Friday, August 10, 2012
The Killing Moon by N. K. Jemisin (Dreamblood series)
It sounds like something straight out of anime or a weird Sandman trip, but the devil is in the details. Ninja priests were the big idea that triggered the Dreamblood series, and Jemisin makes these seemingly preposterous ideas work.
Gujaareh is the setting of a seeming utopia where the only law is peace, maintained by the Hetawa temple. It is not just preaching about peace. The temple operates on a magical system of dreams and humors collected and manipulated by priests specializing in different types of dreams. Gatherers are priests of death, collecting the final dreams (thus, the lives) of the old, sick, and dying and assassinating those judged corrupt. Peace is threatened by conspiracy, war, and a mysterious threat that kills its victims through their dreams. One of Gujaareh’s best-known and experienced Gatherers, Ehiru, and his quick-tempered apprentice, Nijiri, find themselves entangled in these threats and their cause challenged, as they try to unravel a way to save their city and its peace.
The world-building is simply incredible. It is based on Ancient Egyptian culture, but it is an only an outline for Jemisin to carefully flesh out the details of Gujaareh’s people, attitudes, politics, multi-cultural dynamics, life style and customs, especially their religion and the way they see the world (including a magic system involving dreams and humors). All this makes for a rich, intriguingly complex backdrop to the storyline. These aspects, including the flaws, are part of who the people are and what drives the characters, going beyond a matter of good versus bad to a conflict between people who are different from each other and act out on these differences. It takes talent and skill to create and develop a world that is complex and multi-faceted. Jemisin does a balancing act that respects the complexities and differences while being careful not to resort to favoring sides and heavy-handed moralizing.
The prose and story have an understated, quiet power. The deceptively mild tone of the story covers a dark, violent potential, much the peaceful way people of Gujaareh and especially the Hetawa priesthood is, making the story believable and capturing the foreignness of a people who believe in and support mercy killing and assassinations as something wondrous and divine. “Ninja priests” is an apt description for the Gatherers, these skilled fighters and killers who believe in the rightness of their work and faith while possessing deep compassion and empathy for the lives they collect. This series is a thoughtfully-written work that, for all its strange fantasy settings, foreignness, and magic, does not lose sight of human nature and what it means to be human.
Look for The Killing Moon and its sequel, The Shadowed Sun, on the VBPL Catalog. This author’s fresh ideas and unconventional attitudes towards the fantasy genre make her an author to notice. Try her debut work, the Inheritance trilogy (see review of book 1). Read Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon for more non-European fantasy settings. Walking the Clouds showcases indigenous science fiction writers (Native American, First Nations, Aboriginal Australian, and New Zealand Maori authors). Kazuya Minekura’s Saiyuki manga series features another tale about an extremely unorthodox monk (see review).