For a novel that features dreams so prominently, N.K. Jemisin’s The Killing Moon rarely stays in them. But dreams loom large over the novel’s city-state of Gujaareh. Here, Gatherers—followers of the dream goddess Hananja—collect tithes of “dream humors” from sleeping citizens who are judged corrupt by the Hetawa, the Hananjan temple. In return, these citizens’ souls are sent to eternal bliss in Ina-Karekh, the afterlife and “land of dreams,” though this leaves their bodies quite dead in the waking world. Dream humors—including the potent “dreamblood”—are redistributed by the Hananjan faithful, and go toward narcomantic healing magics that keep Gujaareh relatively healthy and peaceful. They become a resource that fuels this city-state.
The opening scene elegantly introduces much of this intricate culture by diving into the thick of things. It show us Ehiru, a veteran Gatherer, botching a gathering and unexpectedly receiving a “truth-saying” (prophecy) from the tithebearer whose soul he messily delivers into the nightmare shadowlands (instead of the sunnier part of Ina-Karekh). Dreams and prophecy are a terribly annoying combo in fantasy fiction, but are delivered with speed and restraint here. The prophecy is as succinct as they come: “They’re using you.”
With that ominous message for poor, devout Ehiru, we’re delivered into what unfolds as a fascinating dissection of an entire city-state and its systems of politics, religion, class, and economy, much like The Wire lays bare the diseased guts of its Baltimore, or Chinatown the rotting soul of its Los Angeles. This is a novel about human corruption, both personal and systemic, and how we sometimes have to get our hands dirty to achieve productive change within a broken system. Ehiru places his finger on the story’s pulse when he observes that “corruption is a disease of the soul, not the actions.”
“Follow the money,” as The Wire’s Lester Freamon once said, and you might just find the stains of immorality trickling down from those we entrust with our governance and peace. In Gujaareh, the currency of corruption is the coveted dreamblood gathered by the Hetawa, and the very real power it buys. It’s a smart literalization of the way dreams are bartered and redistributed within the socio-cultural structures we live in, allowing for some classes (or nations, or factions) to realize them with greater ease than others. None of the central players—Ehiru, his young apprentice Nijiri, the Kisuati spy and ambassador Sunandi, and the Gujaareen Prince Eninket—aren’t in some way sympathetic, and isn’t also in some way morally diseased by external and internal pressures. Ehiru becomes our primary moral compass because a “Gatherer destroys corruption—and power, if he must,” even as he realizes that he’s more complicit in this corruption than he knew. But the other protagonists are equally weighted with their own moral dilemmas, all entangled in the dark undercurrents that underlie Gujaareh’s stability. Each character is carefully and subtly shaded by Jemisin, even when committing evil.
I don’t want to give the impression that all this emphasis on souls and societies and their endemic corruption makes this a tedious or didactic novel. Jemisin crafts a beautifully delineated narrative from the vast conspiracy she reveals in bits and pieces, allowing the subtext and themes to inform her characters’ journeys. Despite twisted magic, soul-sucking demons, political intrigue, and war imparting an epic scale to the proceedings, this remains an intimate tale about how people affect each other and the world around them—how the personal affects the political. The result is a sense of operatic pathos, with each character’s arc coming to a deeply satisfying, earned finish. The relationship between Ehiru and Nijiri is as complex and rewarding a portrayal of mentor and apprentice as I’ve seen in a while.
The novel also showcases some skillful, original world-building. Like a lucid dreamer, Jemisin takes real-world influences as diverse as ancient Egyptian culture and Freudian/Jungian dream theory and unites them to craft a new world that feels both familiar and entirely new. It’s all refreshingly unique, evoking none of the generic medievalism of much Euro-centric fiction that dominates the fantasy market. And sad as it is that I still have to say it, Jemisin’s a female writer in an industry still dominated by males. The Killing Moon proves that she’s another rising talent with a career worth following. That she’s also a woman makes this all the more welcome.
N. K. Jemisin’s The Killing Moon will be released on May 1 by Orbit. To purchase it, click here.