Palace of Dreams – ‘The Killing Moon’ by N.K. Jemisin

Since joining Twitter and starting this blog, the way I hear about books has changed.  I used to religiously read newspaper book sections, browse my local bookshop, or follow an endless trail of Amazon recommends.  Now, good books create a storm on Twitter, and I follow an increasing number of blogs by fellow reviewers.  One review by Justin at Staffer’s Book Review was for ‘The Killing Moon’, and frankly, it was so glowing, I couldn’t pass up the chance to read it too.  After a shaky start, it turns out that Justin was right; this is a remarkable piece of fantasy fiction.

For the first hundred pages I thought I’d made a terrible mistake.  Much is made in fantasy circles about Jemisin’s desire to break from traditional fantasy conventions, most notably moving away from a setting based on medieval Europe.  For ‘The Killing Moon’ the basis for the setting is, apparently, ancient Egypt.  I didn’t particularly pick up on the Egyptian references, but definitely felt a middle eastern flavour through the novel’s descriptions of art, culture and religion.  Whether it was because the setting took me out of my comfort zone (there’s a reason most fantasy is set where it is; because the readers like it), or because Jemisin tried to accomplish too much too quickly, I’m not sure, but I found the opening chapters stilted and hard to follow.

The magic and religion of ‘The Killing Moon’ are innovative, being based on dreams.  The novel follows (in part) a pair of ‘Gatherers’ who can enter people’s dreams and draw out their life-force, sending them happily into the next world.  To be gathered is considered a religious honour in the nation of Gujaareh, but an abomination by neighbouring Kisua.  The Gatherers are one of the four religious disciplines that form the backbone of Gujaareh society, and have a strict code of honour regarding worship of the ‘Goddess’.  Alongside the church, Gujaareh is ruled by a Prince; who in the tradition of a many middle-eastern rulers, has hundreds of wives and murdered all his relatives on the way to the throne.

‘The Killing Moon’ has many concepts and locations that are similar to one another, either in character or name.  During the opening hundred pages I must have consulted the glossary – twenty or thirty times.  This made for a frustrating and broken read, preventing me from following what was going on.  It was almost too much, but I persevered and I am glad that I did.  I often find with novels, that effort put in up front pays dividends in the later stages.  My hard-earned understanding of the world Jemisin had created, meant her story’s conclusion delivered a greater emotional pay off.

Again eschewing many of the tropes of the genre, the loyalties of Jemisin’s characters are multifaceted and display varying shades of grey.  Good and evil are malleable concepts, in a way that extends far beyond most fantasy novels.  The story is complex, a tale of religious and political conflict, and its subtleties manifold. Overall it’s a rich and enjoyable tale.

‘The Killing Moon’ is a complete story, but open-ended; the first of two ‘Dreamblood’ novels.  Though I struggled at first, by the time I’d reached the novel’s enthralling conclusion I was hooked by Jemisin’s style and the depth of her world-building.  I look forward to reading the second novel, and catching up on her backlist.

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