The Killing Moon


N. K. Jemisin - The Killing Moon (Dreamblood #1) Ancient cities. Why haven't we seen more stories exploring ancient cities? They have existed in various shapes and forms for perhaps 10000 years, depending on what you count as a city. And yet, fantasy mostly looks like a choice between something looking a lot like medieval Europe or a contemporary metropolis.

Urban fantasy is a term that is often used to mean fantasy that intersects the world we know (and nowadays also very often used as a synonym for paranormal romance, even when they are not exactly the same). But what makes urban fantasy urban is the city, the urban landscape as a setting that is important for the plot and for the feeling. Cities are really fascinating, and it's also the kind of landscape most of us inhabit nowadays. I think we yearn for the fantastic here, among us, as a counterpoint to the stories where we get to visit other strange places.

Some urban fantasy works are explicitly set in real, more or less contemporary cities, that we can recognize in different ways. The Malmö of our Swedish author Nene Ormes comes to mind. There are often hidden parts, worlds beneath or beyond the normal streets and buildings – think of the London in Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere or China Miéville's Un Lun Dun. Or for that matter the secret parts of the historical London in The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers.

Other authors prefer stepping sideways into normal but invented cities, like the Newford of Charles de Lint. Or Bordertown, the shared world – or shared city – on the border between our world and The Realm, Faerie.

But there are also some really great completely invented cities in secondary worlds, like Ambergris (Jeff Vandermeer) or New Crobuzon (China Miéville again) to mention only two.

Then there is The Killing Moon by N. K. Jemisin, which gives me the strong feeling that there should be more fantasy inspired not only by the cities of our modern world but also older history and pre-history. It probably exists, but I have missed it completely, with the exception of Love and Romanpunk by Tansy Rayner Roberts, which has a feeling for ancient Rome (and and a future reincarnation of it). And now that I'm looking for it I discover that Aliette de Bodard has written a series, Obsidian and Blood, set in the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan.

Neil Gaiman - Neverwhere China Mieville - Un Lun Dun Tim Powers - Anubis Gates

I'll have to keep my eyes open for more like this after reding Gujaareh in The Killing Moon, a city-state strongly inspired by ancient Egypt, but in another world. A world with two moons, and where there is strong magic powered by dreams. Dreams, and death. There is a special source of magic, dreamblood, that can be gathered from the final dream when the dreamer passes from life to Ina-Karekh, the land of dreams. This is very dangerous and heavily regulated, since taking dreamblood will also kill the dreamer. But on the other hand, dreamblood is used to heal the mind, and bring peace. In other lands this is forbidden lore, but in Gujaareh it seems to work well. There is almost no crime, and no doors or locks.

The story grows, from the personal problems of the Gatherer Ehiru and his apprentice Nijiri to something that threatens all of Gujaareh and its peaceful culture. We get to know some spies and traders, and the dynamics of the interactions between Gujaareh and the surrounding cultures. I'm fascinated by this world.

 Tansy Rayner Roberts - Love and Romanpunk N. K. Jemisin - The Shadowed Sun (Dreamblood #2)

This is the kind of story I put down thinking that I hope to read it again. There is enough substance in this story: complex plot, interesting and distinct personalities, and a rich depiction of a strange world. It's very well written, and Jemisin never overexplains things or breaks the illusion – but that is probably also why I had problems to actually start reading the book. When I finally read it it was because it got on the short list for the World Fantasy Awards and I decided that it was time to give it a chance. I don't regret it. And if I feel like visiting Gujaareh again I might pick up the sequel: The Shadowed Sun.

Charles C. Mann - 1491: New Revelations Of The Americas Before Columbus David Grann - Lost City of Z Aliette de Bodard - Servant of the Underworld (Obsidian & Blood Trilogy #1)

And I'll look up the Obsidian and Blood series. The next thing I would love to see is a story set in the ancient circular cities of the Amazon, described in 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus and The Lost City of Z – but not used as fantasy settings yet, as far as I know. The difficulty is the lack of written sources, which makes it different from what Jemisin could do with the use of Egyptian myths and lore. On the other hand I would guess that there is a lot of room for the imagination to play.

But Jemisin sets a high standard in several ways. Having visited Gujaareh I will not be happy with anything that feels less rich and textured.