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blue book cover for The Killing Moon featuring a large orange moon

The first time the reader meets Gatherer Ehiru, one of the main characters in N K Jemisin's 'The Killing Moon', he is fulfilling a commission from an elderly man's son to bring his father to peace; essentially undertaking a contract for euthanasia. As a result of this process, Ehiru collects a substance called dreamblood. Ehiru is just one of four Gatherers, important holy figures in a religious order that worships the moon goddess Hananja. They all collect dreamblood in the same way, by releasing people1 who are sick, or old, or who have been found to be somehow corrupt.

Later in the novel the reader learns that the Gatherers must take on dreamblood to survive. They sleep in the day, as they spend nights gathering dreamblood. Collecting dreamblood fills Ehiru with 'langour', a delicious and deadly word which partly brings to mind a satiated, well fed animal. I can't tell you just how much joy it gives me to say that taking all this into account I'd say, it's a pretty short hop, skip and a jump from Gatherers to 'space vampires'. Space. Vampires. How fricking delightful!

The most prominent current trend in vampire media is probably the creation of a heroic monster. The recently concluded set of 'Twilight' films (based on the popular novels) and 'The Vampire Diaries' TV series are two of the most recent, prominent vampire stories where the audience is encouraged to sympathise with characters that would be villains in traditional monster lit like 'Dracula'. Their creators mitigated the uncomfortable predator aspect of their vampire heroes in several ways, including giving them a certain kind of sex appeal, developing their characters, creating sympathetic back stories, and making sure the characters displayed an internal horror at what they had become. But perhaps most importantly both pieces of media initially set their 'good', sympathetic vampire characters up as “vegetarians” who only drink animal blood. Perhaps, with the leashing of the vampires most basic unnaturalness, the need for a safe distance between audience and character is removed?

Considering that the Gatherers (or space vampires) of 'The Killing Moon' take dreamblood from their fellow citizens and cause death when they do so, does this mean that they inspire less sympathetic feeling than these other, recent vampire creations? Well, it's complicated. See, the Gatherers' actions are justified by the internal logic of the Hananjan religious system, and the reader often sees their mission through the eyes of people who are ensconced in that system. Ehiru, a devout follower of the goddess Hananja and the first character the reader meets, genuinely sees himself as a deliverer:

' “No one I have every gathered has been imprisoned, except in his own suffering flesh or blighted mind. I offer her peace in exchange for pain…fear…hatred…loneliness. Death is a gift to those who suffer in life.” '

And while there are signs that many of the regular citizens of his home city Gujareeh fear Gatherers, their fear is dismissed by Ehiru as uneducated. And others submit happily to a religious system which does bring peace and healing to some. This perspective encourages the reader to at least consider the way the Gatherer's role benefits Gujareehan society.

But early on in the novel, two characters from outside Gujareeh are included in the story and they see the Gatherer's actions rather differently. The first, a foreign merchant who has been judged corrupt and is being Gathered by Ehiru says “You call it a blessing from your Goddess, but I know what it really is...It gives you pleasure.”. While the second character, Sunandi, is a diplomat from the neighbouring land of Kisuati, where the Gatherer's magic is illegal and seen as unholy. To these characters Ehiru and his kind are parasites, reflecting the view of humans in vampire media filled with less cuddly vamps. So, 'The Killing Moon' presents both a sympathetic and a hostile view of the vampiric actions of the Gatherers, which at least in the early stages of the novel allows the reader to feel All The Things about the Gatherers.

Through this debate about the Gatherers' function, which develops and recurs, the ethics of euthanasia are discussed. Viewed through the eyes of a follower of Hananja, the Gatherers are bringing peace, or alternately justice. Viewed through the eyes of an outsider like Sunandi, the Gatherers are murderers who remove a person's right to choose. As Sunandi is thrown together with Ehiru and his apprentice Nijiri2, some of this outsider reaction is shown to be due to misunderstanding. For example, in a scene where Ehiru meets a child with a wasting disease who wants to die, the novel criticises Kisua's homeland's rigid, legalised system of ethics. At the same time, some of the Gatherers' views about their role are also based on misinformation. Again that balance encourages readers to think deeply about the two sides of the novel's conversation and to come to their own conclusions.

As the novel goes on, its sympathies seem to lie more with the Gatherers (and by extension the pro-euthanasia position), even as it reveals how they have been manipulated by the state. Kisua is confronted with evidence that Gatherers do not take the lives of the unwilling and she sees firsthand what kind of suffering Ehiru and his brothers can relieve if he is allowed. At times, I found this growing argument a little too easy to relate it fully to the real world, but within the parameters of the story and the world, which is influenced by ancient Egypt, it mostly satisfies.

The revelation of that vampiric need for dreamblood doesn't fit neatly into any metaphorical examination of legalised/accepted real life euthanasia. With an extended break from dreamblood those inducted into the Gatherers go mad and become Reapers, who devour everything of a person and cast their soul into 'the nightmare hollows of Ina-Karekh'. Unless they can force themselves to starve and die before this transformation takes place, something which even the determined Ehiru can't manage when surrounded by blood and death. This could be intended to complicate the real debate on euthanasia, showing people who facilitate death as parasites, but I don't think that's a likely link, considering the way the novel provides support for legitimate Gathering in several places and Sunandi's allowance of gathering when Gujareeh is conquered and in pain.

That acceptance of the Gatherers by a conquering force in the novel's epilogue is where the novel's internal reality unwinds a bit for me. By the end of the novel it's been established that the Gatherers are 'both geniuses and madmen'. Everyone has seen the damage done by Gatherers turned Reapers. Yet, Sunandi gives Nijiri (by now a full Gatherer) permission to carry on his work, as long as they purge their religious order of corruption and bring a few of the criminals to face public trial. Her reasoning is that the Gatherers are necessary tool to ease suffering. But I couldn't quite get the lines from Una-une, the first Gatherer forced to take a Reaper's shape, out of my mind when she made that decision:

'Most lands can only tolerate a few, and those die young. We encouraged ours, nurtured them, kept them healthy and happy. We filled a city with them and praised our own greatness. Do you understand just how beautiful, and dangerous that was?'

Would even Sunandi, who has spent so much time having her eyes opened by exposure to the Gatherers, really personally feel happy about their continued presence in Gujaareh? Any one of them could be used as a political tool and she has to fully believe in the piety of two powerful Gatherers that she has never met before. It felt like too much a risk to me, for Sunandi to trust so much in these vampires, even with the determined Nijiri in their midst. Even if they are reliable, too much is outside their control for them to be more of a help than a risk in this society. And Kisuati society seems ruthless enough to cut them out if they feel a threat, even if Sunandi feels comfortable with them. Perhaps when she says, ' "The Protectors will no doubt try to change you too. You realize that?" ' she is hinting at worries which may be explored more in the sequel? And after all isn't it always dangerous to trust the vamps, but again and again readers do. Oh, do we ever.

'The Killing Moon' is full up with other ideas and developing character relationships for readers to explore. It's one of those books that keeps revealing new elements for the reader to gnaw on even as the main action begins to unfold. Excitingly, Jemisin incorporates more of the mildly experimental narrative style she included in 'The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms', which she uses to add different, often darker layers of tone to the novel:


'Did you know that writing stories down kills them?

Of course it does. Words aren't meant to be stiff, unchanging things. My family were talekeepers once, though now they make funerary urns and jars….

So. At the beginning of time –

Yes, yes, I must begin with the greater story. I tell this in the Sua way, first the greater stories, then the lesser, because that is how it must be done. That was our bargain yes? I will speak, and pass my tales on to you since I have no sons or daughters to keep them for me. When I finish speaking, you may summon my brethren, and I will go gladly to Hananja. So.

'The Reaper knows it is an abomination. If it had a soul left it could mourn this.'

Delicious, and a welcome way to wrap what could have been worldbuilding info dumps, like the religious story of Dreaming Moon, in finer clothes. Perhaps one day Jemisin will write an SF novel in a totally experimental style? I dreamed a dream3

Enthusiastically endorsed for Hugo nomination.


1 The Gatherers make a distinction between releasing people and killing them. They are shocked when anyone suggests gathering is killing, so I'm maintaining it in this review.

2 Who is hopelessly in love with Ehiru; his master, father figure and friend - sigh for the tragic gay love story

3 Endings are hard so I am robbing this from a Cameron Mackintosh musical.

Date: 2013-01-25 07:12 pm (UTC)
cloudsinvenice: a blue rubber stamp image of a coelocanth captioned "upwards onward" (Default)
From: [personal profile] cloudsinvenice
This sounds intriguing and complex - I'll definitely be picking it up. Thanks for posting your review!

Date: 2013-01-26 02:48 am (UTC)
renay: artist rendition of the center of a nebula (Default)
From: [personal profile] renay
As I said elsewhere, now i am dying to read the SGA/The Killing Moon crossover. I WANT IT. JODIE, YOU SHOULD WRITE IT FOR ME. ;___;

This book was great. :D KJ and I will eventually get ourselves together and work on our co-review. Then all we have to do is convince Ana to read it for ULTIMATE READING TRIUMVIRATE. :D :D *sparkles in Ana's general direction*

Date: 2013-01-27 04:39 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Is that Star Gate Atlantis? I've never seen it, although I used to watch original Star Gate quite a bit.

I'm excited for your co-review. Trying to work out how soon I can go onto Shadowed Sun which I freaked out about and bought in Canada way before UK release. Keep sparkling and perhaps it will work :D

Date: 2013-01-31 03:07 am (UTC)
renay: artist rendition of the center of a nebula (Default)
From: [personal profile] renay

Date: 2013-02-10 04:00 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
I am on it. It is the 3rd program on my list and I am half way through the other two series.

Date: 2013-01-27 07:47 pm (UTC)
nymeth: (Default)
From: [personal profile] nymeth
*is sparkled at* :D

Never fear, this is definitely on my list :P


Date: 2013-01-31 03:08 am (UTC)
renay: artist rendition of the center of a nebula (Default)
From: [personal profile] renay

Date: 2013-01-29 03:02 am (UTC)
hebethen: (Default)
From: [personal profile] hebethen
Huh. I just read this series and I never once thought of the Gatherers as vampires. After all, they or their fellow Servants deal with dreambile, dreamseed, and dreamichor as well, and most of the dreamblood they gather goes back to the people...

Date: 2013-02-10 07:32 pm (UTC)
hebethen: (Default)
From: [personal profile] hebethen
I liked it! It was a lot more fraught, though, I feel. I stopped a lot to go "Hmm" over things.


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