The Dreamblood Duology is a book (two books you can find in one volume) you need to read. “Assassin priests” for real! When does that ever happen? Not only does that part of the cover blurb pay off, but N. K. Jemisin has built a world where it even makes sense. Gujareeh and the lands explored in Killing Moon (the first book of the Dreamblood Duology) and Setting Sun (the second book) are dominated by the magic of sleep and dreams, narcomancy.
Jemisin starts from the premise of a society like that of ancient Egypt, but for the fact that it is dominated by and founded upon narcomancy, sleep-magic that enables healing, manipulation of the soul, and other powers. The religion, run by a church called the Hetawa, is the center of life in the riverside city of Gujareeh and has a profound impact on the people’s lives in a believable way. Jemisin is a rock star of world building and character creation, and only after I finished Killing Moon did I discover that it was her first novel. She was so thorough in giving her characters independent motivations and desires, excellent arcs in which to grow and develop, that I thought it was the work of someone who had already mastered her craft rather than a newcomer.
The religious order and the city around it make fascinating parallels and divergences from our own world. I can see a fervent religion of magically empowered adherents saying “How can we eliminate ‘corruption’ in our city? I know! Let’s train priests as assassins and have them kill the corrupt people!” The motif of reaching for the hammer of violence every time a human nail appears is far too common in our own history and present for anyone to be skeptical of this. There are also hints that the Gujareen may mean something quite different by “corruption” than what a modern reader might believe is encompassed by that term. Jemisin uses this introduction to her world to guide us through issues including faith and power, oppression and occupation, the legacies and expectations of chosen families and biological ones.
She clearly draws on the experience of the modern world, our own entanglement in the Middle East (while much of the book deals with fictional politics, it is not a thinly disguised treatise on modern geopolitics,) the filters through which we see the world and perceive inaccurately both other people and the ways in which we can make the most improvements on the world around us. I’m particularly fascinated as the Duology addresses people with a great deal of faith (Ehiru, one of the assassin priests, especially demonstrates the effects of ‘strong’ faith on a person’s choices) and the effects of families (those who make the Hetawa their family, or choose other characters over their biological relatives, as well as the expectations of fathers (mothers are in the book, do not fit as prominently into this theme.)
Since reading Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy last fall/winter, I’ve been a little obsessed with her writing, and have quickly burned through every book of hers I could find. I’m loving the wild ride her books take my imagination on, and heartily recommend them to anyone else with even a passing interest in fantasy writing.