N.K. Jemisin’s The Killing Moon is set in the fictional city of Gujareeh, in a country a little like Egypt: yearly floods from the city’s river keep the land fertile, and the country is surrounded by desert. On the other side of the desert is Kisua, in some ways Gujareeh’s mirror-twin. Certainly the two countries have a strained relationship – part of which is political, and part to do with their very different religious approaches to their shared goddess, Hananja. Gujareeh society is monarchical, but there’s a body called the Hetawa which is almost equal in influence to the prince himself. The various branches of the Hetawa use dream-magic, collected as a regular tithe from its citizens, to heal disease and bring peace. Their Gatherers, skilled manipulators of dream, execute criminals and provide euthanasia to those who’ve asked for it, sending those whose lives they end in this way to endless bliss in Hananja’s dream-realm of Ina-Karekh and thereby keeping the city free of “corruption”.
The people of Kisua, meanwhile, have rejected both the benefits and the dangers of dream-magic (which can be addictive, making the Hetawa system ripe for abuse, although there are checks and balances), seeing the work of the Gatherers as a horrific misuse of power, and the whole system of tithes as a perversion of Hananja’s worship.
It’s important to note here that Jemisin’s not interested in the question of whether Hananja exists: it’s pretty clear from the text that she does, although I suppose if you really wanted to read it differently you could. Nevertheless: The Killing Moon isn’t a theological debate, or indeed a Sandman-like foray into the land of dreams; it’s more a look at how established religion informs the culture and power structures of a society – and how differing interpretations of the same tradition change such structures. “Corruption” and “peace” are key opposing concepts in Gujareeh: Hananja’s peace is the ultimate state of being, while corruption is its opposite and therefore offensive to the goddess. Their entire society is structured around this binary, which as a result has stagnated somewhat. For example, Gujareeh women are worshipped as domestic goddesses in the image of Hananja, and so are kept by cultural pressure in the home, out of the public sphere; while Kisuan women are very much part of public life. In fact, one of the novel’s protagonists, the Kisuan ambassador to Gujareeh, is a woman named Sunandi. On the other hand, we see in a later scene that Kisua has traded its cultural dynamism, and its safety from the dangers of dream magic, for the wellbeing of some of its citizens, particularly the elderly and those who can’t be treated using conventional medicine.
As an exploration of cultures around religion, the novel really speaks for itself, in that the work that it’s doing does not really lend itself to summary. It is its own argument. Its narrative focuses on a Gatherer named Ehiru and his apprentice Nijiri, who uncover evidence of corruption in the Hetawa itself – specifically, evidence that someone has created a Reaper, a Gatherer who murders to slake his own thirst for dream-magic, not to share it with the city. But it’s not particularly the story that lingers in the memory – it’s the dense web of cultural signifiers and politics that Jemisin’s created, the richly-imagined society the characters move through. As such, it’s a novel that really needs to be read to be appreciated. If you’re at all interested in the themes I’ve mentioned, I suggest you do so.
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