The book was very different from what I expected. To be fair, I didn't know what to expect from it too well, but one of my first thoughts upon reading was 'That's not how Tel'Aran'Rhiod works!' Fans of The Wheel of Time will recognize that. I was also interrupted while reading with my Easter Island trip so this broke up the story's flow a bit.
Still, I did find the book engaging and the world was interesting. I expected a bit more given Jemisin's amazing debut with The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, but this was still a good read. I wouldn't say this is epic fantasy, though it clearly has some elements of that in it. The plot, as you'll read below, is split between the internal and external conflicts and the external one doesn't seem to encompass the scale I usually associate with epic stories.
The plot centers around the political machinations of those in power in order to grab even more power. Though a bit generic, the details are unique and will keep the reader interested. It does, however, take a while to get started. It feels at times like the main characters are moving on short term goals instead of seeing the big picture. That limited scope can give you an interesting look into the characters, but it keeps the reader in the dark about some of the main details for a long time.
In addition to the external conflict of the political corruption and threat of war, there is also the internal conflict of one of the characters, Ehiru, as he doubts himself and undergoes a crisis of faith. That gives a far more personal look into the world and is actually a very interesting plot line. Both plots are woven together and finish neatly at the conclusion. This is a story of achieving peace, both inner and outer:
True peace required the presence of justice, not just the absence of conflict. - The Killing Moon, N.K. Jemisin
The plot revolves around four main characters, but given the relatively short nature of the book we only see two in great detail: Ehiru and Nijiri, a Gatherer and his apprentice. Ehiru is the city's most famous Gatherer and he is deeply spiritual and trustworthy. His confrontation with the corruption in the city shakes his faith and drives the personal side of the story. His apprentice, Nijiri, is a young man eager to prove himself and adores his mentor. There's actually a bit of sexual tension between the two, which is not surprising given Jemisin's take on these issues, but nothing overt happens.
The other two characters are Eninket, the Prince of Gujareh and Sunandi, an ambassador from the neighboring country of Kisua. They are also very important for the story, but it feels like they don't get enough page time for you to get a full idea of what they are like. While Ehiru and Nijiri grow and change throughout the book, Eninket and Sunandi remain fairly static (less so for Sunandi).
Setting / World Building
The setting was interesting and unique given the touches from Egypt. The city has flooding cycles similar to what goes on with the Nile river, and the people, the language, and their attire seem appropriate for the setting. Their culture revolves around the moon and dream goddess, Hananja. The Hetawa are priests of Hananja that specialize in healing magic by gathering humors from dreams: dreamblood, dreamseed, dreambile, and dreamichor. The combinations of these four substances can be used to repair physical damage or heal mental sicknesses. An interesting take on medical magic.
Dreamblood is probably the most controversial of the substance to extract as doing so kills the person. A subset of priests, the Gatherers, travel at night to collect dreamblood from people selected for that purpose. The Gatherer enters their dreams, gives them a sense of peace, and eases their passing into Ina-Karekh, their version of heaven. In general, the tithe bearers are the sick and elderly who wish to pass on in their sleep, but not surprisingly there can also be political motivations behind these 'assassinations.' The Gatherers are very spiritual and have a blind eye towards the politics behind their actions. It is only when the blinds are removed that they realize they've been played and things get messy.
The magic at first feels a bit underdeveloped. The Gatherers give so much (they loose the ability to produce dreamblood so must continuously gather others), but don't seem to get any benefits. Sure, they can use narcomancy to put people to sleep or calm them and eventually we see some of the interesting (and excellently foreshadowed) side effects of dreamblood, but it looks like all the dream humors are used for is healing. Only at the end do we see the secrets behind narcomancy and can appreciate its power and subtlety.
There are two moons on the sky and the larger one, the Dreaming Moon, has four bands. I had a bit of trouble imagining this and how it would work until I read her 'interview' at the end of the book. It turns out the 'planet' they are on is actually a moon! The Dreaming Moon is a gas giant, like Jupiter, and is banded by the structure in the atmosphere. I always appreciate some astronomy in my fantasy and I wish I had caught that as I read the story.
In the end, I enjoyed the book, but not as much as I had anticipated. I expected a lot more out of the book, and though I got a satisfying read I was left wanting. Jemisin has an interesting style of telling her stories, but it takes a bit longer for me to get into them. Will I read the second part (The Shadowed Sun)? Sure, but I may wait until after I read other authors and their books. Nevertheless, I can still recommend this book as an interesting take on a fantasy society based loosely on ancient Egypt with some cool magic focusing on healing and dreams.