The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, N.K. Jemisin’s Hugo nominated debut, was one of the first novels I reviewed, at which time I said:
Jemisin presents a style that is uniquely intimate. I often felt like a voyeur lurking on the outskirts of something I shouldn’t be seeing. It is beautifully written and brims with emotion.
While I haven’t managed to read the subsequent two volumes in the Inheritance Trilogy, the outstanding nature of the first novel put The Killing Moon on my radar as soon as it was announced for 2012 release.
To anyone paying attention to genre scuttlebutt, it’s common knowledge that Jemisin is one of the more outspoken proponents of bringing new points of view to the fantasy lexicon. Whether that means non-western cultures, strong female characters, or more challenging narrative structures, she’s practiced what she preaches. In The Killing Moon the focus is more on the first two, eschewing the more complex narratives of her past work. The result is a plot oriented novel that will appeal to traditional fans of high fantasy as well as those tired of reading recycled characters and worlds.
In the city-state of Gujaareh, the only law is peace. Ruled by oligarchy, the city’s reigns are held by the Prince and the Hetawa — the dreaming goddess Hananja’s clergy. Each night her Gatherers go forth, bringing the gift of a peaceful, dreaming death to those corrupt of thought and deed. From those last moments comes dreamblood, tithe to the goddess and her servants. Collected by the Gatherers and given to the Sharers, it is used to heal, soothe, and control.
Ehiru is a gifted Gatherer, a paragon of faith and purpose. He believes in his city and his goddess, but nothing, even the holiest organization in Gujaareh, is immune to corruption. When Ehiru and his apprentice, Nijiri, find themselves torn between their faith, their Prince, and the truth, they’ll go to any length to do what’s right. Unfortunately, the only person who believes them is Sinandi, a foreign spy who would prefer to see the whole city crumble to the ground.
The Killing Moon consists of three primary points of view, all written from a tight limited third person — Ehiru, Nijiri, and Sinandi — each with their own voice. Ehiru, although arguably the novel’s protagonist, fades into the background as the true believer who finds himself questioning his ingrained beliefs. In stark contrast, Nijiri and Sinandi brim with life. The former rejects the young apprentice model of learning his craft at the knee of his wizened master, becoming the novel’s moral center from the get go. Most importantly that moral center doesn’t necessarily reflect the reader’s concept of morality, but his and Gujaareh’s.
Sinandi completes the second aspect of Jemisin’s quest to improve genre fiction. She possesses tremendous agency, never compromising herself for the whims of men.
And then you shall stand beside him in the Protectors’ Hall and beg them for help, knowing that your every word increases my power. Then they will listen to me even though I’m only Kinja’s too-young, unseasoned daughter. We must use one another now, little killer, if we are both to achieve our goals.
Exhibited by that statement, Sinandi is a force of nature, a strong woman who exhibits femininity without sacrificing strength. She never picks up a weapon; nor does she wear men’s clothing. And like Nijiri, her sense of morality is grounded in her character and the culture from which she springs.
In that lies thematic thrust of The Killing Moon. Cultural identity is at the root of every conflict. Whether it be Ehiru’s faith and Sinandi’s lack thereof, or Nijiri’s struggle with love and duty, or Sinandi’s fear of war and peace, all of it is built upon the idea that right and wrong is relative. Point of view and perspective matter. Cultural mores matter. Jemisin seems to project, through her world and her characters, a pervasive and underlying belief in the notion that judgement can only come from within. There’s also a strong undercurrent of communism versus democracy, or close mindedness versus openness, or extremism versus tolerance, that bleeds through. Even then Jemisin seems to remain agnostic, pointing out the flaws in each and letting her characters choose for themselves the paths to walk.
From all accounts, it seems Jemisin based much of these cultural identities on an Egyptian model. News to me, only because none of the cues I would normally associate with Egypt were present — pyramids, cat worship, umm… long goatees. But, that’s the point isn’t it? I don’t know a damn thing about Ancient Egypt other than what I’ve seen in heavily stereotyped Egyptian garnished westernized media. Much of what I read of Jemisin’s world felt new and fresh, even among all the excellent Eastern fantasies to come out over the last twelve months (Range of Ghosts, The Emperor’s Knife, Blackdog, et. al.). So much so that I quickly found myself down a Wikipedia rabbit hole, educating myself on the nature of Egyptian culture and mythology (a fact I’m sure Jemisin would take great pleasure from).
From the opening moments the novel dazzles with intricate world building, deep and vibrant characters, and a fast paced, high stakes plot.
All of that excludes the primary take away from The Killing Moon. This is one hell of an exciting book. I hate to use the term tour de force because it sounds like I’m writing for some terrible literary newsletter who can only recycle superlatives from movie posters, but… it’s a tour de force. From the opening moments the novel dazzles with intricate world building, deep and vibrant characters, and a fast paced, high stakes plot that left me bleary eyed from lack of sleep more than once.
I’m sure Someone, somewhere is reading this and saying, “Ya, but I didn’t really like her first novel that much.” For those I say, this is the novel that will make you fall in love with N.K Jemisin. For all the rational people who loved her past work, keep reading. It only gets better.