Every now and then, something special brings a new flavor, a blending of colors, an amazing moment, that just leaves me saying ‘wow.’ Jemisin did that for me in The Killing Moon. An unusual story line, an interesting fantasy world, multi-culti characters, and theological sophistication while being oh-so-readable made for an engrossing, delicious read. I sat down today and read until it was finished, breaking only for dinner and to follow the sun as it shifted around the yard.
The story takes place in a low-tech, stratified society roughly based on ancient Egypt. It’s a desert setting, prone to annual flooding; transport is by camels, horses and the occasional ship. Where Jemisin has made in roads into the unusual is in one of the main religions, the worship of the female deity Hananja, that crosses national boundaries. The priest-sect, the Hetawa, use magic taken from dreams to heal and to ease pain, but easing pain is a double-edged sword as they also gently usher people into the next life. Those whose souls are ‘gathered’ are usually those whose time has come, or who have been judged and found guilty of corruption. Jemisin does an astounding job at showing the beauty of what we in hospice like to call a ‘good death.’ The caveat being that it takes place in the night, during sleep and the cultural traditions around it mean it is a solitary experience. But in the end, isn’t it always? The people who hold vigil most likely do it for themselves, although I will say that I feel it is a mark of humanity to bear witness.
But I digress. Ehiru, one of the most experienced Gatherers, makes a mistake during a soul-gathering, causing a crisis of conscience. Unfortunately, one of the trainees is just to the point where he is assigned a mentor, and Nijiri most assuredly knows he wants Ehiru in that role. We get hints of a backstory to their meeting, but it isn’t until much later that we understand how layered their relationship is. Alongside this is the story of the Prince of the country, and Sunandi, a female ambassador from a neighboring country. Her mentor has been killed, most likely assassinated, and she’s left to piece together the puzzle of his research. One of the greatest perversions of the Hetawa is occurring for political means, and she is looking for proof.I won’t go father in plot summary except to say it was both unusual, suspenseful and a pleasure.
Character creation was phenomenal, with very dimensional leads that struggled with ethics, their histories, intended actions, sexuality–truly, all encompassing portrayals. Even the villains were more than cut-out, and their motivations were more sophisticated than plain evil. Also a pleasure was the multi-culti aspects of the book–although the caste system is not specifically spelled out, it appears that the darker the skin, the more likely the caste is high. The women are people, not tropes, with insights, prejudices and determination. There’s a very delicate and understated exploration of sexuality in the acolyte that impressed me.
If there’s any complaint I can find at the moment, it’s that very little is explained up front, which more than likely accounts for some of the less enthusiastic reviews. It takes a little time to show us, since Jemisin avoids the dreaded info-dump, so the beginning required a great deal of concentration to focus on names, cultural terms and places–this was not an old, familiar world that one could slip into like a pair of worn shoes. This is, however, a pair that will pay off in wow-value if you can get past the initial break-in.Truly a remarkable work with sophisticated themes, world-building and characters. Highly recommended for fantasy lovers.