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Shadowhawk reviews the first book in the Dreamblood Saga by author N. K. Jemisin, published by Orbit Books.
“A daring novel,The Killing Moon is one of the most intriguing and compelling reads of the year and presents a very unique brave new world.“~The Founding Fields
When I started to read The Killing Moon, I was in a bit of a reading funk, the result of a week-long trip to India for some annual festivities and being very intensely focused on my novel project for the National Novel Writing Month, which is still ongoing. The anthology I was reading at the time was proving to be somewhat boring so I turned to comics to fill the gap since none of the other books I was trying were working for me. N. K. Jemisin’s latest book stepped in quite nicely, bringing me out of that damn funk and getting me back on track to reading long fiction again. And enjoying it too.
The Killing Moon is a very different type of fantasy novel. On the surface, it sounds like a lot of the fantasy that’s been taking centre stage lately, but once you get into it, the novel forces you to dig deeper and takes you along for quite a unique ride through the world that the author has created. The first few chapters were rough going for me, I’ll admit. There was a lot of in-world referencing going on, not to mention that this is not a traditional Euro/Western fantasy, so those pages were confusing and disorienting. But I was determined to stick with this, so I kept going. The dream-magic that the author has introduced at an early stage, and the cultural setting intrigued me enough to make that decision, and I’m glad I did.
Ehiru, a servant of the Goddess Hananja, is a Gather, his primary duty being to go out in the dead of night, steal upon sleeping people, and cut their life-threads while they in a deep dreaming state. The distinction needs to be made that he is not a murderer. The Gatherers are one of the servants of Hananja, and their task is to ease the passing of people into the Gujaareen afterlife. They do this not by any arbitrary decision, but at the request of family members, and friends. The first few pages set up a great character conflict for Ehiru, he first carries out a textbook gathering, but the second goes horribly wrong and Ehiru is mentally scarred by his failure. The rest of the novel is largely set up for Ehiru coming to terms with what happened. His unexpected failure is a signifier of larger events that are occurring in the city of Gujaareh, and Ehiru is about to get sucked in big time.
The Ehiru from the beginning of the novel is a very different Ehiru at the end. Jemisin explores his fears through his crisis of religion, his crisis of trust, his traumatic memories, and ultimately, his resolution of his entire crisis of faith that paralyses him often. In Ehiru, she has created a deeply sympathetic character who is challenged at every turn by events and people around him, whether they are his enemies or his allies, strangers or family. Ehiru is someone who generates empathy from the reader. I certainly loved how he was portrayed.
There are three other characters of note in the novel, who are just as important to the narrative as Ehiru. Nijiri is an apprentice-Gatherer assigned to Ehiru. He is young, often brash, but a quick learner. When Ehiru goes through his darkest moments, Nijiri is always there to provide some stability to him. He does that not just because they are master and apprentice, but also because they have a history together, for Ehiru was the one who Gathered Nijiri’s mother when he was still an infant. These two are simpatico in every respect, they are both dedicated to Hananja and the work they do in her name, to justice, and to weeding out the corruption in Gujaareh and beyond. In Nijiri, Jemisin has crafted a great secondary character, who complements the protagonist in almost every respect and gives a great alternate view into the Gujaareen culture and the events that he and Ehiru find themselves in.
Then there is Ambassador Sunandi from the city of Kisua, newly arrived in Gujaareh to surreptitiously investigate the death of her mentor and father (by adoption), Ambassador Kinja. Where she is concerned, I often found it heard to be in any way sympathetic with her. She is too rooted in her cultural conflict with all Gujaareen, particularly where it concerns the Gatherers since the sect of Hananja that is worshipped in Kisua abhors all dream magic, or Narcomancy as it is called. It is only when she slowly (ever so slowly!) begins to reassess her prejudices that I found myself warming to her. For me, that’s when she became truly likable, for she was willing to change her views of the world around her, and realised that Hananja’s religion isn’t all black and white, where all her Gujaareen servants are evil.
And then there is Prince Eninket, the ruler of Gujaareh and Hananja’s chosen avatar in the world by that association. I can sum up his personality with the following phrase: he is a bloody slime of a character. Even without being too obvious about it, he still engenders a strong feeling of… dislike in me, given all that this man does over the course of the novel. His motivations are convincing, but his actions are despicable. And ultimately, that’s what you want in a villain right?
The world that Jemisin has created, with its Narcomantic focus, is something that is rather unique in all my reading. Its all such a fascinating concept that I was rather sad when this book ended and I could have no more of this amazing dream-magic and its users. Its not all just related to the magic itself, because Jemisin crafts a very compelling dreamscape as well, one with its fair share of dangers that all Gatherers must respect and be wary of. In those respects, The Killing Moon takes on an almost horror aspect. Just imagine the scene: you are asleep and suddenly you find someone in your dreams, someone who is there to take your life at the request of the people in your family. Some of course desire such a peaceful death, but there are many who don’t, and for them, such a situation truly is one of insurmountable horror. Chilling.
And finally, there is the cultural influence of The Killing Moon. I read comments in various places which mentioned that Gujaareen and Kisuati cultures are based on that of Egypt, from the days of the Pharaohs. The author’s own note at the beginning of the novel makes a note of this, but she instead warns that any similarities are there just to pay homage to the source, rather than duplicate it in any way. Having read the novel, my only comment is that I never actually got the feeling that I was reading about peoples and cultures influenced by Egyptian culture and society. Some words evoke that, sure, but the author has been very light-handed in that respect, and I thought that was a great approach. It allowed me to focus on the reading experience rather than spend time figuring out the rea
All in all, The Killing Moon was a great read. It had some great characters, a great plot about religious revolution and the apotheosis of a man, and compelling world-building. I’m now quite motivated to go ahead and read Jemisin’s debut novel, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. And I will definitely be getting around to reading the second Dreamblood novel, The Shadowed Sun.