The Killing Moon, by N.K. Jemisin — a book review


N.K. Jemisin was the author—with Bioware creative director Mac Walters—of the novel Mass Effect: Initiation. I read that video game tie-in because it was Mass Effect, not because it was Jemisin. But, I discovered that I liked the story and the writing a lot, and anyone who could make Lt. Cora Harper a more interesting character to me was worth a second look.

It wasn’t until I began researching Jemisin’s other work that I discovered that the author was an African-American female. I hesitate to even mention it, because that fact should have no impact on my opinion of her work at all. And, it doesn’t. Still, everywhere I looked on-line, this always gets mentioned. I imagine that occasionally people would mention that Isaac Asimov was a nebbishy white Jew of Russian heritage, but it wasn’t a fact mentioned every time. I guess you could argue that Jemisin’s race and sex get mentioned because it’s a rare combination in the world of science-fiction/fantasy. Or, it is responsible for some extra special quality in her work: this may even be true.

After reading the Mass Effect novel, I ordered Jemisin’s Dreamblood duology, in trade paperback format. The Killing Moon is the first novel in this Egyptian-inspired fantasy series. The author’s Inheritance trilogy has been repeatedly praised, and it has either won or been nominated for several prestigious awards. I didn’t want to start reading Jemisin with a trilogy, in case I discovered that the Mass Effect novel was just a fluke. Starting with a two-book cycle seemed a safer bet.

I knew nothing about The Killing Moon before I began reading it. By happy coincidence, I was playing Assassin’s Creed: Origins, the Egyptian-themed video game, at the same time. I’m still playing the game, by the way. This helped to enhance the visuals of the novel for me, as well as the sounds, the accents and the soundtrack. Nemisin’s novel is Egyptian-inspired, though not actually set in Egypt.

This novel is set primarily in the land of Gujaareh, a peaceful territory dedicated to the dream goddess Hananja. Peace is maintained in Gujaareh by a group of highly trained warrior-priests (who are very Assassin-like) who serve Hananja’s temple, the Hetawa. There is a hierarchy in place at the Hetawa, led by the Superior, and the warrior-priests serve different functions, using dream-magic. Jeminsin does an excellent job introducing the reader to her world and the functions of magic in it, and she does so through a lot of showing instead of telling. While it confused this reader in the beginning, I liked discovering more about the world as I read the story, rather than getting it all in an exposition dump. In the hand of a skilled writer, which Jeminsin surely is, this is highly effective and unobtrusive, and lends the story a verisimilitude it may otherwise have lacked.

Our main character is the warrior-priest Ehiru, who is the best of the Gatherers. The Gatherers are, in fact, assassins, which made it easy for me to see Bayek the Medjay from AC: Origins in the role. Gatherers kill by both physical and magical means, collecting something called dreamblood, which can be used to help others, by healing them, and can have other, more nefarious uses as we learn during the story. We learn that Ehiru’s mentor has recently died, so he has been busier Gathering than normal. Sometimes the Gatherer is sent to kill someone deemed “corrupt” by the Hetawa, and other times they are requested to euthanize those who are suffering or dying. Ehiru is suffering a bit of a crisis of faith, which comes to a head when he is sent to assassinate Sunandi, a spy from neighboring Kisua. It turns out that Sunandi has information which she shares with Ehiru, leading him to question many of his strongly-held beliefs about Gujaareh’s righteousness.

Aside from Ehiru and Sunandi, the other main character in the novel is Njiri, who, as Ehiru’s apprentice, is Robin to his Batman. While that father-son dynamic is immediately apparent, there is also an undercurrent of romantic love that would have sent Dr. Frederic Wertham into conniption fits. Hananja’s priests are celibate, of course, but while Njiri is apparently homosexual, at least as far as Ehiru is concerned, his mentor doesn’t seem to share the same proclivities.

The Prince of Gujaareh also figures prominently in the plot, and his relationship to Ehiru becomes increasingly important. And there’s a rogue Gatherer, called a Reaper, at large in the land, wreaking the sort of carnage you would expect from something called a Reaper. All of it is connected to our main characters and everything becomes clear during the third act.

I loved this book. It’s refreshing to read a fantasy set in a milieu that’s something other than feudal medieval Europe. If this is representative of N. K. Jemisin’s work, then I know I would enjoy whatever else she’s written. This one is dark, and violent, and the magic, while important to the story, doesn’t overshadow the characters for me, which sometimes happens in fantasy stories. I prefer it when magic is just one tool some characters can use, like an unexplained technology, and that’s how it’s presented here.

I’m not trying to ruin anything for any potential readers of this novel, but I will say that I don’t believe the second book of this duology can be a continuation of this story. It seems to be over at the end of The Killing Moon. I reserve the right to be wrong, however, and will admit it if I turn out to be.

The Killing Moon comes highly recommended from me. Two page-turning thumbs up.

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