N.K. Jemisin is playing with the gods again — and it's just as good as the first time. Not that you would mistake her new novel, The Killing Moon, for her acclaimed Inheritance Trilogy, which started with The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. The start of a new duology, The Killing Moon sees Jemisin delving deeper into the complexities of human nature, within a high fantasy framework. Spoilers ahead...
The Dreamblood duology follows a more traditional high fantasy route than the Inheritance Trilogy: the point of view is third person with multiple viewpoints, both major and minor. One thing the two series do have in common, though, is that each book reads like a complete novel on its own, while still maintaining a larger arc.
Though the themes of religion, gods and magic flow through both series, the Inheritance Trilogy was a story arc that focused on the story of the Gods, whereas the focus of the arc here seems to be just as inhuman and large — the city-state of Gujaareh itself. What are the truths of Gujaareh's founding? Who does the priesthood really serve? And most importantly who will guide the city-state's future? These are the questions being explored.
In The Killing Moon, something is wrong in the city-state of Gujaareh, a place of peace and law policed by dream-priests, known as Gatherers, who root out corruption. The city of Gujaareh worships Hananja, goddess of dreams and the Gatherers are her greatest weapon and most feared servants. They root out corruption and guide souls to the afterlife while at the same time gathering their precious dreamblood, one of the four humors the city uses for its magic of healing. The greatest Gatherer in the city, Ehiru, has mishandled his task and destroyed a soul, a horrific accident that starts Ehiru on a downward spiral. The blow to his faith and his need to get to the truth will entangle him, his apprentice and newly-minted Gatherer Nijiri, and Sunandi, Ambassador from southern Kisua — the mother country from which Gujaareh broke away long ago -– in a complex dance of politics and faith.
A note from the author in the beginning of the book tells us that the setting is based on Ancient Egypt while also explaining how Jemisin attempted to strip as much real-life history from it as possible. The note adds that it's an homage to Egypt, not an imitation — and Jemisin manages an exceptional homage. There is a careful balancing act in basing fantasy on a real time/place and then stripping it and rebuilding it into something new. Strip away too much and the world becomes thin without the underpinnings necessary to maintain a readers belief plus the point of the whole activity is lost. Don't strip out enough reality and the reader can constantly be jerked out of the story by mental comparisons to the real place/time. Jemisin does an excellent job of maintaining that balance, just enough of Egypt to make you believe in the world being presented. The world is populated by plenty of new social hierarchies, religions and magic that show the reader that only the thinnest layer of Egypt still flavors the world.
Jemisin shines as a writer when it comes to the complexity of people and people-created institutions, nothing in her world is ever wholly good or wholly evil. It feels truthful and honest in a way that black and white depictions of people and things cannot convey. There is not one character in the novel for whom I have complete sympathy or complete hatred, and they've all gone through their own personal fires. Though some of the trials are made harder through the characters' own refusal to face their truths, it plays out as a side of human nature.
This awareness of the complexity of people's motivations is present in Jemisin's previous work, too, but the idea of it comes across much more clearly here, with the use of multiple points of view. When you're dealing with a first-person narrator, it's harder to see the conflicts and nuances in each situation, because you're stuck in one person's head, and no one has completely unbiased views of the world. Being able to get a wider and more varied view of Gujaareh allows us to see beyond the blinders of any one character. Here? Nothing is without corruption if it's been made by human hands. Allies have opinions and ideas that are unappetizing. Villains have a rational reasons, in their minds, for what they are doing.
The novel reminded me of the very first time you become aware that not everyone is honest or presents themselves truthfully. It's a major shift in worldview that leaves you more jaded and wary than before, when you realize that no matter what someone says to your face, they may wind up betraying you in the end. It's something that can happens different people at different ages, and to different degrees.
The people of Gujaareh have always known peace, order, control because of the blessings of their chosen goddess and the acts of her servants. When the threat of war and corruption loom and that veil is stripped away, her children falter. While the characters definitely have differences in their physical station and state by the end of the work the main change in them is spiritual/emotional. The characters struggle within themselves, to see beyond their grief, to become who they've always wanted to be, to beat back the corruption that seeks to pull them under, to save those they love. In short they all have to emotionally grow up and see beyond the things they wish were true to what is actually happening.
The Killing Moon is a great tale of magic, religion and war but it's also a story of all the hard lessons and choices growing up entails, no matter how old you are in terms of years. Beautifully written and brought to life The Dreamblood duology is sure to cement Jemisin's place as one of the most exciting and innovative new fantasy authors of recent years.