The Killing Moon by N K Jemisin
Once again, I’m obliged to remind the readers of these reviews that I’m an atheist. This disclosure will allow you an opportunity to judge the fairness of the opinions offered. Let’s start by considering a man who puts his life completely in service to others. He lives in the community and does everything in his power to improve the lot of the individuals he meets. Obviously such altruism is difficult to maintain without belief in a divine mission. Indeed, this person becomes an inspiration to those who believe God works though him to bring comfort to society. For him, the giving is not conditional on belief. Everyone is entitled to God’s love, even atheists who deny his God’s existence.
Unfortunately this man is unworldly. He may deliver practical care, but he’s probably unaware of the political situation among those he does not meet. Were he to get an overview, he might find his good works are completely misrepresented by those with a different agenda. So, for example, it may suit the rich that the poor are marginalised and exploited. If some do-gooder relieves their suffering and encourages others to follow his example, the poor may rise up against those that exploit them. So our saint must be diverted on to a different path. Corruption can easily interfere with the actions of the innocent and, because they are innocent, they will never understand how their good works are being subverted until they are forced to confront the evil that has befallen them. Once the veil is lifted from their eyes, however, they must have the chance to defeat the evil even though some may call this revenge.
The Killing Moon by N K Jemisin Book One of the Dreamblood (Orbit, 2012) asks us to consider a culture that uses the psychic energy drawn from dreams to heal those who are injured or sick. The same energy can also grant a calm and peaceful death to anyone who asks for it. Is it compassionate to enable death with dignity? Or is this a culture that believes in murdering people? For the record, voluntarily ending a person’s life is a homicide even though it may relieve suffering. As a dramatic example, suppose a hunter comes across a driver trapped in a burning car. The door cannot be opened. The driver will burn to death in a few minutes. It will be a painful death. As the law stands, shooting the driver is murder. Hence, the decision of states like Holland, Switzerland and Oregon to permit physician-assisted dying creates a formal exception to the general law of homicide. So, in this fantasy world, Gujaareh worships Hananja, and her Gatherers and Sharers work for the benefit of the country. Across the border, the Kisuati long ago rejected narcomancy and the government currently prohibits any use of this form of magic on its lands. This is but one of several tensions that threaten the peace between the two countries. Leaders plot and plan. Spies ply their trade. In this delicate political situation, the most experienced Gatherer takes a new apprentice. This would usually be a smooth process but, from the outset, there are problems. Fortunately, the young Nijiri is fiercely loyal to Ehiru. Indeed, it may be more than loyalty.
What of love? A son may love his father before he understands the meaning of the word, a servant may move past obedience, through respect, to love his master. Except, of course, when these boys grow up and experience the world, they have the chance to choose how the relationship will develop. What was love can turn to hate. Or it can change from an unthinking, instinctive love into something broader and deeper as two adults acknowledge each other as equals. Then we take this new love and treasure it for as long as we have it, for uncomplicated love always ends, sooner or later. It’s the same between Nijiri and Ehiru as it was between the apprentice Ehiru and his master Una-une — a relationship that saved Ehiru from the danger posed by his brother, Prince Eninket.
In pre-industrial societies, the route to rulership is often bloody. The heirs must fight each other for the right to take the throne. The strongest candidate may even help his father to step down. In such cultures, the ruler will project a reputation to inspire fear in all the followers. This is a man who was not afraid to kill his brothers. He will therefore have no hesitation in killing anyone else who displeases him. Yet there are some who, having come into positions of leadership, decide the overt use of fear and death no longer achieves the most desirable results. It may suit them to project a more caring and loving image. The more gullible in society may believe such a transformation of character is possible.
The Killing Moon creates a completely fascinating world with a beautifully realised system of magic. It avoids all the simple-minded tropes and dives into a complicated religious and political situation where the innocent Gatherers suddenly discover their organisation has been corrupted. Not unnaturally, they are outraged and set out to purge the corruption. Except the obstacles prove difficult to overcome. This forces Ehiru and Nijiri on the run, and inadvertently into the business of trying to stop a full-scale war from becoming more likely. This book says interesting things about the uses and abuses of power, the nature of leadership and, at an individual level, how relationships form and potentially grow stronger. As the first in a duology, this is a major step forward for N K Jemisin. Although the Inheritance Trilogy was good, this is far better, leaving me waiting impatiently for the second book to complete the story, titled The Shadowed Sun.
This novel has been shortlisted for the 2013 Locus Award.