I used to have this habit during my teen years of reading books really quickly, to the point where it’d feel like I hadn’t really taken anything in. Once I made myself slow down I started to enjoy reading a lot more and connect with the story. But upon reading The Killing Moon I found that the deliberate pace I’d grown accustomed to setting for myself was making it almost impossible to get through the damn thing. So I broke my rule, started reading quicker, and suddenly the book became about ten times more appealing.
It was then that I recalled that much of what I read during my teen years was Epic and High Fantasy, and I have to think that some aspects of the genre – specifically how it’s written – is maybe what led me to adopting fast-reading in the first place: it’s drier than the Taklamakan Desert. This doesn’t go for all Fantasy books (and from here on out when I say ‘Fantasy’ the ‘High/Epic’ part is implied), but it’s the only genre where I find this particular trend towards really removed prose.
Which is to say: removed from the characters. You get to know what they’re feeling and thinking, but it’s all through telling. On top of that the character types tend to be very repetitive. These are age-old criticisms of the genre, granted, but it just really hit me while reading this book that there was a reason I started shunning Fantasy books and began leaning more towards its Urban, Contemporary and Magical Realism counterparts.
And that’s not to say that The Killing Moon is a bad book. It’s not. The world-building is interesting and original, and the writing style really drew me into that aspect of the story. It’s just that it’s a style that caters to descriptions of the world Jemisin has built, the politics and history and other aspects of the setting, far better than the characters who inhabit it, and this is a problem that I feel has more to do with the Fantasy genre than anything particular about Jemisin’s writing, because this is hardly the first time I’ve seen it (and while I have issues with the writing in this book, it’s also one of the least-annoying instances of it I’ve come across).
Basically I can sum it up like this: I know what but not how the characters are feeling, and as I’m somebody who prioritises characters and pacing above pretty much anything else, this really put me off.
Also it takes 104 pages for the story to start.
Let’s start there, shall we?
- At the very beginning (which happens to be 1/4 of the way through the book)
This seems to be something that Fantasy does very ‘well’, though I wouldn’t say it’s healthy practice: taking too damn long to get to the point.
I tried reading The Wheel of Time when I was about 16, and it took about 150 pages just for the main characters to get out of the town where our orphan farmboy of destiny grew up. In that time we learnt that magic is gendered (and sexist), there are things called Trollocs that may as well be Orcs, and that this story is just a rehash of Lord of the Rings. If there are any Wheel of Time fans reading this, feel free to set me straight, but I’m still not reading 14 freaking books just to see what all the fuss is about.
And once they did get out of town, it was to the Generic Inn in a Slightly Bigger Town where they met some person I knew I was supposed to care about but after 150 pages of still waiting for something to happen, the book had not exactly won me over to its cause. The Fellowship of the Ring had more forward momentum than this book.
The first eight chapters of Killing Moon are all just a preamble to the Inciting Incident, and only once we reach the end of Chapter 8 on page 104 do things finally start to pick up. What are the first 103 pages taken up with?
I can’t even remember.
In terms of plot: Sunandi, my favourite character of the three leads (and in general), is an ambassador who’s trying to spy on the Prince of Gujaareh and find out if he intends to go to war with her nation of Kisua. He is, or the huge amount of ships he’s building says he is.
Ehiru, a Gatherer, which is basically a Jedi except that instead of the Force and light sabers they use dream-magic (I’ll cover this in more detail later because the Gatherers are the coolest thing about this book, and they’re pretty damn cool), botches a Gathering (collecting a ‘tithebearer”s soul to replenish his and the Hetawa’s reserves of magic – the Hetawa is basically the Jedi Council and the religious centre of Gujaareen society) so that his target’s soul is lost in eternal torment, and in the last moments before his death said target tells Ehiru that the Hetawa is ‘using’ him, which he, being a good Gatherer and utterly blind in his faith that the Hetawa could never do anything morally quesitonable, does not respond to well, and that’s part of why he botches the Gathering.
Sunandi gets shown a bunch of corpses in a tomb by this general she’d pals with and they all have the same mask of torment that Ehiru’s victim had, and we start hearing about Reapers – Gatherers who have gone bad, collecting Dreamblood to sate their own hunger and at random rather than who and when the Hetawa tells them. They’re meant to just be a legend, and since this is Fantasy I’m sure that’s all it is.
Meanwhile Ehiru’s apprentice, Nijiri, perhaps the most boring character I’ve read in a book since the apprentice character in Quicksilver Rising (who is far worse), goes through his final trial thingy and we get to learn about how the Hetawa is all about ‘purging corruption’, and how because he’s a servant-caste he’s used to bottling things up to avoid conflict, which is what allows corruption to breed. But he gets to pass his test anyway because reasons. He ‘meant well’ by covering up the fact that he’d been solicited by one of the older priests and yeah, that’s totally understandable if he’s afraid for his safety, but it’s made pretty clear that he isn’t – not only that but he suspects that this teacher may also have been abusing his power with other apprentices, up until Nijiri threatens to (but doesn’t) out him and considers the matter closed. The Hetawa, however, accepts nothing less than absolute transparency so as to not just avoid but eliminate corruption – and yet, somehow, Nijiri still passes. The point is that we get some lore, and this is the scene I talked about in this post, and in answer to the question I posed to myself back then: yes, the book does actually deal with the moral implications about determining whether somebody is corrupt or not.
And then Ehiru, full of doubt over his botched Gathering, is commissioned to Gather Sunandi because she’s corrupt (an affliction of the soul), and so he goes off to do that with Nijiri, who needs to learn how to be a Gatherer. Surprise surprise, she has things to say that make Ehiru doubt his orders, so he gives her an ‘abeyance’ until he can determine the truth of her statements, and this is when things finally start moving.
Oh, also we find out that the Reaper is in fact real, because we get a chapter where the Prince uses it to kill the general dude who showed Sunandi the corpses.
So that was roughly five decent-sized paragrpahs of backstory, and that’s all that happens, and it takes 103 pages to get through. Somehow. It could have been done in 30.
Mostly it’s because there’s a lot of dwelling on world-building aspects, establishing the cultural norms of Gujaareh and the role of the Gatherers and Hetawa, the relationship between the Hetawa and the Sunset Throne (the Prince – yes Prince not King there’s a reason for it), the way magic works …
And that’s the thing about Fantasy: there’s this trend where the world-building and scene-setting is just as much of a ‘character’ as the actual characters, and takes precedence over the plot. That’s what made Perdido Street Station an 8-month slog for me. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with world-building or dwelling on fictional politics, cultures and history, and I assume that this is part of the appeal of the genre – you get to consider a hypothetical, alternative set of cultural norms and history, not to mention the existence of magic and the supernatural, and for many people that’s probably just as important to the story as characters, pacing and plot are to me. But for me there’s just no point in understanding the world that’s been built unless it serves to tell a story about characters that I am compelled to care about, rather than having the characters just feel like rats brought in to run around in the complex maze the writer made up to entertain themselves, or ‘keep the punters happy’, included only as a concession to the fact that people enjoy reading about other people. This book is certainly not that bad – that award goes to something like Perdido Street Station – and there are some great character moments in this story, but it still reminds me of books that seem like they would rather there be no characters at all.
I like characters, is what I’m saying, and I’ve said it many times before. It would seem that Fantasy does not share my predilection.
Because otherwise it wouldn’t take 103 pages for the freaking story to begin.
By ‘story’, I’m sure you’ve gathered by now, I mean ‘the story of the characters’, which is the only type of story I care about, and that’s my main issue with the book. And when we do finally get to the characters …
- Three’s incredibly predictable company
In terms of the dynamic between the three, it’s pretty standard fare – painfully so in some cases. There’s mistrust, they get over it, and we’re done. Taken on their own the characters are usually more interesting than their interactions together, excepting Nijiri, who is only interesting when he has other characters to bounce off. Sunandi and Ehiru have good chemistry, for lack of a better word in reference to a relationship between imaginary people, but that doesn’t change the fact that their relationship is based on a very common clash-of-perspectives antagonism, which is only made worse by the fact that we, the reader, know the truth behind all of it and that they’re both just uninformed, which leads to them seeming stupider than they actually are.
And not to harp on about this, but the writing doesn’t help them any; the best way I can sum it up is to say that it breaks the ‘show don’t tell’ rule, and while I’ve already talked about how I think that ‘rule’ is taken too literally sometimes, particularly with writing, there is certainly enough truth to it that you can tell when the balance is off. There’s a lot of ‘he felt’ and ‘he was’ kinda statements here, and while it’s informative it’s also quite impersonal. I assume that you’d get used to this sort of thing after reading enough Fantasy, but it’s not something I want to get used to.
Yet for all that, I still like the characters. Some more than others, true, but for each of them there’s at least a couple of moments where what they were going through really resonated with me.
I like Sunandi the most, but of the three she gets the least face-time. Nijiri is just this agonizing mixture of frustrating naivete and run-of-the-mill teenage blandness (except for the bit where he’s crushing on Ehiru, more on that later). And while Ehiru is much cooler if you read his bits aloud while doing a Keith David impression, he seems more like a beleaguered 16-year-old than a seasoned warrior of god (or goddess in this case). His moral turmoil, while understandable, is very … sophmoric (my new favourite word). It could just be the way it’s written, and to be fair he’s a repressed religious zealot; it makes sense that he’d be emotionally green. But it’s the same ‘voice’ for all the characters as well, which adds to the sense of dryness in the writing, and in the two male leads particularly.
I think Sunandi is my favourite character simply because she’s not a religious fundamentalist, and comes across as much more pragmatic and resilient. She also has to be one of the best female characters in a Fantasy book I’ve ever read – that’s not saying much, I grant you, but she’d be a good character in any genre. She’s not a love-interest or sex-interest, even if her introductory chapters involves her getting very friendly with the Prince of the Sunset; she’s ambitious; she’s cunning; she’s vindictive and she’s absolutely autonomous – she’s just compelling. My only complaint is that she doesn’t have anything to do in the third act of the novel; her plot is all about political espionage and once that’s taken care of it’s up to the boys to go take down the Big Bad, because they have magic. I’m not saying she needed to be a magic-user or a warrior or anything, just that I was disappointed that my favourite character’s character-arc essentially ends once the Third Act gong rings – and while I’m making note of fantasy tropes, this does tend to happen more to female characters.
Also she learns about seeing past her cultural prejudices and stuff, so she has some decent character-development too. I wish she’d been the main character.
Then there’s Ehiru, and he’s sort of the halfway character for me, less appealing than Sunandi but less bland than Nijiri. Don’t get me wrong, he’s got a nice character-arc and is a bit of a twist on the Mentor formula, which gets a very nice, resonant wrap-up by the end, although it’s over far too quickly. The twist comes in the form of his knowing manipulation of his apprentice’s feelings for him, and his tormented conscience. Whereas Gandalf is all-pure and just a little grouchy, and Dumbledore is, other than his Machiavellian schemeing, as gentle and removed-from-the-action as any typical mentor, Ehiru is not just in the action but falling to the Dark Side all throughout the story, struggling to maintain his honour and sense of right, which plays very well into the archetypal mentor/apprentice dynamic where, inevitably, the apprentice must inherit their mentor’s responsibilities by surpassing them.
For all this, though, Ehiru comes across as much ‘greener’ than he could be, and it might just be the way it’s written – but this is a book. How it’s written is pretty important. All throughout the book his main conflict is un-learning his blind faith in the purity of the Hetawa, and it just comes across as very naive. It could just be genre-savviness on my part talking; this is not an original premise by any means to begin with, and there’s no twist in this instance of it. It’s a good premise, but Ehiru’s journey from blindness to clarity is very by-the-numbers, and if it wasn’t for the lore of the Gatherers and the Hetawa I wouldn’t have been nearly as invested as I was, and I would have liked to have been more invested.
But I do like Ehiru. It’s just that he’s so shocked to even consider that the Hetawa, wielders of pretty much absolute power in his nation, could possibly be using that power for not-so-pure intentions. Although the one good thing about him being simultaneously naive and intuitive is that it’s an example of how people can be very smart about certain things, and far less so with others. It could have been done better, but it’s still okay.
And then Nijiri.
The final act of the story sees him finally coming into his own and actually being remotely compelling as a character, and the resolution of his apprenticeship to Ehiru was well-done enough that I ended up liking him, right at the end of the story. And then it’s over, and we don’t get to spend any time with the new-and-improved Nijiri.
The only interesting thing about him is the fact that he’s got the hots for Ehiru, and it’s a very tragic and toxic affection. Ehiru took him in to be an apprentice after Gathering Nijiri’s mother, for whom Nijiri sent a commission so that she could die peacefully, as she was very sick. The homoeroticism is totally fine, and really quite refreshing for a fantasy narrative, and it’s fine that Nijiri feels this way about Ehiru. It’s complicated and messy and all-consuming; he basically worships Ehiru, and it’s sweet and sad.
The only problematic bit may just have been an issue of phrasing intersecting with my filthy mind, but in the flashback detailing his and Ehiru’s meeting, told from Ehiru’s POV, we see that Ehiru decides to take Nijiri in because he’d always kind of wanted a son, and then ‘stroked his back’.
And I mean, like – yeah, that is just my filthy mind. He said ‘son’, not ‘underage sex-slave’, and I don’t think Ehiru would ever be into that sort of thing; but at the same time he’s being very familiar with a kid he just met, whether that kid is in need of comforting or not. Then again, repressed super-priest …
Other than his all-encompassing love for Ehiru and how it informs his motivation, Nijiri is even more narrow-mindedly dogmatic than his mentor and just … boring. I can’t say that I hate him or anything, but I found myself dreading any chapter from his POV unless it had some antagonistic interaction between him and Sunandi in it just because he’s not very interesting.
Another issue is that he gets the POV honour of the final chapter where the Big Bad is taken down, and it’s simultaneously epic and anticlimactic. Ehiru is the one who kills him, but it’s done while Nijiri is unconscious, and once he wakes up he just Gathers Ehiru and becomes a Gatherer and that’s that, roll epilogue.
Speaking of Gathering …
There is a lot of similarity between the Gatherers and the Jedi, but I’m talking Prequel Trilogy Jedi, not Alec Guinness Jedi. They both have a tabboo on becoming too emotional about stuff that is pretty eye-roll-worthy, but only in the Prequel Trilogy did it become particularly dehumanizing.
The Hetawa is the Church, for lack of a better comparison, and they worship Hananja, the Goddess of Dreams. Souls go to the afterlife when you dream, and by severing the tether between soul and body, Gatherers are able to collect Dreamblood, the magical energy that they use. They also bring it back to the Hetawa so that it can be put to multiple other uses, like healing the sick, and getting people high – something Ehiru doesn’t find out until near the end.
And also, Gathering a person’s dreamblood kills them.
This is the main tension between Sunandi and Ehiru to begin with, never mind the fact that he was sent to Gather her: she sees it as sanctioned murder, whereas Ehiru sees it as an act of compassion and worship. There is a very rigid code of ethics surrounding the act of Gathering and the role of Gatherer, and it’s very Jedi-esque – there are various tests that Gatherers must face, periodically, and one of them involves going without dreamblood for an extended period of time. Near the end they will be presented with a person who is willing to be Gathered, but if the Gatherer collects their dreamblood they will fail their test, because Gathering must not be done for selfish purposes.
And if you do, you become a Reaper.
Reapers are Gatherers who take dreamblood without the Hetawa’s say-so, but it also has to do with intent – if you take it to sustain yourself, then it corrupts your soul and drives you insane. However it also means that you can reap unlimited amounts of dreamblood, and as we see at the end of the book where Ehiru becomes a Reaper himself, you also get what amounts to unlimited power, as he had the potential to simultaneously kill 20,000 people from a long distance. In contrast, Gatherers are lucky if they can hold the dreamblood of 2 or 3 people at once without going nuts, which is why they have to go back and share it with the Sharers at the Hetawa (as well as Rules).
This is why Ehiru’s botched Gathering is such a source of shame for him, and why he’s so reluctant to even entertain the idea that the Hetawa may have ulterior motives for sending Gatherers to collect dreamblood from designated ‘tithebearers’ – Gujaareh has a law wherein anybody, at any time, may be marked as a tithebearer in order to keep the city supplied with Dreamblood; this is the price you pay for living in a city that prides itself on being ‘corruption-free’, and it is the most prosperous nation of the ones we’re told about. If he’s just being sent to kill people, though, then it’s murder, and it just so happens that Sunandi was marked for purely political purposes.
And there’s another thing, and this is the part that I really like: Gatherers need dreamblood. Normally a person creates dream-essence stuff by themselves, but becoming a Gatherer puts a stop to that, and if you go for too long without it you will go mad and, I think, die. So while there are all of these codes of morality around Gathering, the fact of the matter is that Gatherers need to collect dreamblood in order to survive, and in that sense Sunandi is right about it being little more than sanctioned murder.
This is all very cool stuff, and ‘narcomancy’ – sleep-magic – is also cool, if seen far less in the story. Reapers grow much more sensitive to dream-essence, but also more susceptible to narcomancy, which is an interesting twist that I rather like, and yet also don’t. If they’re so easy to defeat – even Nijiri can toss some narcomancy around – then the only reason people don’t know about it is because the compulsory Ancient Scrolls of Lost Wisdom were all thought to be, well, lost, and it’s just a bit thin. But it works well enough, simply because the Reapers only really become a force that needs to be dealt with up-close during the climax of the book.
So I like this aspect of the world-building, not to mention the fact that literally every main character is black. The area that this story takes place in is a fictional equivalent of Egypt and Africa, and the whole mythology behind Hananja and the Gatherers is very cool. Where I found the writing tedious and simplistic with the characters, it works really well with fleshing out the setting, in a similar way to how China Mieville’s purple prose worked a lot better in his entire chapters devoted solely to describing New Crobuzon and his world-building than it did in the chapters dealing with his characters. (Also the one character I actually liked in Perdido Street Station turned out to be a rapist, so thanks for that, Mieville.)
The only issue here is that, again, I just don’t care about world-building if it has nothing to do with the characters, and a lot of the time it feels like they’re fighting for space rather than sharing it.
Which is a shame, because the world-building stuff is cool, and the characters, if not original per se, definitely have their moments, and if there was just a little more synergy between them in the writing, this could easily have been a new favourite of mine.
As it stands, I don’t regret buying this book, but I’m also pretty much convinced that Fantasy is a genre I won’t be revisiting anytime soon.
Which is a shame, because there is a lot about this book that I like, in isolation.
- I don’t think we’re in faux-medieval Europe anymore
Sunandi, Ehiru and Nijiri are all black.
I think everyone is black, actually. Everyone who’s important anyway.
I definitely appreciate this.
Sunandi is, as I said before, neither a love nor sex-interest to either of the main dudes, or in fact anybody. Her escapades with the Prince in her introductory chapter are something she does for pragmatism, and she’s always in charge of her sexuality – and it’s not brought up very often. The ‘gender card’ is only played like three times in the entire book, and it’s very much in passing. Her main concern is exposing the Prince’s plans to her homeland, as opposed to trying to find a long-lost husband or child, and she’s allowed to be a whole person without once wishing that she could just settle down and discover the joys of child-rearing. And while I wish she’d gotten more to do, what she does get to do feels important and central to the plot. All of these things are good.
The erotic and romantic element between Ehiru and Nijiri, while it did make me feel uncomfortable in places, I mostly really liked. I understood Nijiri’s infatuation with Ehiru, and the very lopsided and depending-h0w-you-look-at-it toxicity of their relationship felt believable, if not ideal, and plays into the whole priesthood thing as well (and yes, the priests of the Hetawa are celibate). But the thing I really appreciated was the fact that, when it is brought up that Nijiri wants to jump Ehiru’s bones (said conversation taking place between Sunandi and Ehiru while Nijiri is asleep), it’s not a big deal. Sexuality in general in this book is not a big deal, nor is it fetishised or turned into some kind of ‘one with nature’ bullshit, which sometimes happens in speculative fiction, especially if you head into the realms of polyamory and bisexuality.
I love the lore of the Gatherers. Reapers just feel a little too ridiculous to take seriously in a literal sense, but in symbolic terms they’re a very good Shadow. But the morality of Gathering and how it ties into the magic system is fantastic, and it’s something I’d love to have been explored more. I compare the Gatherers to the Jedi, but honestly I feel they’re more interesting than their Force-using counterparts – they have a somewhat healthier relationship with emotions, and hey, it’s hard to go past dream-magic – and it’s also very hard to do well.
N.K. Jemisin does it well. I still have no idea what the various dream-essences are really used for, just that they all do different things, and I don’t think that being a bit clearer on that point would have killed the mystery of the magic system. But it made me want to know more about it, and even got me fantasising about using it myself, and to me that’s the sign of an awesome magic system.
I love the faux-Egyptian/African setting, even though most of what happens in it is very similar to what happens in faux-medieval European settings; I could vividly see the streets of Gujaareh bathed in the light of the four-banded Dreaming Moon at night, which I always imagined was multi-coloured light for whatever reason. I like the sense of scale, history and the mingling of cultures.
And while I have gripes with them, I do like the characters, if only in retrospect. Sunandi is still my favourite, but Ehiru is cool, if frustratingly naive (it does add to the tragedy of his story so I’ll give it a pass, in principle if not actual enjoyment), and Nijiri has some good moments. The Prince is pretty standard villain fare, but I definitely bought how charismatic and self-assured he was. And the Reaper was scary, and it was awesome when Ehiru turned into one, and led to a very powerful conclusion to his story.
I’ve given this book a lot of crap, but there are things that I like about it, and they’re things that Fantasy as a genre really needs to do more of. If for no other reason than that, I do think I would recommend this book. I did have to speed-read just to avoid losing patience with it, which I don’t think is a good sign, but if you’re more accustomed to Fantasy writing than I am (or are willing to read quickly), and you don’t mind waiting 104 pages for anything to happen, absolutely give this a look.
There’s a lot of quite standard Fantasy stuff in this book, which was interesting with such a non-Fantasy cast, at least in terms of ethnic allegories. But there’s a scene with the Prince (who is evil, and also Ehiru’s brother) showing off his army to his permanently-in-the-dark lackey and said lackey is all like ‘this dude is cray-cray‘ that almost exactly mirrors the scene from The Two Towers where Wormtongue weeps as he looks out over the Uruk-Hai army that Saruman has gathered and realises that Saruman is literally that committed to his genocidal goals; there’s the big reveal where the Reaper everybody’s panicking about turns out to be Ehiru’s long-lost mentor (who Nijiri defeats, and it is one of the few times in the book where I was actually rooting for Nijiri rather than wishing for his swift death), the escaping from the city by taking up with a band of minstrels, the sneaking back into the city, being discovered by the city guard and then being taken to the very place they were trying to sneak into, the Lost Scrolls of the Dark Arts that have now been Found Again, the power-hungry Emperor (Prince) who wants to become immortal and take over the world (for peace, of course) …
And it’s fun. This is the stuff that I like about Fantasy, the familiar tropes that work because they synergise well and don’t need much more than compelling characters to make them work, and while I do have issues with the characters, they do work well with the tropes they’re given to work with.
I take away a lot of points for eight chapters of buildup before any payoff, and I like my characters shown rather than told at all times because I want to feel like they’re people rather than a collection of data. I also think the chapters where we get to see what the bad guys are up to end up undermining the effectiveness of the relationship between the three main characters. But for all that, this book makes a lot of progressive strides for the Fantasy genre that I sincerely hope catch on.
In short: the issues that I have with this book are not because of the writer; they’re because of the genre. The only reason I liked this book as much as I did is because Jemisin provides a unique and engaging setting wedded well with some familiar Fantasy tropes, an awesome magic system, and her writing, while definitely not my style, is very good for what it is. So while I wish it had been better, The Killing Moon is still one of the best Fantasy books I’ve ever read. Make of that what you will.