It will hopefully be obvious to anyone who has read the Inheritance trilogy—or read our reviews of The Hundred-Thousand Kingdoms, The Broken Kingdoms, and The Kingdom of Gods—that N.K. Jemisin is an exemplary innovator of the fantasy genre. Her fresh take on epic fantasy pushes the boundaries of imagination, and her work might well be destined to become a literary classic one day, with its ingenious new settings, themes, viewpoints, character dynamics, and magic.
With The Killing Moon, first in the Dreamblood duology, Jemisin continues this trend. While The Killing Moon is her first more mainstream novel, using viewpoints and themes that fans of epic fantasy are better used to, it remains refreshing with its non-western setting, strong female protagonist, interesting character dynamics, and wonderful magic system. Jemisin does this like only she can, successfully blending traditional high fantasy with contemporary literature and creating a masterwork that further underlines Jemisin’s rise to genre stardom.
Questions of culture
The riveting setting of The Killing Moon is the ancient city-state of Gujaareh, which is modeled after ancient Egypt. When you think of a setting modeled after Egypt, you might expect gods with the heads of crocodiles and dogs, pyramids, and pharaohs. Nothing is further from the truth. Instead of looking at the superficial elements of ancient Egypt, Jemisin dedicated herself to building a fictional culture based on the ancient Egyptian culture. Don’t expect stereotypes here; the worldbuilding in The Killing Moon runs much deeper and is, because of it, much more brilliant.
This cultural model forms the foundation of the novel’s themes. While, as I stated above, the themes of The Killing Moon are more mainstream than other elements of this story—The Killing Moon is an epic about a war between two nations—Jemisin wouldn’t be Jemisin if these themes didn’t run deeper than they appear at first glance. Magic is the defining trait of Gujaareh’s culture. Gatherers harvest their magic from the dreams of others. Their duty is to kill those judged corrupt, leading them into a blissful dream world of their own creation and gathering their magic in the process. This magic creates a moral rift between Gujaareh and its neighboring nations, who are appalled by the Gatherers’ practices.
Driven by character
The Killing Moon is the story of Ehiru, a Gatherer, his apprentice Nijiri, and Sinandi, an emissary from a neighboring culture. These characters are each of them unique and well-written. The dynamic between them is astounding. There is the relationship between the old and lackluster Ehiru and his faithful, loving, and energetic apprentice—and it is extraordinary how casually Jemisin writes about homosexuality, making it an integral part of her characters yet never drawing attention to it directly. In stark contrast stands the relationship between the strong and headstrong Sinandi and Ehiru, which is driven by Sinandi’s culturally defined hatred of the practices of the Gatherer combined with her growing respect of the type of man he is. On their own, each of these characters discovers a deep-running corruption at the heart of Gujaareh—a corruption that may lead to a war between Sinandi’s nation and the powerful city-state. They find themselves working together to save both of their nations from imminent doom.
Minor pacing problems
While the elements described above are sufficient to make The Killing Moon one of the year’s best books, I did have some problems with its pacing and the way high fantasy tropes were blended with contemporary themes. This composition of tropes and themes creates a book that reads much like a traditional epic, yet slows down at times to establish focus on cultural and moral themes. At some instances during the first half of the book, the pacing of The Killing Moon took me off guard because of that. Fortunately, the pace picks up for the second half—the breath-taking conclusion, especially, sets a frenetic pace. Despite these problems, Jemisin’s gorgeous prose and the depth of her narration ensure that The Killing Moon never had a completely dull moment.
Why should you read this book?
Jemisin’s innovative blend of high and contemporary fantasy elements should appeal to anyone who enjoys reading traditional epics, as well as those tired of reading the same recycled tropes over and over again. The Killing Moon is an honest and gorgeously wrought work of art, driven by strong characters and unique cultural and moral dilemmas. Its inventive worldbuilding and creative magic make this novel a true jewel of epic fantasy. If you’ve always wanted to check out Jemisin’s work but haven’t gotten around to it yet, The Killing Moon provides the perfect place to start. It will hopefully establish her much deserved position as a giant of fantasy with a more mainstream following.
Stephan received a review copy of The Killing Moon courtesy of Orbit Books.