N. K. Jemisin’s The Killing Moon – A Review of Dreams, Ethics and Gay Priests

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!

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About Meg Laverick

I can never be found without a cup of tea in my hand or a notebook in my bag. In between university and generally being awesome I read, write and nerd (that's a verb, right?). I also like analysing things that are probably best left alone.
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6 Responses to N. K. Jemisin’s The Killing Moon – A Review of Dreams, Ethics and Gay Priests

  1. Lainy Wolf says:

    Erk, hate being sick. Hope you’re feeling better.

    I must put that one on my list. Although i found i have no patience at all so i better force myself through the first half.

    Well done on the internship! Go off and enjoy yourself with it. You’ll do great. 🙂

    • Lainy Wolf says:

      Hello Lovely,
      You are still alive right? Hope you’re enjoying yourself 🙂 ❤

      • Meg Laverick says:

        Yeah I’m alive. Sorry that I haven’t been updating. Life has gotten… busy. Very very busy.

        Though I really need to make this a priority again. Any suggestions?

        And how are you lovely? We haven’t talked for ages. Tell me things.

        • Lainy Wolf says:

          Ha ha, life has a funny way of doing that. My car, for instance, decided to have a flat tyre on tuesday. I didn’t notice until i got to work. So i rushed around to get RACQ to change my tyre but apparently it wasn’t road worthy so they wouldn’t change it (knew i should have called Jake). They pumped my tyre up so i could go get a new one though. So off i had to go to bob-jane tmart to fix my tyre. Think i started work at about 9:30 finally. Spilled my coffee everywhere i might add, and my belt loops broke on my work pants. Knew i should have stayed in bed that morning. Two of my hubcaps were also missing the next day. I’m surprised no one stole my spiffy new tyres.

          We have not talked for ages. I was trying to think of the best way to do it XD. I’m getting very excited that i only have these two courses left to do for uni this semester and then i’ll be free. And you have finished haven’t you? Congrats! Please tell me, is at as exciting as i’m imagining it to be? Finishing that final exam?

          I’m not sure what i’m going to do with my free time before i start my CPA. Write a book? (ha!)

          Actually, i’ll probably be planning/doing renovations. I’m planning to buy a house in 3 months after the bank gives me the all clear. I’m getting out of this horrible unit and out of the rental market. Look I’m attempting to be an adult :3. I’m very excited.

          So how are you? Tell me what exciting, busy things you’ve been up to?

          • Meg Laverick says:

            …That sounds like the day from hell. Did you console yourself with chocolate afterwards? Because chocolate fixes most things. Not everything, mind, but most things.

            I also can’t believe someone stole your hubcaps! I thought that was the kind of high-class crime reserved for the big city.

            You’re going to be buying a house?!??!?! That’s amazing! Your transition to, like, being an adult and stuff with a mortgage and everything will be complete. I am in awe. (And also really really envious. My current procrastination activity is browsing real estate websites and sighing at all of the houses I can’t afford.)

            Yes, I have graduated! Got my bits of paper, walked across the stage and didn’t even fall over! Must admit, a little prouder of that little fact than I am of the actual degrees sometimes.

            Handing in that final assignment is the best feeling ever. I did a kind of embarressing dance once the deed had been done and then celebrated by going to bookfest and indulging my addiction with three green bags worth of books for $50.

            The aftermath of degreedom has been hectic, but not for the reasons you’d think. You know that I went down to Melbourne for two weeks for an internship, right? So I did that, came home and got another internship at a Brisbane publishing house (which, incidently, is what I’m doing right now) and have been continuing to work at Dymocks in the inbetween times.

            Unfortunately for my sanity, this means that I’m basically working 7 days a week with the odd day off every now and again. So at the moment, I’m on day ten and my next day off is Saturday. I am planning to spend the whole day in my pyjamas, creating a very attractive butt-groove in the couch. BUT I’m finishing this internship tomorrow so that means that my schedule should calm down a mite. Which– yay!

            The future, however, is a big question mark but I’m trying to ignore that particular point of terror because… terror.

            • Lainy says:

              Ah i made it through the day. I didn’t have chocolate at all. Actually Jake mentioned to me that night that he was surprised i didn’t start crying (thanks babe!). I think i was in disbelief that whole day. I’m pretty sure there were hysterical giggles escaping from me all day. I’m surprised the office hasn’t disowned me.

              Geez, girl, do you have time to sleep? I thought doing two external subjects plus a 40 hr work week was tough. That’s a holiday compared to yours. XD

              Ah in the past week i have been debating on building a house. Yes. I have gone insane. I’m now debating putting everything on the backburner, waiting for Jake to find some awesome job and pool our resources to build something. I’m still in the thinking stages though. Its all too hard for the moment. My brain is fried.

              So how did the internships go? Did you enjoy them? It sounds all way too exciting to this boring accountant. I feel old knowing i’ve been working in tax for 3 years. I also loathe individual tax returns now that i do bigger jobs.

              Speaking of being old. Jake and I are going to the coast for this weekend for our 6 year anniversary. He says 6 years of hell whenever i’m in earshot to tease me. He said that to his mum last night and she had no idea what he was talking about. He said she couldn’t fathom the hell part (i keep telling him they like me better lol).

              I’ve gotten back into reading fanfiction for some odd reason. I’m also about to see how crappy my drawing has gotten right now. This could be interesting.

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