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[Book review]: The Dreamblood by N.K. Jemisin

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The Dreamblood #1: The Killing Moon by NK Jemisin


In the city-state of Gujaareh, power is split between the ruling Prince and the priests of the dream goddess Hananja. The priests have magic based on the power of dreams, with which they can heal the sick. One sect, the Gatherers, is dedicated to helping people peacefully pass over when their time has come. However, when the Gatherer Ehiru discovers he has been manipulated into trying to kill an innocent, he realises that Gujaareh is threatened by a conspiracy lurking at the very heart of the nation.


The Killing Moon is the first novel in the Dreamblood duology, the latest work from N.K. Jemisin (the author of the Inheritance Trilogy, which I have not yet read). It's an epic fantasy, but one that proudly discards the limitations of a Medieval European setting. Gujaareh is inspired by the legends and mythology of ancient Egypt, although it is not a carbon copy (there are no pyramids, sphinxes or mummies), and the novel draws upon Carl Jung's ideas about the collective unconscious to provide its unique magic system.


The setting is vividly described. The planet Gujaareh is located upon is a moon circling a gas giant (the 'Killing Moon' of the title is actually the gas giant, although confusingly the cover art depicts a red-coloured version of our moon) which makes for an interesting day/night cycle. This feeds into the power of night, sleep and dreams which provides the book with its spine. Gujaareh itself is a compelling location, built to withstand annual floods and with a complex mixture of native and foreign influences: like ancient Egypt, Gujaareh is not a monolithic state, but one where people from across the world can be found, trading or negotiating.


Ehiru, our central character, is an expert at using the power of dream magic and is trying to pass his knowledge onto his apprentice, Nijiri. This process is interrupted by the discovery of a possible threat to the country, which Ehiru is compelled to investigate. Sunandi, an ambassador from the southern nation of Kisua, completes our central triptych of characters. Though there are occasional chapters from other POVs, these three viewpoints dominate the novel. Each is a fascinating character, with Sunandi being a capable and intelligence diplomat who is sometimes undone by arrogance. Ehiru is determined and resolute, but is also prone to become unhealthily obsessed, to the point of endangering himself. Nijiri is highly capable but lacks confidence. He's our 'young, tallow youth' viewpoint but amusingly that's more his own assessment of his abilities than the reality. All are painted with colour and depth.


The novel is a fast read, with a cracking pace that still allows time for some interesting characterisation. Something that Gujaareh shares with ancient Egypt is a certain rigid inflexibility in its traditions (something Pratchett notably satirised in his novel Pyramids, the only other Egyptian-flavoured fantasy that immediately comes to mind) but also the ability to adapt once those limitations are exposed. This extends to the micro-level of the characters, who each find their view of the world widened by the events of the book. This self-realisation is hardly new in concept (Nijiri becomes more confident, Sunandi becomes a bit more open to other cultures) but is executed with skill.


Where the novel falters is in its denouncement, which feels both rushed and a little too neat. This does mean that The Killing Moon works excellently as a stand-alone novel (there are little to no elements left dangling for the sequel, The Shadowed Sun).


The Killing Moon (****½) is available now in the UK and USA. The sequel will be published in June.

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The Dreamblood #2: The Shadowed Sun by N.K. Jemisin




The city of Gujaareh chafes under the rule of the Kisuans, who lack respect for the traditions of the city and its priesthood. When a son of the previous, deranged prince emerges as a warleader of a fierce barbarian tribe, the inhabitants of Gujaareh prepare for a rebellion...until a mysterious plague begins striking at the populace through their dreams.

The Shadowed Sun is the second and concluding volume of the Dreamblood duology, following up on The Killing Moon. This book sees N.K. Jemisin shifting gears from the first volume, which was focused more on investigations and conspiracies within the city. This second book is more about politics, the gathering of armies and, well, perhaps what can be described more as 'traditional epic fantasy guff'. However, Jemisin's take on traditional epic fantasy guff is refreshing, with the narrative never caving in to cliche and with widely-diverse storylines converging in unexpected and unpredictable ways.

As before, this is a character-based fantasy. The surviving characters from the first book take a back seat: Sunandi only gets a few scenes and Nijiri is in a supporting role only. The focus is on Hanani, the first woman to join the priesthood of Hananja, and Wanahomen, the exiled prince-in-waiting. Jemisin handles these characters with impressive skill: Hanani is inexperienced but rapidly learns the ways of the world and proves more resourceful than she was expecting. The usual learning-and-growing stuff, sure, but depicted with some interesting twists. In particular, Hanani's success in navigating the shoals of the culture of the Banbarra tribe is down to intelligence and being able to adapt to changing circumstances. Wanahomen is presented initially as a very unlikable character, which is an interesting choice for one of the major protagonists. His own character evolution, which involves learning the art of dream-magic and discovering the true nature of his father, is successfully depicted.

Other characters swirl around this central duo, though they risk feeling under-developed in comparison due to a lack of page-time. This does have the benefit of keeping a tight focus on our two main characters which the book does benefit from, but several fascinating side-characters (like Tiaanet, Nijiri, Sunandi and the Kisuan Protectors) do feel a little sold short as a result.

The thematic idea from the first novel - of people trapped in rigid and small world-views who have those views changed through a widening of their experience - is pursued and if anything is explored more intriguingly in this second volume. Wanahomen's world-view is restricted by him believing that his father was murdered and that the priesthood of Hananja is an enemy that must be punished. His own experiences in the dreaming world and his experiences with Hanani change that in a very plausible fashion. Jemisin tackles a wide variety of issues related to sexuality, abuse, gender politics and religion in the book, but never in a preachy way. Instead, she organically lets thematic elements arise from the story and characters to form a very satisfying and well-written whole.

The Shadowed Sun (****½) matches its forebear in quality and is available now in the UK and USA.

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