BRIEF SYNOPSIS: In the city-state of Gujaareh, a dream-priest, his apprentice, and a spy from a rival city-state are all caught in the machinations of two kingdoms.
PROS: Powerful characters; vivid imagery; intensely interesting ideas; a totally immersive setting.
CONS: Lack of a map and some unclear geography.
BOTTOM LINE: A worthy Nebula Award nominee.
The Killing Moon is the first of the Dreamblood duology from N.K. Jemisin, and is a 2012 Nebula Nominee for Best Novel. In it, the city-state of Gujaareh, under the light of the mighty Dreaming Moon is ostensibly at peace. And peace is the law, both from the temporal Crown Prince, and the Hetawa, the priests of the Dreaming Goddess. While on the surface things seem placid, a harvest of dreams gone wrong suggests that peace is an illusion, or a bubble ready to be shattered by forces seeking to revive an old, discarded conflict. Three characters are going to learn that keeping the veneer of peace a full reality and stopping that conflict has costs both personal and tangible.
The setting in The Killing Moon is amazing, with a cultural background and universe that invoke New Kingdom Egypt. You have a yearly flooding river, desert wastes, a polytheistic society, and an oligarchic, antagonistic relationship between the temporal and spiritual powers in Gujaareh. The backstory between Gujaareh and Kisua is clearly modeled on the Egyptian-Nubia relationship, and what hints of geography we get make that connection even more explicit. Its a fertile wellspring, not often used in fantasy for ideas and inspiration, and the author takes full advantage of it.
The Dream world is also interesting. Dreamblood and the manipulation of dreams is not just a metaphor, but a place that the priests can and do visit in the course of their duties. The Dream world in The Killing Moon reminds me of the work of some fantasy authors such as Jamil Nasir, and, yes, inevitable comparisons to Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series. And did I mention the huge Dreaming Moon itself? Rising every night, much larger than the small and pale Waking Moon, it’s clear to me that the world that Gujaareh and Kisua are on isn’t a planet at all, but is the moon of a gas giant. While inhabited gas giant moons are a staple of science fiction, this is an extremely uncommon idea for a fantasy novel. The beauty of the writing makes the nature of this world clear to the reader, even if it is not so clear to the inhabitants.
Then there are the dream-stealing ninja priests of The Dreaming Goddess. Two of our characters belong to this sect and we get an inside view of a complex and complicated society. Even more fascinating is the unmooring from traditional values and our sense of morality. The idea of priests who take the lives of those close to death, ensuring their afterlife in an endless dream, is one that is certainly orthogonal to modern values. The fact that many of those taken in this way are immoral or criminal adds fuel to questions of capital punishment, sin, weregild and redemption. Jemisin’s writing makes such acts not only understandable and rational, but also noble and good in the eyes of the reader. There is a true sense of transport in this book, of being immersed in a very different world.
The novel shines just as brightly in its depiction of characters and their conflicts. There ar three major viewpoint characters: Ehiru is the senior Gatherer of dreams. He’s getting to be too old for this work of stealing dreams and ending lives for the Hetawa, and it is a dream theft that gone wrong at the beginning of the novel that unlocks the action and reveals the wider conflicts. Nijiri, his apprentice, has a tangled and interesting backstory slowly revealing how he came to join the priesthood. If anything, his young naïveté and enthusiasm are even more tested than that of Ehiru. Finally, there is Sinandi. She is a spy for Kisua and it is her desire to prevent a catastrophic conflict between her world and Gujaareh that draws her together with Ehiru and Nijjri.
And as rich as the development of these characters, there are three suns that not only orbit each other, but illuminate the powers about them that are drawing toward conflict. In addition, we get to see female characters with power and agency, non-heteronormative relationships, feelings and yearnings. In addition we get a rich tapestry of secondary characters. I particularly liked Lin, Sunandi’s companion who, in addition to her wonderful relationship with Sunandi, reverses and challenges the usual stereotypes by being white in a world where that is a distinct minority.
I’ve only scratched the surface of the delights in the novel. The writing is beautiful and evocative, aiding in that connection to character and bringing the setting to life. There are some interesting ideas and implications of Dreaming and Dreamblood that Jemisin explores in the novel as well.
The weaknesses in the novel, I found, are relatively minor. The novel exhibits a fine mastery of craft, however the geography could have done with a map, or some better explanation. The military logistics of the conflict didn’t feel right, but some clearer geography might have alleviated that sense. While the map is not the territory, given the geopolitical machinations and conflicts in the novel, I think the novel sorely needed one.
Strong, bright writing; an amazing universe that I fell into and was completely immersed in; characters deep, complex and evolving…The Killing Moon is certainly a worthy Nebula Award nominee. It is essential reading for any reader of secondary world fantasy.