Friday, April 5, 2013

Fantasy of a different flavor | The Killing Moon

It is perhaps the mark of a relatively weak reading year thus far, but there's no doubt that the book I tore through the fastest (and with the most interest) is N. K. Jemisin's The Killing Moon. Jemisin is an author I've grown to respect, even as I can't pinpoint any particular trait to her writing that I especially like (I've had specific issues with each of her books thus far, though different issues every time). What's important is that Jemisin is trying something new in fantasy, and I respect it. I also happen to like it. In the case of the The Killing Moon, I happened to like it very much.

From the back cover blurb, it's easy to understand why people regard Jemisin as a "different" sort of fantasy writer. The Killing Moon, as other reviews will already tell you, takes place in a quasi-ancient-Egyptian culture. Jemisin treats her setting carefully, making her references to the real Egypt both obvious and non-intrusive. The Killing Moon doesn't get bogged down in descriptions and bloated world building, but on the other end of the scale, I never felt like I was living in a half-developed world. This in itself is rare in fantasy, where world-building is often equated with page count. Jemisin mostly opts just to show the world - it isn't until relatively late in the novel that we begin to fully understand the events of the first chapters. This may make the opening a bit shaky for some, but I was confident enough that the story would come together... and it did.

The Killing Moon is a fantasy, but it's definitely a different type. Not only does Jemisin eschew the comfortable cliches of a European Medieval fantasy, she also opts for a very different type of magic. Indeed, rather like The Inheritance Cycle (of which I've only read the first two books), The Killing Moon feels a lot more like mythology than it does fantasy. By latching the use of magic onto the in-story religion (and its in-story mythological origins), Jemisin creates a very realistic magical approach. Magic is ubiquitous, but uncommon. It's limited to a very narrow group of people, but it applies to everyone. More than anything, the magic in The Killing Moon is an acquired ability than an inherent born talent (though there's a bit of that as well). This makes it less like the dramatic high fantasies many of us associate with the genre, and more like a strange piece of historical fiction. With magic.

All of this magic, interestingly, takes left stage to the core of the novel - diplomatic intrigue. This was where I found the true strength of the book to be - the way Jemisin makes readers believe in the politics and diplomacy within this fantasy world. Toss in a good helping of mythology, magic, manipulation and murder, and you've got something special. Jemisin raises questions about life and death, never really answering them but leaving them lingering throughout the story. Ethics and morals are important; Jemisin never fully lets her readers forget that.

But much as I enjoyed the story, I have to admit that there are some important technical flaws in this one. Characterization, for example. I liked the characters and they felt fully-formed (ish), but they didn't feel particularly real. Ehiru is intriguing, but he is not particularly engaging. Nijiri, meanwhile, is engaging, but also flatter and less developed. And Sunandi is a strange blend, where I mostly liked her, but didn't really care about her. I felt little to no emotional connection with the characters. That's fine when you're breezing through a book, but it's not exactly the mark of quality literature.

The writing is also a bit strange, but here it might have been a matter of expectations. Jemisin's style felt a bit more jaded than it did in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms or The Broken Kingdoms. It mostly fit the story, but sometimes I was struck by how standard it was. Though I liked The Killing Moon significantly more than Jemisin's previous efforts, I found myself preferring the writing style in those novels over this one. Now I'm wondering if the writing style even really changed, or if it's just my memory playing tricks on me. Either way, The Killing Moon is written in a super standard "easy-to-read" style that suits its pace and its story admirably. It's good enough, but I wouldn't call it good.

Yes, I enjoyed The Killing Moon a lot. It does what fantasy is supposed to do: displace the reader, tell a good story, make the reader think. Jemisin may have stumbled a bit with two-dimensional characterizations and a distinct, somewhat blunt writing style, but overall her novel works. Not necessarily an example of true fantasy literature, but a fine book nonetheless.

3 comments:

  1. I have The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms which I hope to read soon, and am really looking forward to it. What you've said about less descriptions is really interesting; the descriptions fantasy writers include in general can be fascinating, but they do take up a lot of time. For that your next comment that it didn't feel undeveloped makes me want to get to the book I have sooner.

    I can't say much for the characters, considering my little knowledge, but I wonder if it might have been all the positive factors you mention that caused the characters to be less realised? It sounds as though a lot of time was spent on the other areas of the book, perhaps considered more important.

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  2. I really want to try Jemisin, and I like what you say about the book doing what a good book should, in spite of flaws.

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  3. I've been reading more and more fantasy over the last couple of years, something I never thought I'd do. I'd like to try this one.

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