I came across this book the same way I came across The Ghost Bride. And just as I can’t remember the specific way for The Ghost Bride, I cannot remember the specific way for this book. So let’s just review.
Basically, The Killing Moon is a a fantasy novel based on Ancient Egypt (or rather influenced by it) and the idea of dreams. It takes place in an entirely fantasy world that draws heavily from Ancient Egyptian culture. Most of the action is centered around the city-state of Gujaareh. In Gujaareh, they worship the Goddess of Dreams, Hananja. According to the book’s mythology, initially only the sun and two moons existed (waking moon and dreaming moon). The Sun and the Waking Moon were in a relationship but the Sun always desired the Dreaming Moon. Eventually, they ended up becoming husband and wife with many children. Hanaja is one of these children. She is the Goddess of Dreams but also associated with death and the afterlife. The world exists in two realms — the Hona-Karekh, which is the land of wakefulness, and the Ina-Karekh, which is the land of dreams. However, the Ina-Karekh only exists within the mind of Hananja, and it also has two states: the happy, peaceful Ina-Kurekh or the nightmare hollows. People’s souls only reach Ina-Karekh, if there is any part of the soul that can be returned.
However, existing in this dream world, is also magic. Dream magic can be used to cure people (within limit), refreshen their mind, extend their lifespan, or even cause death. There are four different types of dream humors (magic): dreambile, dreamseed, dreamchor and dreamblood. Each is actually collected from dreams of different kinds (i.e. dreambile comes from nightmares). The dream humors are collected by the Gatherer’s who bring it to the central temple, Hetawa, where the other people in the Service of Hananja (in which the Gatherer’s are included) make use of it (i.e. Sharer’s use it to heal people).
The story in the book centers around Gatherer’s, specifically the gatherer’s Ehiru and Nijiri. In Gujaareh, the city’s peace is maintained by Gatherer’s collecting dream magic. However, while collecting it, the Gatherer’s also get affected by the dream-humors. In particular, the dreamblood has an addictive quality. If a Gatherer consumes too much dreamblood and begins killing and taking dreamblood without permission, then the Gatherer’s mind breaks and the Gatherer becomes a Reaper. Reapers are soul killers who take dreamblood mercilessly and are basically insane, mindless creatures whose only goal is to fulfill their hunger for dreamblood. On that note, Gatherer’s are also killers — but they kill those who are corrupted. They only kill people they are commissioned to kill, because the people have been judged to be corrupt. But even in their killing, the Gatherer’s attempt to take the soul to the happy Ina-Kurekh, not the nightmare one. However, this is done through very carefully severing the soul tie of the person to usher it. If the Gatherer lets any emotion or judgement cloud their mind, then the soul is severed harshly and goes to the nightmare Ina-Kurekh or wanders lost forever. Hence, Gatherer’s are kept away from politics and are carefully selected and generally are peaceful people. The politics of Gujaareh is governed by the Prince, who is said to be descended from the Sun itself.
The book starts when Ehiru, the best Gatherer in Gujaareh misplaces his peace for second while killing someone, resulting in the person’s soul going to the nightmare Ina-Kurekh. Ehiru is a big devotee of Hananja and is incredibly shaken by this. He undertakes penance. Meanwhile, Nijiri is assigned as his apprentice — to learn the trade of being a Gatherer. It turns out, Ehiru had gathered Nijiri’s mother’s soul and sent her to happy Ina-Kurekh (with her consent) and then taken Nijiri back with him to serve Hananja, thereby preventing him from living the life of a servant. As such, Nijiri loves and adores Ehiru and is willing to do anything for him.
Anyways, it turns out that not everything is as it seems in Gujaareh. To make a long story short, it turns out that the Prince of Gujaareh has actually been preparing for war with other city-states. The main one mentioned in the book, is Kisua. It turned out that Gujaareh and Kisua were initially joined together as one large city-state. However, the Kisua’s grew disillusioned with the dream magic and decided to ban it. Hence the founder of Gujaareh and a great priest of the Hananjan faither, Inunru, decided to take his followers and move to another place. As a result, while dream magic flourished in Gujaareh, it was looked down upon in Kisua and banned. Although the two countries managed to have trading relationships, their alliance was still an unsteady one. Kisua had sent a spy, Sunandi, to uncover the Prince’s secrets. She manages to do so, but the Prince also finds out. Hence, Ehiru is sent to kill Sunandi, under the guise of her being corrupt. However, Sunandi manages to stall Ehiru and make him realize that things in Gujaareh are not rosy. Through Sunandi’s words and other proofs, Ehiru and Nijiri realize that while the Hetawa has remained pure, the city itself, along with its political leaders, has become corrupt. Thus, instead of being a city of peace free from corruption, Gujaareh is actually a city of corruption.
Things are further complicated by the fact that Ehiru is actually also the Prince’s last remaining sibling. It turned out, the Prince massacred his father, the previous King, and all his other family members to prevent them from taking his throne. Ehiru was saved because he was already marked by the Hetawa to become a part of the Service of Hanaja. Furthermore, while all this is taking place (i.e. Ehiru finding out about the city’s corruption), it turns out his mental state is weakening. Due to their constant contact with dreamblood, Gatherer’s actually become dependant on the peace it brings. Most of the dreamblood they collect is given to the Hetawa, but a small portion is reserved for them to keep as fuel. When a Gatherer runs out of dreamblood, they usually turn crazy and begin taking dreamblood without asking (aka enter the process of becoming a reaper) and also start living in the Inu-Karekh more than the Hona-Karekh, causing their judgment to falter as well. While finding out about the corruption, Ehiru is denied dreamblood. He ends up giving the last of his dreamblood reserve to save Nijiri from an attack from a reaper. Additionally, as a devout believer of Hanaja and a good man, he refuses to take any dreamblood from Nijiri or attack anyone for their own dreamblood to sustain him.
Thus, not only does Ehiru have to contend with the fact that his city is corrupt, thereby undermining his very beliefs, but he has to do this with struggling without dreamblood. Nijiri, who loves Ehiru, attempts his very best to try and help Ehiru with his struggle. The rest of the book deals with how the War happens and how Ehiru and Nijiri deal with Gujaareh’s corruption.
Whew! Are you still with me? I know it’s a really, really long write up. Which actually points to something about the book — its incredibly in-depth world-building. If you can believe it, there’s actually so many details that I have actually left out in my narration. There’s also other whole plot-points and scenes that I haven’t even discussed. It’s incredibly extensive. Which, in my opinion, is both a plus and a minus. It’s a plus because it’s incredibly interesting. I have studied Ancient Egypt before so I sort of knew some of the theoretical underpinnings behind the fantasy world of Gujaareh and Kisua. This actually also furthered my interest and kept me engrossed. However, the world building is also really extensive. If you’ve every written a story, then you know that it all unfolds organically. In other words, things aren’t really explained all at once at the beginning, instead, the threads come together to form a whole picture at the end. While this is good writing, it’s also a very extensive task for the brain to undertake while reading. You have to remember the little bits and pieces about the world and then attempt to connect them as you read. But you also have to be content with not knowing everything as you read. As a result, it actually got kind of tiring to read the book. There was just so much to remember. On top of that, there wasn’t really any maps or anything to assist the reader with picturing the world. A fair amount of the book details journey’s across places and it was tiring to imagine not only the world-building, but also the physical places. Hence, I actually had to put down the novel a couple of times because my mind would get weary (I did manage to finish in a day though, so it’s not that bad). Hence, it was a plus and minus.
What was an outstanding plus, however, was how original the story was. I don’t think I’ve ever really read a book like this before. It combined elements of religion with magic. Which itself isn’t a novel concept, but was novel in the way the book did it. Plus, there was a lot of discussion on the idea of dreaming and gods. It was really interesting. Fair warning here though, although the book is highly influenced by Ancient Egypt, it doesn’t actually follow Ancient Egyptian theology or culture. It mostly just borrows elements and then makes those elements its own by tweaking them a little bit. And those tweaks add in originality. Which is how I feel about the plot too. Character’s having religious crises has been done too. But the way NK Jemisin manages to combine the plot and characters with the religion and magic elements is really cool. On that note, I actually really liked the characters in the book too, especially Ehiru and Nijiri. I enjoyed reading their thoughts and actions. Their relationship was also well done. I felt really invested in their story — together and apart. But, I think they could’ve also been explored more — especially Ehiru. And I think that’s where this book leaves me — it’s good but I feel like there’s more that could’ve been done or improved upon.
My rating: read it to enjoy some fantastic fantasy world-building and an original plot-line, but don’t expect to be blown away.