“The Killing Moon” by N.K. Jemisin is set in a fantasy world loosely based on ancient Egypt. It has been nominated for the Nebula Award for 2012, and I can see why it’d be a favorite. The prose is gorgeous, and it is refreshingly different than many fantasy novels I’ve been reading lately.
This would be a fantastic book for sociology students to explore differences between cultures. Further, it’d be a great segue into a discussion of ethnocentrism, cultural relativism, and culture shock. There are two major cultures discussed in the book: Gujaareh and Kisua. The history of these societies is intertwined, and the cultures have both similarities and differences. One of the key differences is each culture’s view of magic. Magic is seen as essential in Gujaareh while it is seen as abhorrent in Kisua, as noted by one of the three main characters, Sunandi. She spies on Gujaareh for Kisua. On the other hand, the other main characters, Ehiru and Nijiri, are gatherers, performing an important role in their magic based culture, Gujaareh. Gatherers are the harvesters of souls. They see their role as an important and positive one. On the other hand, Sunandi and her people see them as murderers. This greatly simplifies Jemisin’s complex cultures and plots. You see all three main characters experience culture shock at various points in the book. Ehiru has been assigned to reap Sunandi, but after spending time with her, he decides that she is not actually corrupt. I loved this exchange between Ehiru and Sunandi towards the end of the book when he informs her that he will not be carrying out the sentence to end her life:
“‘See to it that you never grow corrupt enough to accept evil without losing sleep, however, or it will be dangerous for you to enter Gujaareh again…’”
She eventually replies, “‘Be sure you tell your apprentice, too, priest. He doesn’t like me.’”
“In spite of his mood, Ehiru smiled, ‘Nijiri has little experience with foreigners or women. You confuse him.’”
“‘And that which confuses must be destroyed?’”
“‘Or understood. But you Sunandi Jeh Kalawe, are a difficult woman to understand under the best of circumstances. You can’t blame Nijiri for throwing up his hands and deciding to kill you as the simplest solution to the matter.’”
This illustrates the difficulties of relating to people of radically different cultures. When are most dear values are placed under question, it may cause great discomfort. Yet, we have a choice to try to understand the other society or to attack it. This relates to the ideas of ethnocentrism and cultural relativism. Ethnocentrism occurs when we apply our own cultural values to another society. For example, if I, as a person living in the United States, travel to a place that eschews technology, I might be tempted to think of them as “primitive” or “backwards.” Nijiri viewed Sunandi’s culture as corrupt, as not peaceful. This can obviously be a two way street, as Sunandi also judged Nijiri’s culture negatively. On the other hand, cultural relativism occurs when a person tries to understand another culture from its own viewpoint.
In terms of stratification and inequality, the book also explores culture in terms of gender, social class, and sexual orientation. As a side note, I liked the fact that Jemisin looked at the love that can develop between a pupil and mentor, as well as how a person might use his (or her) power in an institution to gain influence over someone with less power. Also, I think that she explores a same-sex relationship in a beautiful way. While I loved Jemisin’s first series and recommend it, too, I prefer “The Killing Moon” in terms of exploration of culture and inequality. I can’t wait to read the second book in her “Dreamblood” series.