jemisin was able to base an entire society around the way the magic works. That takes skill and comes with the bonus that it’s incredibly cool.
The Killing Moon also deals with some interesting ethical issues. Is it alright to kill someone if they die in bliss? What if their death will actively help others? This issue is brought to a head when Ehiru and Nijiri go over to a neighbouring city (country? It’s not that clear) and are faced with the son of a blacksmith with a crippling disability. Being a fantasy and thus pre-industrial, pre-equal-rights, this means that he can’t help to provide for his family in any way. So the father asks for a cure, even going so far as offering his life in exchange. However, Ehiru and Nijiri aren’t trained to heal. They just collect the raw goods to make healing possible so they can’t help. The son then asks to be gathered if no cure is possible. However, since gathering is outlawed in their city/country Ehiru and Nijiri are unable to help in that capacity either. Their only recourse is to advise the father and his crippled son to travel across a giant desert in order to get to Gujaareh where they might be able to get some help. Not a big ask at all.
The most interesting part of the whole exchange is that Jemisin never really picks a side. Despite the majority of the main characters coming from a society that believes in the righteousness of killing in the name of peace, there are plenty of quite vocal and reasonable detractors. The question of whether what the Gatherers do is right or wrong is discussed but no answer is reached and that in itself is refreshing.
You may remember a few months ago that I wrote a diatribe about the use of gay characters in fiction and how mainstream stories seem unable to cast them as anything other than ‘gay characters’ with that being their central conflict regardless of what’s going on in the rest of the plot. In light of that, this book deserves one of those triumphant fanfares and possibly a small parade filled with people in improbably tight clothing and lots of confetti. Because Nijiri is gay. He is gay and he is absolutely and completely in love with Ehiru. That love never develops beyond chaste devotion (due to them both being avowedly celibate priests, I guess) but it shapes who he is as a character and makes him a better character for it. Seeing that and seeing Nijiri’s conflict develop not around the fact that he’s gay but rather around the fact that he loves Ehiru (subtle difference but one that makes my heart sing with the purest of joys), not to mention that there’s the overarching plot of the city to save and the Reaper to hunt, makes this a book that you really shouldn’t miss.
Jemisin’s The Killing Moon takes a bit to get into. The slow, jargon-filled start can be off-putting. But once you get into it and begin to understand just why all of these serious people keep running around robes and double-crossing each other, it becomes one of the most compelling books I’ve read in ages.
Oh, and you remember way back when, when I raged against this book for setting up an epic premise and chickening out at the end? Yeah. This book doesn’t do that.
And it is glorious.
A quick apology for not getting a post out last week and for the lateness of this week’s post. I’ve been a bit sick of late and sleep has rated extremely high on the priority list, just under the obligatory not-quite-overdoses on cold and flu drugs. I’m also going to pre-emptively apologise for the next two weeks because I’m going to be off gallivanting (with all the gleeful prancing and cackling that that word implies) in a different city doing an internship. I’ll see you all on the other side!
- N.K. Jemisin goes high fantasy, and we all win [Book Review] (io9.com)
- A Dreamlike Novel That Soars: The Killing Moon by N.K. Jemisin (tor.com)
- The Big Idea: N.K. Jemisin (whatever.scalzi.com)