The Killing Moon
Written by N. K. Jemisin, The Killing Moon is a page-turner, a fantasy novel with big ideas, strong narrative arcs and good character development. It introduces the reader to a fantastical world, based on dreams and religion, where war and corruption are supposed to be extinct. Its main characters, however, start to discover that those are elements intrinsic to human nature, and that a society which claims itself free of them is just a hypocritical one.
The protagonist of the book is Ehiru, a priest of the Goddess of Dreams, Hannanja, who has the task to bestow peace – by death – to those deemed tainted by corruption or who are in desperate need to escape life in a painless way. Ehiru is known as a Gatherer, those who come silently in the dead of the night, in the holy city of Guajareeh, to collect the essence of their targets’ dreams, killing them in the process – although any Gatherer would flinch at the word “killing”, claiming that they are just delivering people to the peace of their goddess. The book starts when, one night, while performing a gathering, Ehiru is surprised by the response of his victim, who claims that Ehiru is not doing Hannanja’s work, but actually being used by his order. This unbalances the priest, who ends up mishandling the gathering and letting the man’s soul fade away in agony. However, the Gatherer soon discovers that he doesn’t have time to even chastise himself for his mistake, for another task is expected of him: to gather the soul of a foreign ambassador living in Guajareeh, called Sunandi.
The Killing Moon has three main characters. The priest Ehiru, his apprentice Nijiri and the young female ambassador Sunandi, each with their own narrative arcs. Ehiru is a Gatherer who eventually finds out that his righteousness – as happens with any righteousness – makes him an easy target for manipulation. He has always lived believing in the idea that Guajareeh is a city devoid of corruption and madness. After all, it is the sacred duty of his order, the Hetawa, to uphold its goddess wish for peace. In Guajareeh, justice is a religious matter: harsh, swift and sacred. There is little attempt of reformation or of redemption, only the surprise night calling and the subsequent punishment: “Omin was corrupt. There was no taming something like that,” it’s explained at the beginning of the novel. So, believing that he and his order are morally right, Ehiru becomes shocked with the accusation that they are indeed corrupt – that they could be precisely what they fight against. How can those who are tasked to uphold peace be corrupt? His initial reaction is to dismiss this terrible truths, but provocations continue to hit his nerve: “Have you ever questioned your commissions before, Erihu,” someone asks him. So, eventually, Ehiru begins to understand his problem: he never questioned; he simply obeyed. And, by doing so, he allowed himself to become a tool for injustice. Ehiru starts to grasp the problems of his faith, discovering that it is – as most things in The Killing Moon – a double-edged sword.
His narrative arc, then, is one of awakening, and he can feel in own skin the lies that he was told all his life – for the substances he gathered from dreams can be used to cure and pacify, acting like magic, but they also have a dark properties, causing serious withdrawal problems if the Gatherer stops gathering them. Magic in this book has two sides to it: it can heal the mind, but also twist it; it can heal the body, but only if its essence was taken in a moment of death; it can provide satisfaction to the Gatherer, but also drive him mad, acting like a highly addictive drug. Ambivalence is all over the systems of Guajareeh, making their righteousness feel immediately disturbing to any attentive reader.
To make matters worse, the whole system of power in Guajareeh, as any system of power, stinks of corruption. “Even the Hetawa accepts the cruelty that is necessary to gain and keep power – so long as a Prince uses it to maintain peace for there on,” is said at a certain part of the book. Ehiru must face the hypocrisy of his religion and the understand the problem of the greater good: that the concept is actually an excuse for privilege. Killing is forbidden in Guajareeh, but not for everyone. Corruption is forbidden in the city, but not for everyone. Some people are above Hannanja and her grasp. Her sacred justice is reserved for only those who are not in power: the nobodies; the poor; the outcasts; the foreigners. They don’t have the luxury of the “greater good” to protect them. In The Killing Moon, peace is portrayed as a fluid, dangerous concept. Peace is the most important element that the Hetawa must preserve, but what that entails is kept in the shadows for a purpose. Quoting The Handmaid’s Tale, “Better never means better for everyone.”
Ehiru’s apprentice, Nijiri, has a different emotional journey to go through. Nijiri is a young man, who looks up to Ehiru as a role model for reasons not disclosed at the beginning, and who, being young, is full of pride. He’s naive enough to say something in the likes of: “And anyhow, every account that I have read of war speaks of its terrible destruction and suffering. No one would start such a thing deliberately.” Nijiri lives in a protected world, knowing war only by historical accounts, where it remains an abstract concept, and he doesn’t even begin to understand its causes. He knows his religion, and acts as a true believer, but doesn’t understand a man’s heart yet. His narrative arc deals with his romantic and forbidden love for his mentor, Ehiru, which gives both of them tragic undertones, and with his increase in knowledge on how things work – and how, with that knowledge, one matures, but also becomes hurt and somewhat bitter.
The final main character is the female ambassador. Sunandi may be young, but she is still a clever, capable woman, who can read well other people and conduct conversations so they end in her favor. She is still young, though, and so prone to misjudge how imminent is the threat that Guajareeh poses to her. Character development here is seen in her actions: she is strong not because she says so, but because she can keep calm when facing her assassins and even stand up to them as an equal.
Sunandi fights a moral battle with Ehiru and Nijiri, based on their culture differences. The narrative asks the question “Is morality a universal thing?”, since Ehiru and Nijiri believe they are doing good, that they are bestowing a blessing to their targets when they send them to their goddess embrace, but, for Sunandi, that is cold-blooded murder. She calls them “well-meaning scavengers”, who “sound like a vulture”. She simply can’t allow herself to trust them in any shape or form, warning a friend about Ehiru: “You can’t believe anything he says! Even he doesn’t realize how evil he is.” But soon she starts to see that there is a good side to the Gatherer’s work as well. Things are not as black (Sunandi) and white (Ehiru) as both of them think.
That leaves us with their main antagonist. Without revealing his identity, it’s sufficient to say that he’s a scary character in a way that precisely resembles the Gatherers: he appears calm and easygoing, but at the same time is ruthless and cold. He usually speaks “casually”, in a “gentle voice”, always boasting a smile that can be warm or sharp: he dispenses formality to bring his victim closer to him, luring with the truth and a good dose of pity and understanding. He is able to keep his voice “gentle, soothing” just as he is sending a man to a horrible, agonizing death. He has a noble goal: he seeks power, yes, but only to bring “peace and prosperity to all.” Despite Hetawa’s teachings, evil here is not presented as madness. It’s not stupidity. It’s not malice. It’s cold intent.
The Killing Moon is a book that revels in the ambivalence of its systems and organizations. Guajareeh is considered peaceful, but it’s described as city where “politics was half religion and half riddle,” a place with little privacy and security, “where only custom and curtains kept a bedroom secure.” Its society reveres women, since their main goddess is a female one, but that doesn’t stop strict gender roles that constrict them to exist. Gatherers are man. Women’s role in Hetawa is related to sex. One can have hundreds of wives, but a woman certainly can’t have more than one husband. “The waking world belonged to the sons of the Sun,” the antagonist claims, revealing the masculine dominance in Guajareeh. Here, women are still seduction, household, mothers. There can be a Prince, but never a Princess.
If we are being picky, the narrative – very fast-paced, with lots of twists and revelations – only falters when it comes to developing one of its themes. The concept of dreams is a bit wasted here, almost to the point of being replaceable without damaging the book’s main discussions. A city where everyone remembers their own dreams, for example, it’s a city where the subconscious remains no longer protected and hidden. What this means, however, is never touched by the narrative. Delving fully into the idea of dreams, with all that they entail, would have enrichen more the book’s story. But it’s a nice touch that one group of the nobility is called “sonha” in the novel, which means the verb “to dream” in Portuguese.
Finally, it’s also worthy highlighting that this is a fantasy novel that escapes from the hundreds of European-centered fantasy worlds, instead taking its influences from Egypt, and presenting characters whose misfortune in their color is due to it not being dark enough.
The Killing Moon discusses religion, cultural differences and the fundamental problem of righteousness in a memorable and innovative setting. In short, it’s a fantastic fantasy novel, boasting an action-packed story that never forgets to focus on its characters’ personal struggles and journeys.
April 08, 2019.
N. K. Jemisin
Paperback, 418 pages