The Killing Moon by N.K. Jemisin
In Gujareeh, a highly theocratic monarchy maintains ultimate justice in the form of the gatherers. These gatherers are a vaguely vampiric priest sect in the Gujareen government. They feed on the magic—a spiritual substance called dreamblood—of those deemed corrupt by their goddess, Hananja. Peace apparently reigns in Gujareeh as a result of the gatherer presence.
But, at the start of this compelling novel, a gatherer named Ehiru begins to question his place in this society, whether or not he is righteous in ending the lives of the apparently corrupt.
N.K. Jemisin’s The Killing Moon is predominantly concerned with world-building. It’s definitely a world worth getting engrossed in. Inspired by ancient Egyptian societies and mythology—much as Lloyd Alexander was inspired by ancient Persia in The First Two Lives of Lucas-Kasha—Jemisin illustrates something truly unique here. It’s a dark fantasy, bordering on horror. The oddness of the story blends with the sensuality of the setting brilliantly. I can’t even think of anything to compare it to fairly. Jemisin dubbed this her ode to the epic fantasy genre, and it manages to honor that tradition while setting itself apart almost entirely.
Though highly original and fascinating conceptually, I do wish it hadn’t spread itself so unevenly. Here there is a wide spread of information, in plot, setting, culture, and character, but by the end I felt that character development got the shortest end of the stick. The protagonists are more defined by their occupations than anything—something that might be acceptable for the gatherer characters, but not for any of the others. One simply can’t imagine what any of these characters would do on a day off. Jemisin’s world is painted in broad strokes—hobbies, food, culture aren’t really touched upon with any depth. Rather it focuses on religion and political intrigue. It certainly isn’t a necessity to focus so much on the personal level, it just dilutes the human connection somewhat. Makes it more difficult to identify with the characters.
What connections there are, though, are very intriguing. Ehiru’s relationship with his apprentice Nijiri is possibly the most powerful aspect of the novel. It encompasses several dynamics in wonderful and complex ways: Father-son, master-apprentice, gatherer brothers, and unconsummated lovers. (Yeah, lots of super awesome homoerotic tension here. The Killing Moon features some great fluid sexuality.) Jemisin goes to great lengths to make sure that no relationship is one-dimensional. Characters relate to one another in dynamic ways, for instance the spy-ambassador Sunandi and Ehiru ranges from subdued romance to antagonism, fluctuating between the two poles throughout the book.
She does a great job of avoiding tropes and cliches, or else extrapolating upon them in order to make them more interesting. The Prince of Gujareeh’s ambition, for example, is usual for monarchs in fantasy, yet the context surrounding it—with this ambiguous dreamblood stuff, and the powerful religiosity permeating the book—makes it much more special.
I only wish it could have gotten into the nitty-gritty of life in Gujareeh, offering more attention to individual characters, bring us down to the streets of Gujareeh. The novel feels distant at times, too objective.
Maybe a personal preference, but I always feel that appealing to the reader at the individual level will make them more committed to the story. The Killing Moon never quite dives in that deep.