N. K. Jemisin is the Hugo Award-winning, glass ceiling-breaking, African-American female author of a healthy young collection of fantasy novels and short fiction. Her writing is admired and respected, making her one of the greatest authors in her genre writing today. She’s also a formidable voice for people of colour, and part of the recent wave of Afrofuturist artists imagining worlds where cultures of the African diaspora thrive. The Killing Moon is the first novel in The Dreamblood Duology.
In The Killing Moon we read of Gujaareh, a fictional city inspired by Jemisin’s research into ancient Egypt. The first character we meet is Ehiru, who, as a Gatherer, is tasked with escorting souls to the afterlife. Usually this means sneaking into the bedrooms of the old and sick, meeting them in their dreams, and untethering their souls from the moral world. Gathering is mutually beneficial: the dying get to go peacefully, and their souls won’t get lost in other realms; the Gatherer drinks in a euphoric dose of dreamblood, which brings him great joy and can also be shared to help heal the sick. But on the night we meet Ehiru, one of his Gatherings goes wrong, an indication of the growing corruption and evil within Gujaareh.
(Photo: Amy Attas)
There is a lot to learn about the world at first, but Jemisin does her best to introduce concepts gradually and dramatically—rather than relying on an ignorant layman who asks questions on behalf of the reader. The first few chapters are still frustrating, as the close third-person narration moves through new characters, but once the core characters and concepts are introduced Jemisin is strict with herself. This is not a fantasy novel where the author makes up special powers to solve plot holes: Jemisin maintains concrete parameters to her world, allowing readers to invest in the mystery and attempt to solve it.
The world and the writing are rich, requiring, at first, a level of concentration more necessary in poetry. But like poetry, Jemisin’s words are nourishing and meditative:
“The barbarians of the north taught their children to fear the Dreaming Moon, claiming that it brought madness. This was a forgivable blasphemy. On some nights, the moon’s strange light bathed all Gujaareh in oily swirls of amethyst and aquamarine. It could make lowcaste hovels seem sturdy and fine; pathways of plain clay brick gleamed as if silvered. Within the moonlight’s strange shadows, a man might crouch on the shadowed ledge of a building and be only a faint etching against the marbled gray.”
See how Jemisin colours the edges of the map, while offering more information about the forgiving nature of inhabitants in the central city? See how she paints a scene of moonlight that is at once other-worldly and heart-stoppingly familiar? How she introduces the idea of a caste system, and even the colours and materials for the reader’s imagination while quietly positioning the story’s first character?
This is a writer who is skilled at her craft on both macro and micro levels. Like a dream, the reader can plunge in, submerge, and trust N. K. Jemisin to paint the way to paradise.