I’ve previously read NK Jemisin only a little – two short stories, Non Zero Probabilities and L’Alchimista, both very, very good – and I’d tried to read her novel The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms but given up. Not from any disgust, nor dislike, just of lack of inclination – I could see what she was trying to do and it was interesting, but didn’t keep my attention. And her two books after that are in the same series, so I let them alone.
And after that, I picked up The Killing Moon because I’d read in passing on io9 that it had different worldbuilding – and, notably, had a lot to say about dreams and lucid dreams, which is a major narrative kink for me. So I bought it and have read it piecemeal over the last week – piecemeal, although I had a transatlantic flight and two train journeys when felt more able to face reading, because it turned into one of those odd, immersive books where the story is all very well but you don’t really want to get to the end of it. Having finished it now, I’m unsure whether it’s a very, very good book, or just one that hits all my kinks; I’m thinking a bit of both.
So. The Killing Moon is a stand-alone novel (it really is! it’s published as “the first of a duology” – okaaay, but the two novels are in the same universe without being directly related, and why does all SFF have to come in installments, anyway) set in a fantasy world distantly akin to ancient Egypt. It’s got an edge of SF in that the world it’s set in does seem to be a moon travelling around a gas giant, but in practice, it’s magic and spells all the way. In the city-state of Gujaareh, which is presided over by the Hetawa, the rather fundamentalist church of the goddess Hananja, peace is the only law. What this means in practice is the goddess’s servants, the Gatherers, keep this peace: they travel the city by night, taking people’s dreams (which are used for healing magics), and in the process and almost incidentally, their lives. They are not killers in their own eyes: whosoever lives in Hananja’s City, they say, lives by Hananja’s Law. With this rather interesting viewpoint comes the Gatherer Ehiru, a man who, in the first few pages of the novel, does something unforgivable according to his own lights. He imposes penance on himself, locks himself in his room and resolves never to talk to anyone ever again. He’s an unlikely man to then start a war. He does: but a lot of things happen on the way there.
The thing is, the novel has a lot of things I hate about fantasy. Far too many made-up words (there’s a actual glossary which is actually helpful, sigh), and the style isn’t always terribly fluid – sometimes characters stand there and think about their feelings – but oddly I think that’s one of the novel’s strengths. It is an old-fashioned fantasy novel, with the building of a whole world. It fully intends to bring you in to the lives of these people and their large-canvas feelings, and not let you go.
And it works very well for the most part. There is a plot of some sort, but the important parts are the characters. Ehiru and his apprentice Nijiri are the centre of it, and the relationship between them is so beautifully and lovingly realised that it alone is worth the price of admission: they are mentor and apprentice, but Nijiri becomes Ehiru’s apprentice soon after aforementioned unforgivable sin, and the balance between them is never quite right; and then there’s the small fact that Nijiri is in love with Ehiru, who has resolved not to take advantage of this, but accept it, and how well this is written floors me. There is also Sunandi, who is a foreigner and a spy and thinks of them as killers. How can you do this for your living, she asks; how can you lie, they return.
The point of it all is that neither and none of them are right: Ehiru, if anyone, is the moral compass of the novel, and yet we never see him as the happy and sane Gatherer he presumably once was; we hear about it rather than see it. Doing the right thing is something that causes a great deal of pain to him, and it’s still not black and white that he does what’s right or just what he’s always known. (Which is, by the way, not to imply manpain – in a lot of interesting ways, Ehiru subverts that trope. Pretty much his raison d’etre is that no one dies to give him character development.)
Now here’s the thing about the Gatherer Ehiru that in another world, perhaps wouldn’t need to be stated outright: he is a brown person. So is his apprentice. So is their antagonist spy, although they are all different types of brown people. It’s a whole world of brown people. It does my heart good.
There is also Jemisin’s short story, The Narcomancer, which again, I recommend unreservedly: it’s a stand alone story, set in the same universe many hundreds of years earlier, mostly concerned with another Gatherer. It’s thoughtful and passionate and has stuff to say about sex, gender and power, but it can usefully be summarised as “the Gatherer Cet’s terrible, horrible, no good very bad day”. Cet is another interesting protagonist, but I’m not going to spoil that story at all when you can just go and read it.
(His being named Cet makes my mind conflate him with Cat Chant, which… no, because, hell, Diana Wynne Jones is the sort of thing you need this sort of antidote to, if that hasn’t ceased to make any sense. Brown people fantasy which does not make the brown people themselves the fantastic – yes.)
There is a second novel, The Shadowed Sun, which I haven’t read, but would have bought today if it hadn’t been Easter Sunday. As it is Easter Sunday, I think I will just have to go into town and buy it tomorrow. Yes, she’s that good.