Vampire Priests in Ancient Egypt

Editor’s note: Joel is reading his way through the finalists for the 2012 Nebula Award for best sci-fi/fantasy novel. Read his introduction here.

N.K. Jemisin has made a name for herself in the fantasy field by bucking the trend. In 2011, just as gritty quasi-European-set fantasies like A Song of Ice and Fire and The First Law were exploding in popularity (and showing up on HBO), she released The Inheritance Series, a trilogy of loosely-connected fantasy novels that were set in a decidedly unusual fantasy world: a city-state perched atop a giant tree and occupied by both mortals and gods. Like, literal ancient gods. Which makes for some interesting romantic entanglements. Her latest book, The Killing Moon, is another refreshing departure with another unique setting. The only things that haven’t changed are her welcome storytelling economy (this novel, though technically half of a duology, tells a complete story in less than 500 pages) and her fantastic writing.

The book is set in the city of Gujaarah, which takes aspects of its culture and geography from ancient Egypt, though Jemisin is hardly a slave to history, considering our heroes belong to an order of priests who basically murder people in their dreams and drink their lifeforce. And these are the good guys. They are called Gatherers, they serve the moon goddess of death and rebirth, and they harvest a magical substance called dreamblood from their victims. It is has all sorts of medical and spiritual uses, not the least of which are its druglike effects, which quickly turn Gatherers into dreamblood junkies. And you don’t want to be around a Gatherer who is jonesing for a fix, since legend holds that prolonged withdrawal will transform him into a Reaper, an unstoppable demon creature that can kill thousands with a thought. (Kids: just say no to murdering people in their sleep and absorbing their lifeforce.) Gatherer Ehiru, the most experienced of his order, uncovers a conspiracy and learns that a Reaper may be loose in the city. With the help of his young apprentice Nijiri, he must race to prevent an all-out war between Gujaarah and neighboring city-states.

The book is strongest when it comes to building the world. Gujaarah feels lived-in: hot, dusty, and sand-strewn, with a culture and daily life outside of the small glimpses we are given. The principals of the magical system are explained logically (well, relatively speaking), and the religious angle adds another fascinating layer (so is there a literal goddess? Or is she just an invention to explain why the magic works?). The political maneuvering between the cities is complex and interesting.

There are a few barriers to entry: even experienced fantasy readers may find themselves adrift for the first hundred pages or so as they orient themselves to the world, though I give the author credit for shying away from blatant infodumps (“As you know, Nijiri, dreamblood is a substance which…”). Ehiru and Nijiri are also a bit hard to relate to, being, arguably, murders and religious fanatics—not to mention they have some unspoken Oedipal physical attraction going on that never really develops into much.

Minor flaws aside, The Killing Moon presents a compelling world and an engaging narrative to go with it. A sister volume, The Shadowed Sun, is not a direct sequel but another story set in the same world.

Why was it nominated? The Killing Moon has a lot going for it—beautiful writing, a rich and original Egyptian-inspired fantasy world, a pot-boiler pace—even before you consider the fact that N.K. Jemisin is on a bit of a hot streak at the moment, having collected Nebula nominations three years running.

Does it have a shot at the Nebula? Jemisin faces the risk of becoming a perpetual nominee but never the winner. Though it’s an excellent book, its surface similarity to fellow nominee The Throne of the Crescent Moon (both share a Middle Eastern-flavored setting and focus heavily on religion) may result in a vote split, even though I think Jemisin does it better.