Review: The Killing Moon

4 Apr

The Killing Moon

-NK Jemsin

“We tell them stories about your kind, you know. ‘Be good, or a Gatherer will get you.’”

His face twisted in disgust. “That’s a perversion of everything we are.”

“You kill, priest. You do it for mercy and a whole host of other reasons that you claim are good, but at the heart of it you sneak into people’s homes in the dead of night and kill them in their sleep. This is why we think you strange—you do this and you see nothing wrong with it.”

NK Jemsin is one of the more prominent voices calling for ‘diversity in science-fiction and fantasy,’ a platform that has always struck me as dangerously misleading. I have no objection to diverse backgrounds or worlds that draw on non-western influences, although they do have their limits (as I have discussed in this series on ‘diverse’ books), but I care nothing for the race, gender, sexual orientation or culture of any given author. I judge an author solely by their work, not by any aspects of their life and times that are utterly irrelevant to me. Indeed, Jemsin deserves credit for putting her money where her mouth is – unlike most social commenters – and actually writing ‘diverse’ books herself.

And The Killing Moon, in many ways, showcases both the strengths and weaknesses of ‘diverse’ books.

On one hand, it cannot be denied that The Killing Moon takes place in a universe that is refreshingly different from many more mundane fantasy books. The background is largely – although not entirely – unique, drawing from Ancient Egypt and Hinduism rather than Medieval Europe or Native American. And yet, the characters remain understandable and human, even when they are often unsympathetic. But, on the other hand, the basic assumptions of this universe are so different from our own – and the bog-standard fantasy backgrounds we know and understand – that it can be hard, at first, to follow what is going on. The names of people and places – even the curious background mythology – are alien to most readers. The Killing Moon rewards a second reading, like most good fantasy novels, but it has problems getting its readers to want a second reading.

The plot is both surprisingly simple and remarkably complex. In the ancient city-state of Gujaareh, the night belongs to the Gatherers, priests of the dream-goddess who harvest the magic of the sleeping mind and use it to heal, soothe … and kill those judged corrupt. Their word is law, at least within their city. Foremost amongst them is Ehiru, who has recently accepted a new apprentice (Nijiri). Ehiru, however, has problems of his own. After a Gathering – a mission to grant a peaceful death – goes badly wrong, he finds himself questioning both his calling and his order’s innermost secrets.

In the meantime, Ambassador Sunandi – a representative from a nearby country – discovers that Gujaareh is plotting war. She attempts to warn her people, only to alert the hostile factions to her knowledge. Ehiru is told that she has been judged corrupt and ordered to grant her peace (i.e. kill her). Faced with her worst nightmare – a Gatherer in her bedroom – Sunandi manages to convince Ehiru that she has been wrongly named. Reluctantly, realising that there are worse problems at home, Ehiru and Nijiri flee with Sunandi to her homeland in hopes of discovering what they know. However, powerful forces are after them and Ehiru – deprived of the dream-stuff he would normally have harvested from Sunandi – is starting to lose his mind. He warns Nijiri, who has fallen in love with him, that the time may come for his apprentice to kill him. But the war begins before they can act.

Returning to Gujaareh, they discover that the leader of the plot is none other than the Prince himself – Ehiru’s brother. The Prince points out that the Gatherers are little more than drug lords, harvesting dream-stuff and distributing it to addicts. (One of the more interesting aspects of the story is that it is clear the Prince has a point.) Regardless, he has to be stopped; his researches into long-lost magics, and the reason Sunandi and most of her countrymen fear and hate the Gatherers, have offered him the chance to make himself an immortal king. Ehiru stops him, saving the city from one enemy only to hand it over to an invading and occupying army. Nijiri ‘gathers’ Ehiru, then goes back to the temple to begin his career as a full Gatherer.

In many ways, my brief summery has not done full justice to the plot. There are many neat aspects that only revealed themselves during the second reading, from the subtle (and somewhat inconsistent) message of ‘chosen’ – i.e. adopted – families being better than birth families to the obvious comparison between abuse of the dream-stuff and outright drug abuse (and how it can be used to control people). In hindsight, it is clear that ‘corruption’ is present well before it makes itself overt. Indeed, Jemsin definitely deserves a reward for creating a society that is loved by its members and yet regarded with entirely-justified fear and loathing by outsiders. I haven’t seen this done so well since SM Stirling created the Draka, with the added bonus that Ehiru – at least – is brave enough to take a stand against his society.

But then, the book also showcases the flaws in such an approach. Ehiru’s stance might have saved millions of lives, but it also opened the gates to allow Gujaareh to be occupied by its enemies. This is, of course, a repulsive (and distressingly common) historical problem. People born into an ‘evil’ society cannot simply give up without being destroyed by their society’s enemies, a problem Nelson Mandela understood and most modern-day SJBs do not. Why take your boot off someone’s neck, even if you understand that it is an unpleasant and wrong thing to do, when that person will destroy everything you hold dear? I don’t know if Jemsin did this intentionally, but it is definitely a point to ponder.

The characters themselves are a little weaker than one might expect. Ehiru himself is very much a ‘lawful good’ character, which allows him to be manipulated by both his brother and his superiors in the temple. He has no understanding of compromise and rails against corruption wherever he finds it, without realising that aims and intentions are sometimes more important than actions. It never crosses his mind that his superiors might be evil – or find themselves forced to make evil decisions – and he is rightly horrified when he discovers the truth, nearly having a breakdown (and he must have found death to be a relief). Nijiri, by contrast, comes across as a flatter character with a homoerotic crush on Ehiru. This becomes more than a little edgy at times, although nothing actually happens.

Sunandi, by contrast, is a curious choice for ambassador. Jemsin does an excellent job of making it clear that she’s a good character, although she shares the same fear and loathing that other outsiders feel towards the Gatherers and Gujaareh itself. (This is completely justified in-story, a curious choice on Jemsin’s part.) She is also brave and resolute when necessary, talking her way out of being assassinated by Ehiru – and yes, this would have been a political assassination – and doing everything in her power to resist the invasion. Jemsin hems and haws a little on Sunandi’s role in the counter-invasion, although no one would have blamed her for wanting to crush the beast in its lair.

And the Prince himself is an oddity. He is a devoted family man – in stark contrast to the father he shares with Ehiru – and has a very strong point, but he throws it away as he descends into madness. In a normal book, he’d be the hero. Instead, he is the darkest person in the story. His seeming decency only makes the truth worse.

There are, it should be noted, a series of curious aspects within the text. Jemsin does not, it seems, understand the role of an ambassador, an interesting oversight given that ambassadors were regarded as sacred in ancient times. It is hard to believe that any government, ancient or modern, would tolerate the legalised murder of an ambassador, or even accept that it might happen. (Carter effectively did tolerate it, leading to many of the problems facing the US today.) It’s also hard to believe that any halfway responsible host government would tolerate religious factions attacking diplomats – that is, bluntly put, an act of war. And Sunandi allows herself to be seduced by the Prince, which may have been intentional (it let her take a look at his chambers) but the text isn’t clear on this point.

The city also has a curious mixture of sexual freedom and repression. On one hand, both homosexual relationships and temple prostitution are treated as normal. No one appears scandalised by Nijiri having a crush on his teacher (although they should be, as Ehiru is Nijiri’s mentor). But, on the other, the locals seem to feel that their women should not work; this is treated as a sign of respect, but it should be obvious how this is also a sign of repression. It’s also worth nothing that the city is racially-diverse, but not particularly culturally­-diverse. No one makes an issue of skin colour within the book, a refreshing change, but aspects of the plot are driven by cultural clashes between the city’s locals and outsiders.

The text also highlights the problem with religious extremists. Both Ehiru and Nijiri are fanatics, by modern standards; they do things that Sunandi (rightly) finds appalling, because they feel they have divine sanction. In this universe, they may have be right; however, it doesn’t stop them (and their followers) from being regarded as monsters. You cannot argue with a fanatic because he knows he’s right. The text also illustrates the dangers in such an approach. Religious institutions are dangerous because their followers will refuse to question them, even when they are clearly in the wrong. Ehiru is a good man, but what happens when a religious nut is not a good man?

This raises yet another curious issue. At the end of the book, with Gujaareh under enemy occupation, Nijiri tells Sunandi that Gujaareh will not resist … if she and her customs are treated with respect. But why should they be treated with respect? Why should the civilised man respect barbarian customs? Respect is earned, not given. The deep-seated corruption within the temple – neatly foreshadowed by Jemsin right at the start – has rendered it institutionally guilty. A little more of ‘we will respect your right to burn widows if you respect our right to hang murderers’ would do wonders for our modern-day problems.

Overall, Jemsin deserves credit for creating a very different magic system that – by and large – hangs together very well. It is nowhere near as detailed as any of Brandon Sanderson’s creations – I thought I saw elements from Mistborn worked into the system – but it does manage to both look different and provide an understandable and well-foreshadowed ending to the story. In hindsight, both the real nature of the Prince’s plan and the resolution are clear to see. Given the challenge facing Jemsin, she rose to it very well.

She could not, however, avoid many of the weaknesses of ‘diverse’ books. She needed to explain her society to us, but that inevitably slowed down the plot; she needed to make her characters likable, which she did, yet she needed to keep reminding us that Ehiru and Nijiri may be good people, but they serve (by our standards) a monstrous society. Jemsin is a remarkable world-builder, but the sheer alienness of Gujaareh works both for and against the plot. There are aspects that should have been detailed, but were simply glossed over. The Killing Moon really should have been a trilogy. The plot was certainly big enough to spread over three books. (There is a sequel, but it isn’t a direct sequel.)

The Killing Moon has not won any major awards, which is something of a shame. It is – in my less than humble opinion – the greatest work Jemsin has produced. Indeed, unlike The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms or The Fifth Season, it is strikingly groundbreaking and should have been nominated for a Hugo. The world is different, but understandable; the characters are not-us, but understandable even though (some) of them would be regarded as villains or monsters in our society. Or even simply too alien to be accepted easily. The most understandable characters, from our point of view, are Sunandi and the Prince.

But, on the whole, The Killing Moon is definitely a excellent book that rewards its readers.

8 Responses to “Review: The Killing Moon”

  1. George Phillies April 4, 2019 at 5:05 pm #

    Interesting, I am reminded that The Fifth Season was written in, Goddess preserve us Second Person Present Tense, with the chapters not in chronological order. Did Jemisin avoid these extreme literary affectations?

    • chrishanger April 7, 2019 at 9:47 pm #

      Yes, she did (in this book, at least).

      Chris

  2. dspring April 4, 2019 at 6:42 pm #

    Ambassadors as a protected class is actually very recent. Ambassadors in most of historical times were personal representatives of the rulers. Typically family members or trusted agents. They spoke with authority because of that relationship, not because of the title of ambassador.

    I suspect that ambassadors historically were usually not harmed if times were peaceful, but the rules were quite different in wartime.

    • Charles R Harris April 5, 2019 at 2:18 am #

      Genghis Khan, who responded by sending a delegation of two Mongol and one Muslim diplomats to Sultan Muhammad demanding Inalchuq be punished. Muhammad responded by beheading the Muslim ambassador and shaving off the beards of his two Mongol companions, provoking Genghis Khan’s retaliatory invasion. See Inalchuq

      • PhilippeO April 5, 2019 at 5:56 am #

        But its because Genghis Khan is “capable” of avenging his ambassador ? Not because of “untouchability” of status of ambassador in general.

        Ambassador, envoy, hostage, etc is not well differentiated in past. Their Status and protection come from Status of those who sent them. Ruler sometime execute them when they are at war and expect to be strong enough to be able to get away with it.

  3. Bewildered April 5, 2019 at 12:54 pm #

    Chris, I think your biases may have obscured a couple of points.

    You say religious institutions are dangerous because follower will refuse to question them even when clearly wrong, but what if followers question them then conclude that they are right? You say fanatics do things others consider appalling, and yet they believe they have divine sanction – which may be true in this universe. If they have divine sanction then wouldn’t it actually be monstrous to not do the ‘appalling’ acts? To contend that obedience to divine commands is appalling is to argue that the divine(s) can be judged by mere mortals – an egregious display of arrogance and foolishness. You argue that it is impossible to argue with fanatics because they know they are right, but what if they are? Or what if you can argue? The fact someone thinks they know they are right doesn’t mean they are, or that they may be opposed to arguing the point. Perhaps in arguing the truth the unbeliever will come to see the light.

    Based on your review it seems like it depicts religious society as the great evil, or at least the theocratic version of Gujaareh is – I’m unclear on how religion works elsewhere. The book also depicts the priests as drug lords peddling their product, which accord with Marx’s view that religion is the opium of the masses. Does Jemsin’s view of diversity entail anti-religiosity, or am I simply adding 1+1 and seeing 4?

    • Matthew W. Quinn April 5, 2019 at 2:09 pm #

      I haven’t read the book, but I have seen Ms. Jemsin’s Twitter commentary and she is oftentimes extremely critical of religion, especially evangelical Christianity.

      (I think it comes from her background growing up in a fundamentalist Baptist church.)

      • Bewildered April 6, 2019 at 8:59 am #

        I wasn’t aware of the background but it doesn’t come as a surprise. Those who reject Christianity in their adult years tend to be the most virulent just as those who reject Atheism in favour of a Christian identity in their adult years tend to be most passionate.

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