Great expectations and otherwise

It's not a moon, it's a gas giant!

It’s not a moon, it’s a gas giant!

Meeting in the darkness of “standard time”, so called, the Beamers this month contemplated The Killing Moon of N.K. Jemisin, a newer but well-honored fantasy author.  Despite its threatening title, the book provided us with a much more tranquil description of a land approximating ancient Egypt and a similarly relaxed conversation on the realities of fantasies.

And When You Gaze Long into an Abyss …

Ms. Jemisin’s work explores the consequences of cultural clash in the matter of narcomancy, the magic of sleep and dreams, a skill at the heart of the central religion of her story.  Ehiru, a Gatherer, one who seeks to end suffering by ending lives that are intolerably painful (or intolerably corrupt), disastrously fails and consigns a soul to oblivion instead of to the Dreamworld.  What haunts him through the rest of the book is the realization that his faith in the Dreaming Moon goddess may be failing and he himself becoming a Reaper, a creature addicted to dreamblood and killing mercilessly instead of honorably.  What he and we come to see is that the political ends to which the religious practices are being put make the differences between Gatherer and Reaper less and less clear.

Build It, and They Will Read

And that intermingling of religion, politics, and culture was a major source of satisfaction for us, as our discussion proved.  Ms. Jemisin was deemed a success for her world-building, clearly showing that the research she did (like her long hours in the Brooklyn Museum, noted in her afterword) translated into the vibrant details of daily life in the novel.  Fran noted that the interplay of church and state, often tacitly assumed when not simply overlooked in other fantasies, here formed a major nexus for the reader’s interest, with consequent nuancing of characters and motives.  No simple “Good guys versus Bad guys” here.

Nor was there mere uniformity of belief and motivation.  As Eileen observed, Gujaareh, the city-state of the Dreaming Moon, was no single monolith “ice planet, desert planet” type of place.  Well, Nick did find that the book, with its desert/river/oasis settings and religious intrigues, reminded him of Dune (“with vampires”), but most of us were less inclined to link up with Frank Herbert’s eco-sf masterwork.

I Have My Reasons

Instead, we went along the trails that Ms. Jemisin laid out, which were often a bit winding.   Within and without the religion of the Dreaming Moon, there were factions and different paths of service, and the culture of the city-state itself, being a daughter colony, differed in significant ways from its mother culture.  Diversity rules in Ms. Jemisin’s fiction, making it both more realistic and more compelling as fiction since its characters could plausibly move into conflict without being simple plot devices.  Jon appreciated that even when we could identify a real villain, his status as such derived from both believable and understandable motives and not from a default “He is Evil because, well, the heroes have to fight *somone*.”

And the heroes themselves are portrayed as conflicted, with Ehiru accepting aid from the ambassador (and chief spy) of the mother country, despite his commission to Gather her “corrupt” soul.  Characters in The Killing Moon are not such stereotypes as “paint-by-numbers” fantasies are made of.  Rather, they have real beliefs and real internal debates when events bring those beliefs into question.  Plus, they tend, as people of high rank and responsibility often are, to be both aware and competent, a pair of traits I enjoy seeing in fictional folks, preferring that people in stories have at least the same ability as the reader to observe and draw conclusions from plot events that arise from the society in which they live and from its history.  Even if they spend quite a bit of time on the upsetting conclusions to which they are led, as does our protagonist Ehiru, whose agonizing “navel gazing” drew criticism from people both inside and outside the book.  (Beamers agreeing with characters?  What has Ms. Jemisin brought upon us?)

Hard to Tell the Players without a Scorecard

Being dropped into such a carefully depicted world did offer its own challenges, such as keeping us readers from getting lost in all those varied and variously opposed currents.  For most of us, just bearing with the story (“slogging through” as Donna put it) and, in particular, becoming allied with a particular character helped us navigate the early welter of details until we could orient and decipher the differing cultural and political signs.  I found that having an “outsider” character like Sunandi, the ambassador/spy, made it easier to follow the plot points, since she had a real need herself to think about and explain to her assistant the meanings behind the behaviors of the other characters.  As well as a welcome propensity to critique those behaviors, so that the setting and its society did not become a “default” for the world or for the reader, as happens all too often in speculative fiction.

Other Beamers found Ehiru and the struggle between his honor and his desires to be the key that unlocked the story.  Or even the characters opposed to Ehiru, like the Superior of his order and the Prince of his city, both of whom could acknowledge how they were violating the professed ideals of their positions for reasons that have appeared again and again in human history.  It may not be admirable, as with the Superior’s “realpolitik” acceptance of bartering religious blessings for political gains, but it happens, and when discovered, he expects no kindness from his betrayed subordinates.

OK, You Can Enter the Temple, But Don’t Let Me Catch You Praying!

One point about Ms. Jemisin’s city-state and religion of the Dream Moon goddess that struck me as strange was the absence of women within the goddess temple, explained in part as coming from women’s strength in dreaming leading them to not require (nor acquire) the skills of dream Gathering.  Liz, who acknowledged the presence of strong female characters in other roles throughout the various cultures (such as the caravan chief who calls Ehiru into account for moping over his botched Gathering), felt that the existence of the goddess as the guiding principle of the religion, and the allied if socially distinct “Sisters” (bringers and collectors of erotic dreams), adequately covered the female contribution.

And to a great extent, there was little to challenge the preeminence of the goddess, as Ms. Jemisin did not detail the worship or rituals of other deities, even when they were depicted in the storytelling “interludes” sprinkled throughout the book.  But, it may have been too much to expect from a single, medium-sized novel (415 pages, including glossary).  Ms. Jemisin has written one sequel (which Donna has already started to read), so more religions and rituals may come to light to further flesh out her desert kingdom that awaits the annual flooding of the Goddess’s Blood River to revitalize its fields.

When Enough is Enough

And perhaps to expect too much is to miss the real pleasures of this slowly unfolding tale of faith and hubris that flows sometimes rapidly, sometimes unhurriedly to the great ocean of Story.  Jon, who read the back cover blurbs with foreboding, found himself liking the book more than he first believed he would.  Liz, on the other hand, having read two of Ms. Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy works, wanted to like it more but found it differing in tone and taste sufficiently to diminish her expectations.  The experience, we mainly agreed, did fall in between the dazzling and the disappointing (solid 6s and 7s, all around, with a perfect ’10’ from Nick).  If we weren’t elevated to the heights of the Great Pyramid, neither were we lost in the bulrushes and leaping clear of crocodiles.  Instead, we were given a very good month’s read and offered promises of more to come from Ms. Jemisin.  That makes for a very content bunch of Beamers, indeed.

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