Monday, July 9, 2012

[review] N. K. Jemisin - The Killing Moon (Dreamblood, #1)

Title: The Killing Moon
Author: N. K. Jemisin
Series: Dreamblood, #1
Publisher: Orbit
Source: Local library
Format read: Paperback
Buy from: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Bookdepository 
Summary (via Goodreads):
The city burned beneath the Dreaming Moon.

In the ancient city-state of Gujaareh, peace is the only law. Upon its rooftops and amongst the shadows of its cobbled streets wait the Gatherers - the keepers of this peace. Priests 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, Ehiru - the most famous of the city's Gatherers - must question everything he knows. Someone, or something, is murdering dreamers in the goddess' name, stalking its prey both in Gujaareh's alleys and the realm of dreams. Ehiru must now protect the woman he was sent to kill - or watch the city be devoured by war and forbidden magic.
Random paragraph: "He ran after the soldier, silent, intent. Something moved across his vision and blocked his path, a different soldier brandishing a sword, words about surrender. He batted the sword aside and took hold of the arm that held it, ramming the heel of his free hand into the elbow. The wet pop of the breaking joint sounded like the head of the dancer, who might have been sentenced to an eternity in the shadowlands by a soldier's carelessness. 'I shall avenge you,' he whispered to the dancer's soul, yanking the screaming, broken-armed soldier off the horse. The soldier kept screaming, writhing on the ground and holding the flopping ruin of his arm. Ehiru contemplated him for a moment, then remembered that this was not the soldier he wanted. He stepped around the riderless horse and continued after his prey." (pg. 274, paperback edition)

One word: amazing.
Four are the tributaries of the great river. Four are the harvests from floodseason to dust. Four are the great treasures: timbalin, myrrh, lapis, and jungissa. Four bands of color mark the face of the Dreaming Moon.

Red for blood.

White for seed.

Yellow for ichor.

Black for bile.
 -- p. 170, paperback edition

I discovered N. K. Jemisin last year via The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. I thought it was a bit unpolished, but a fascinating read -- non-standard fantasy with themes of colonialism and slavery, involving gods and goddesses. Her world-building is fantastic; there's something really mythic about her works.

In this book, she absolutely shines. And it's so hard for me to write about books that I love because I feel like a strange, incoherent mess, but I'll try anyway.

The world in Dreamblood is partly inspired by ancient Egypt. The city-state of Gujaareh worships dreams. In this universe, dreams are sources of valuable fluids with medicinal uses: dreamseed, dreamblood, dreamichor, and dreambile. These humors can be "harvested" and used to treat ailments. The organization known as the Hetawa governs this healing; however, they can also deem people too corrupt, and when they do this, they send workers known as Gatherers to ferry their souls to Ina-Karekh, the land of dreams. The Gatherers think that what they do is a service; they visit their assignments in the middle of the night and give them a peaceful death.

There was nothing assumed wrong with this until one day, Ehiru harvests a foreign-born living within the city. In Ina-Karekh, the man is terrified and gives Ehiru a warning: "They're using you." For the first time, Ehiru botches the job, and the man's soul is lost forever.

Ehiru secludes himself away in shame. Meanwhile, we get to know Nijiri, a 16-year-old in training to become a Gatherer. Despite Ehiru's failure, Nijiri is intent on having him as a mentor: he loves and idolizes him.

And for an outsider view, there's Sunandi, a Kisuati diplomat who's horrified by what goes on within Gujaareh's walls. She thinks that there's political machinations at work, and after a tryst with Gujaareh's prince in which her servant finds highly sensitive information, she realizes that she's right. Gujaareh, the city of peace, is planning war... but that's not the end of it.

Sunandi's deemed corrupt by the Hetawa. Ehiru and Nijiri go to Gather her. Of course, it doesn't quite work out. 

The Killing Moon is about corruption. How much power can somebody have before it begins to control them? The Gatherers think that they're doing a service, but they're being used; however, a Gatherer can easily become corrupt off the addictive properties of dreamblood and stop working even peacefully. When this happens, they become a Reaper, somebody who destroys souls haphazardly -- deemed to be a myth within the book, until one actually appears. The first time I started reading this, I had to stop after sixty or so pages, because there was a subplot that really squicked me. However, when I re-wound and started again, I realized that it was part of the larger theme. When you realize that you're working under somebody corrupt, what do you do? Do you walk away, deal with it yourself, or ask somebody else in power for help?

All of the characters had moral struggles within this book, but it never came across as preachy, nor was there one "right" answer. That's something that drives me crazy in fantasy novels, and I'm very happy that that didn't happen here.

Before I wrap up this review, I need to put in a good word for Jemisin's prose. I especially love the interludes, written in first-person and a very distinct voice (whose owner isn't revealed until the end). From pg. 15:
Did you know that writing stories down kills them?

Of course it does. Words aren't meant to be stiff, unchanging things. My family were talekeepers once, though now they make funerary urns and jars. Many, many generations ago, before pictorals and numeratics and hieratics, words were kept where they belong, in mouths. The people who made sure those words passed on were my ancestors. Written words did not kill my lineage's purpose, though gone are the crowds--and the riches--we once commanded. We retell the stories regardless, because we know: stone is not eternal. Words can be.
I haven't actually cried from a book before, but this one brought me incredibly close. The characters go through some pretty epic struggles and begin to question everything, and by the end, things are really intense. I was completely emotionally drained by the end.

I can't wait to read the next one.

Overall: Yes. Yes. YES.

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