N.K. Jemisin is probably best known for winning this year’s Hugo award for best novel – The Fifth Season, set in The Broken Earth realm. The Killing Moon is a book set in a different reality, but praised as one of her best works to date. Because I started my acquaintance with her prose with a short story set in the same world as The Killing Moon, and because I had access to Killing Moon, not The Fifth Season ;), I decided this would be my first serious intro into Jemisin’s prose.
The Killing Moon takes place in an alternate, very Earth-like (more precisely, ancient Egypt-and-Nubia-like) setting. It’s basically Earth (actually, Earth-like moon orbiting a gas giant, which has one other moon as well) – where all the beliefs about magical power of dreams, about the four “humors” of human body, are true. The soul is something tangible; a precious essence of a human being, which can be, by metaphysical means, touched, preserved or destroyed. It can be led peacefully to the land beyond the realms of living; it can be ripped away from the body, resulting in imminent, and incredibly painful, death. Ah, but this essence, the soul of a conscious being, is also a source of potent magic. It can give strength, intellect, youthfulness, even immortality. As well as an incurable taste for more.
In this setting we meet Ehiru. He is the only living brother of the ruling pharaoh. He is one of the most gifted and powerful Gatherers in the long history of his order. He’s compassionate, professional, wise and caring. Self-contained, strictly adhering to the rules of his caste, deeply religious, handsome… Yeah, I can see the letters M-a-r-y—S-u-e forming in your head. It does look like it, at first. But appearances can be deceiving. Because when he is in the middle of a conscience crisis, evoked by his first Gathering blunder in life, he is set up and used by those whom he trusted. And his only saving grace becomes the young apprentice Nijiri, through whose eyes we observe the whole affair. And it is a truly interesting affair, starting seemingly small with one bungled soul-taking of an unimportant infidel, but leading to the highest tops of power, through desert chases and busy local markets to different countries and all-out battles of thousands. Add to the mix a foreign female spy, working hard to protect her country from a seemingly inevitable war… I do not intend to spoil The Killing Moon for you, so let me just tell you – if you have any doubts whether Jemisin wrote a self-congratulatory, self-aggrandizing fantasy, the answer is a loud and definite “no”.
Jemisin’s worldbuilding is impeccable and her voice unique; the detailed and sensitive way she leads the readers through the streets of the cities leaves a lasting imprint of tangibility. The social structure, as much as it borrows from the real, historical societies, is still quite impressive, thought through and believable. The tug-o-war between the secular and the religious power, the political factions and more than a tad of skillful spying, the constraints set on magic, the multitude of consequences stemming from the simple fact of existence and form of magic – from the sheer power to its dangerous side-effects… I was reminded of Bolesław Prus’ “Pharaoh” more than once, actually ;). The characters are intriguing and multidimensional, although, especially with the main protagonist Ehiru, not fully believable. They were crafted cunningly and vividly enough, given depth and a room to breathe – even the less important characters, painted with broad strokes but detailed enough to have at least one or a couple peculiarities. But, at least for me, there was a… lack of something. A whiff of paper in the actions and decisions of the main trio of protagonists, something forced in their interactions with others and the larger world. It doesn’t mean I didn’t care about them, on the contrary; but I had a feeling of slight unreality about them. Something along the lines of “Too good to be true” 😉
The plot, as I mentioned before, at the beginning unfolds rather slowly, but then speeds up with flare and panache, nicely mixing elements of criminal mystery and the supernatural with tight psychological drama, politics and adventure. Add to it a very emotional description of ever-deepening addiction and sacrifice, and suddenly saving the world doesn’t seem so cliché anymore ;).
Jemisin in a short interview with herself at the end of my edition of The Killing Moon mentions sexual ambiguity of the main characters, going as far as declaring her characters’ sexual preferences. In all honesty, this aspect of the book was completely unimportant to me. I didn’t care one whit about sexual preferences of the protagonists, especially in the light of their religiously imposed celibate. But since the author put so much emphasis on it, and it seems a recurring theme in many reviews, a short comment. The cultural patterns of sexual relations are flexible and ever-changing, different today in the West than they had been 20, 50, or a hundred years ago, not to mention thousands of years ago. Michel Foucault’s masterful The History of Sexuality is a perfect proof of that. But if you prefer a less academic and more in-genre voice, try Joe Haldeman’s Forever War ;). Jemisin treats the traditions of ancient Egypt with respect, trying to preserve as many of them as feasible in the world she had built. Different sexual patterns are just one among many. The institution of a holy whore – another. Of a pharaoh, or powerful religious brotherhoods – still another.
I enjoyed The Killing Moon very much. It’s full of empathy and understanding for its protagonists, but it’s something more than that – a novel written with a remarkable balance between character development and the exploration of their fantasy setting. A lot of thought went into the Jung-inspired magic system, and a lot of research must have preceded the careful, measured construction of the social, political and religious structure of The Killing Moon’s world. There is a second book in the Dreamblood world, a loosely tied sequel titled The Shadowed Sun, which I will gladly read one day.
A satisfying read with laudable ambitions of becoming a cathartic experience. Not always nice and not overly easy, but then – that’s what makes it so rewarding in the end. If you want to try something different in modern fantasy, Jemisin’s The Killing Moon is a great place to start.