In the city-state of Gujaareh, power is split between the ruling Prince and the priests of the dream goddess Hananja. The priests have magic based on the power of dreams, with which they can heal the sick. One sect, the Gatherers, is dedicated to helping people peacefully pass over when their time has come. However, when the Gatherer Ehiru discovers he has been manipulated into trying to kill an innocent, he realises that Gujaareh is threatened by a conspiracy lurking at the very heart of the nation.
The Killing Moon is the first novel in the Dreamblood duology, the latest work from N.K. Jemisin (the author of the Inheritance Trilogy, which I have not yet read). It's an epic fantasy, but one that proudly discards the limitations of a Medieval European setting. Gujaareh is inspired by the legends and mythology of ancient Egypt, although it is not a carbon copy (there are no pyramids, sphinxes or mummies), and the novel draws upon Carl Jung's ideas about the collective unconscious to provide its unique magic system.
The setting is vividly described. The planet Gujaareh is located upon is a moon circling a gas giant (the 'Killing Moon' of the title is actually the gas giant, although confusingly the cover art depicts a red-coloured version of our moon) which makes for an interesting day/night cycle. This feeds into the power of night, sleep and dreams which provides the book with its spine. Gujaareh itself is a compelling location, built to withstand annual floods and with a complex mixture of native and foreign influences: like ancient Egypt, Gujaareh is not a monolithic state, but one where people from across the world can be found, trading or negotiating.
Ehiru, our central character, is an expert at using the power of dream magic and is trying to pass his knowledge onto his apprentice, Nijiri. This process is interrupted by the discovery of a possible threat to the country, which Ehiru is compelled to investigate. Sunandi, an ambassador from the southern nation of Kisua, completes our central triptych of characters. Though there are occasional chapters from other POVs, these three viewpoints dominate the novel. Each is a fascinating character, with Sunandi being a capable and intelligence diplomat who is sometimes undone by arrogance. Ehiru is determined and resolute, but is also prone to become unhealthily obsessed, to the point of endangering himself. Nijiri is highly capable but lacks confidence. He's our 'young, tallow youth' viewpoint but amusingly that's more his own assessment of his abilities than the reality. All are painted with colour and depth.
The novel is a fast read, with a cracking pace that still allows time for some interesting characterisation. Something that Gujaareh shares with ancient Egypt is a certain rigid inflexibility in its traditions (something Pratchett notably satirised in his novel Pyramids, the only other Egyptian-flavoured fantasy that immediately comes to mind) but also the ability to adapt once those limitations are exposed. This extends to the micro-level of the characters, who each find their view of the world widened by the events of the book. This self-realisation is hardly new in concept (Nijiri becomes more confident, Sunandi becomes a bit more open to other cultures) but is executed with skill.
Where the novel falters is in its denouncement, which feels both rushed and a little too neat. This does mean that The Killing Moon works excellently as a stand-alone novel (there are little to no elements left dangling for the sequel, The Shadowed Sun).
The Killing Moon (****½) is available now in the UK and USA. The sequel will be published in June.