The late and lamented Ursula LeGuin (one of my all-time favorites) recently announced the imminent death of literary fiction, to be replaced in importance by genre fiction. This of course isn’t a surprise to any of you EFFers, who have been reading these stories for ages. But what could have been dismissed as the daydreams of a genre writer are actually coming true. We’re seeing this not only in the widespread cultural popularity of Game of Thrones, but even in smaller books like N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth series, which is winning every possible genre award out there.
I’m not going to review the Broken Earth (though I do recommend it), but instead I recommend you read her foray into more traditional “epic” fantasy, the two-book series The Dreamblood Duology.
If you look up N.K. Jemisin, you’ll see that this series was the second one she published after the success of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. But actually Dreamblood is her first series. She just couldn’t get it sold because…get this… the publishers were unsure about a book with main characters that all had varying shades of dark skin (with the white-skinned “Northerners” as the faceless enemy).
In any case, she did get it published eventually. And I think it’s her best work, even better than the award-winning Broken Earth trilogy.
The Killing Moon
N. K. Jemisin is an artist. She has created a world that could have actually happened in some deep past that we have long forgotten about. Her alternate epic fantasy version of ancient Egypt is almost as compelling as the real Egypt itself.
Most importantly, though, her humane approach to questions of faith, doubt, sacrifice, love, and so much more is just dazzling. When Facebook feeds make me doubt that people are capable of empathizing with others or of thinking at all, Jemisin presents us with characters and questions that are universal, but she refuses to suggest easy answers for anything. When “literary fiction” rarely looks at sincere faith in the divine with an unironic eye, Jemisin shows us flawed, suffering individuals who have every reason to turn their back on their faith, but who are too brave to do so. And we can’t help but look at them with awe.
In our world, people have largely lost the language of intimacy. “Love” has so become synonymous with “lust” that it seems anyone who doesn’t have sex after a successful first date is strange (at best). But Jemisin creates a world where two people can love each other in heartbreaking ways, and yet hardly ever touch each other. Her restraint, and yet her passion, are breathtaking.
For me, her choice to describe one character’s descent into madness in terms of moral choice is unexpected and brilliant. Ehiru’s transformation into a monster, the thing he fears most, and his ability to remain himself while losing himself, is as strong a characterization as anything in modern literature.
Yes, this is heady stuff. But there is plenty of fantastic action, and the magical system of harvesting dreams is intriguing. And the bad guy is as good as it gets.
The Shadowed Sun
The Shadowed Sun continues where The Killing Moon left off, but ten years later. This time around, Jemisin allows us to experience another of the four “paths of Hananja”–the path of the healers, in some way the diametrical opposition to the dream-harvesting Gatherers. But this novel is not really about its worldbuilding.
Jemisin continues to use her rich fantasy talent to cast light on difficult issues that we experience in our own “real” life. This time, she tackles a difficult and painful subject–violence against women and children, in particular, sexual violence.
As a result, this is a much more “adult” read than The Killing Moon, and a few moments were almost unbearably painful. It’s difficult subject matter, so there are no really satisfying conclusions for any of the characters, especially the ones who suffer. In particular, the almost obligatory revenge scene of the character most violated throughout the book is not gratifying in the least. It made me think of how it’s often the victims who have the least access to help and healing.
Jemisin powerfully illustrates this by showing how even in a society that can magically heal all wounds and diseases, the deepest wounds of the soul are sometimes permanent.
If this sounds a little too depressing, it is definitely a dark and challenging read. But it’s all the more worth it for that. And Jemisin still manages to paint an excellent action scene. I was never bored for a moment.
So, 5 stars for book 1 and 4 stars for book 2. Overall, highly recommended. But this isn’t light reading. If you want to be challenged and walk away with a new perspective on life, read this series.
Want to become an EFF reviewer? Click here.