I read and loved Jemisin’s previous trilogy The Inheritance. See my review of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms here and The Broken Kingdoms here. When I saw The Killing Moon at the World Fantasy Con in Brighton, I immediately snapped it up. Given that it was a different trilogy, set in an entirely different world, would I enjoy this as much as her previous work?
In the ancient city-state of Gujaareh, peace is the only law. Upon its rooftops and among the shadows of its cobbled streets wait the Gatherers – the keepers of this peace. Priest of the dream goddess, their duty is to harvest the magic of the sleeping mind and use it to heal, soothe… and kill those judged corrupt.
But when a conspiracy blooms within Gujaareh’s great temple, the Gatherer Ehiru must question everything he knows. Someone, or something, is murdering innocent dreamers in the goddess’s name, and Ehiru must now protect the woman he was sent to kill – or watch the city be devoured by war and forbidden magic.
I did find The Killing Moon harder to get into than her former three books – indeed, I debated whether to break off halfway through the second chapter and wait until I got home from the Conference. But I persevered and by the end of Chapter 3, I was glad I did. With the unfamiliar names and complex political set-up, you really need to pay attention, however that slice of concentration at the start pays dividends as the story picks up – and is the gift that keeps giving. This book is every bit as engrossing as anything else she’s written.
The world is inventive and detailed, with echoes of the ancient Egyptian pantheon of gods, where the tension between the priesthood and rulers created power struggles. Jemisin’s world leaps off the page with the vibrant, poetic prose that has become her trademark. The ornate richness of the temple, the busy crowded streets and above all – the huge, swollen dreaming moon that is probably a gas giant rather than a moon. Not only does this moon dominate the night sky, the belief system that explains its presence also rules the lives of the population. I very much liked the premise that the Gatherers assisted those who were mortally ill to die peacefully – and also handed out summary justice to those who were found to have become corrupt. Which leads to the age-old question – who watches the watchmen?
Gatherer Ehiru has a young apprentice who has just come up from the ranks of the novices, with great potential. Young Nijiri deeply loves Ehiru and the notion of love in different forms is examined in The Killing Moon. The questions Jemisin raises within the plot are far more nuanced and interesting than the usual hetrosexual, romanticised version… Does love of the Goddess keep a soul pure enough to allow regular, ritualised murder? How exploitative is it of Ehiru to realise that Nijiri loves him wholeheartedly, and continue to rely on that love without acknowledging or wanting to return it? At what point does love and duty towards a state allow someone to endanger everyone around them?
In addition to Ehiru and Nijiri, the other main character who drives that narrative is Sunandi, a spy from the neighbouring state Kisua, who is innately hostile to the beliefs and practices of the Gatherers. Through her eyes, we get another view of the priesthood and the society. Among the numerous small details that sparkle in this book, is her belief that darker skinned individuals are better bred than those who are paler, whose ancestry have been polluted by outsiders. Her feisty, questioning attitude is in contrast to the more complacent attitude of the priests – although the action starts when Ehiru unexpectedly encounters a Gathering that is far from peaceful.
This is a tour de force – and if anyone wants a masterclass in how to construct an intricate, three-dimensional world, peopled by interesting, complex characters, then this is a book they should have on their shelves.