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‘The Killing Moon’: Where Dreaming Means Death
“The Killing Moon” was written by N. K. Jemisin. The End.
Oh, you want more? Okay!
I love books that drop me into a situation and ask for some patience and intelligence before I fully understand what’s going on. Full disclosure: I don’t always pass that test, but I still love the experience, and “The Killing Moon” gave me the best example of it in a long time. From the mysterious magical ceremony in the opening scene to the heart-pounding, bittersweet ending a few hundred pages later, N. K. Jemisin forges towards a conclusion that feels simultaneously inevitable and murky until the last moment, and being pulled in the wake of that confidence and skill is incredible. Jemisin herself needs no introduction: her Nebula Award, two Locus Awards, four Hugos, and myriad other awards and nominations speak for her. I inhaled her “Broken Earth” series and then “The Inheritance Trilogy,” and her collection “How Long ’til Black Future Month?” is high on my TBR list. So I was surprised to recently see “The Dreamblood Duology” on a friend’s shelf and realize I had a glaring gap in my Jemisin knowledge.
Throughout the first book, we are introduced to her intricate historiographic world and remarkable magic system through three main point-of-view characters: Gatherer Ehiru, his apprentice Nijiri, and Speaker Sunandi. They live in the land of Gujaareh, where peace is paramount and dreams are harvested for their magical powers. The priests known as Gatherers, such as Ehiru, are responsible for guiding souls to the afterlife, even if the soul in question was not dying before the Gatherer began this process … even if the person does not want to die. This is framed as an act of love on the Gatherer’s part, and themes of morality, religion, responsibility, loyalty, and love are strong throughout the entire work. The opening scene that demands such patience from the new reader is of Ehiru performing one of these Gatherings, and the book partially revolves around the consequences of this act.
As a writer of fantasy myself (though a hundred steps below Jemisin … or maybe a hundred thousand), I’m always on the lookout for thought-provoking magic systems and the ways they tie into the themes and the story itself, and Jemisin is beyond a master at this. The magical powers that are harvested from Gujaareen citizens tithing their dreams are used to heal the sick and injured of the community, and the death the Gatherers bring is greeted by native Gujaareen as a gift because they know they will be guided to a paradise built of their fondest memories and dreams. However, the dreamblood and other dream-humors that are used for healing are also addictive and harmful in large enough quantities, and native citizens are not the only ones who may expect visits from Gatherers, and many foreigners, such as Sunandi, regard it as murder.
Let me expand on the historiographic aspects of the world for a moment: that Jemisin’s world is based on ancient Egypt is not concealed. She gives us a forward in which she explains, “Since this is a fantasy story… I found myself in the odd position of having to de-historify as much as possible―in effect stripping away the substance of reality while leaving behind only the thinnest broth of flavoring… Armchair Egyptologists, you have been forewarned.” And the flavor is there in abundance. The desert land of Gujaareh relies on a river to annually flood and provide fertile farmland; the pleated loindrapes and bodywraps the characters wear are clearly reminiscent of ancient Egyptian clothing; the ruler of Gujaareh is of the ‘Sunset Lineage’ and is said to be descended from the sun himself. The setting was present and warmly familiar without being overpowering because there were enough original elements to give it a unique texture.
As of this writing, I’m only a quarter of the way into the second book of the duology, “The Shadowed Sun,” but it’s already promising to be just as decadent a treat as the first one. If you want a book written in smooth, skillful prose, these are the books for you. If you want a world with hints of the familiar mixed with plenty of strangeness and mystique, these are the books for you. If you need some characters who are all torn between differing loyalties and who fundamentally disagree on their worldviews, who you’ll nonetheless come to desperately care for, these are the books for you. If you live for magic systems that have fascinating and thoroughly grounded rules that still feel otherworldly and strange, that sometimes put you back on your heels as you look at the book suspiciously, that always has you going “OooOOooo, interesting!” then these are definitely the books for you. I cannot recommend “The Killing Moon” highly enough.
Buy “The Dreamblood Duology” on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Dreamblood-Duology-N-K-Jemisin/dp/0316333956
N. K. Jemisin’s Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/nkjemisin
Edited by Amira Loutfi