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Monday, May 6, 2013

Nebula Nominees: The Killing Moon by N K Jemisin

From the author's note for The Killing Moon by N K Jemisin:

Like most fantasy writers, I have found it challenging to write material influenced by real (if bygone) cultures. [...] Since this is a fantasy novel, not a historical text, I found myself in the odd position of having to de-historify these tales as much as possible -- in effect stripping away the substance of reality while leaving behind only the thinnest broth for flavoring. My goal was to give homage; my goal was not to ape humanity. Armchair Egyptologist, you have been forewarned.


Well, thank the baby Jesus. 

I have had a long and loud love/hate relationship with high fantasy, with periods of intense love-making followed by throwing all of its shit out into the yard and setting it on fire. Some of my most favoritest books have hailed from high fantasy's storied borders - The Long Price QuartetThe Lord of the Rings, the Earthsea Cycle. But I have also found books that just make me keen for their dangerously juvenile wish-fulfillment and naive politics. A penniless goatherd turns out to be the son of a king; a scarred warrior reclaims his honor: all of this occurring in a Medieval Europe clone that appears to be structured by nostalgia for vicious, illusory things like honor, blended with the worst of middle class American values. So much high fantasy wrong-foots it, trying to blend meritocracy with the divine right, ending in a Calvinism of fiction: good wins because it wins. Feh.

And that's not even getting into the second or third generation "corrections" of this historical/political naïveté evidenced by formative high fantasy, novels that posit lovingly detailed rape-and-murder-a-thons as an expression of their grittiness or historical accuracy or what-fucking-ever. I am not much interested in escapisms that use casual injustice as a backdrop for some idiot imbued with narrative privilege to level up. I see enough of that shit in the real world, thank you, and adding dragons into the mix doesn't make it easier to swallow. And just to be clear, it's not the rape and violence that I have a problem with - I enjoy a bloody fight scene as much as the next girl - it's how so often rape and violence are deployed without interrogation and without consequence. Good still wins because it wins, but now someone can get herself raped to prove the situation is serious and nothing else

I seriously did not intend this review to become a jeremiad about the state of high fantasy, but you go to review with the barely controlled rampage you have bubbling in your mind. Or I do anyway, not to bring you into it. What I really wanted to impart with my freak-out is that I have a complicated relationship with high fantasy, and reading Jemisin's foreword made me sigh with relief. So often I read high fantasy, and the location is just medieval Europe or medieval Asia with the serial numbers filed off, but not particularly well. The problem I see with much of high fantasy is a sloppy, self-serving use of history which conflates character expediency with historical accuracy, creating a fantasy world with all the problems of the historical record and then some

 The Killing Moon takes place in the city-state of Gujaareh, based very loosely on ancient Egypt, but other than a river-flooded desert city and a pharaonic leader, the Egyptian is gestural or inflected. The plot centers on three people: a priest of the killing class, his apprentice, and an ambassador/spy from another city-state. While the milieu seems broadly pantheistic, Gujaarah is focused on the worship of a specific deity, a moon goddess of death and less so of rebirth. In practice, this works out to a priestly caste who harvest "dreamblood" - a magical but still body-based humor not unlike one of the four Hippocratic humors of the body in Classical and medieval medicine. (There is, for example, dreambile, and I assume dreamphlegm, but no one types out the word phlegm if they can help it.) (Also, someone pointed out that phlegm has been changed to the word "seed", so we can have some sexytimes ritual prostitutes.) 

The opening is one of those confusing messes that ends up being more calculated than it appears, but I wouldn't begrudge anyone tossing this book down before the gears catch, because it takes nearly half the book for the teeth to bite. A priest has one of his ritual killings go wrong; there is a murderer demon on the loose; some people have confusing conversations where the political subtext doesn't necessarily figure, but is extremely important. And politics is decidedly the name of the game in Gujaareh, in a way that even the main characters (other than the ambassador-spy, of course) don't get. That was one of the things I found so delightful about The Killing Moon: the way the politically naive - what about honor! and piety! and stuff! - aren't rewarded for their naivete, but aren't exactly punished either. True belief isn't exempt from political expediency, and vice versa. 

Unlike Long Price, which I would hold this book in close comparison - if you like this, then - I wasn't as enamored of the central characters. The priest and his apprentice have an intense Oedipal relationship with a bunch of sexual overlay which I don't quite connect with, never having been a celibate killing monk. Which is not to say I found them unlikely or incoherent, just that the inherent staginess of the court intrigue plot - which is the basis of much epic fantasy - undercut the interpersonal concerns of a relationship that's already pretty far out of the experience of most readers. (Celibate killing monks, they prolly totally grok it tho.) The ambassador-spy isn't nearly as badass as the term ambassador-spy would imply. Not that everything has to be about badassery, of course, I just felt her character was more reactive to the other two main characters, more expedient than personal. 

So, anyway, I greatly enjoyed this, partially just because of personal insanity about high fantasy, but then partially because The Killing Moon is well written and interesting, daring to take on some very odd protagonists. I have some questions, the usual ones I have about magical systems - so there's a goddess? and a demonstrable magical system? Does that mean there really is a goddess, or does that mean that the almost physics-like magic is just ascribed to the goddess? (These are questions that keep me up at night when dealing with high fantasy, in general, so that's not new.) I feel a little shitty this review, because I feel like a lot of it sounds like relative faint-praise - high fantasy sux! but this sux less! - but that's not where I'm at with this book. That said, I only picked this up because it's one of the Nebula nominees for 2012 - self-assigned homework reading - so there was a definite kicking-and-screaming vibe in the beginning, but I'm glad it worked out in the end.

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