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In a desert, on the shores of a long river with seasonal life-giving floods, is the city-nation of Gujaareh. It has very little crime and almost no signs of poverty. Its people die of disease far less often than do the citizens of other nations. The priests of the city's patron deity, the dream goddess Hananja, succor her people with the four dream humors, with which they can cure most physical and mental illnesses and remediate many birth defects. One of these humours, Dreamblood, is harvested from the dying: those who suffer because they cannot be cured by other methods, those who have simply outlived their time in the walking world — and those whom the priesthood have judged corrupt.

Ehiru, the most talented and respected of the Gatherers (those who collect the Dreamblood), loses control of one of his tithing operations and learns that something is badly amiss in his peaceful land. He and his devoted new apprentice, Njiri, find their lives entwined with that of Sunandi, a foreign diplomat accused of crimes against Gujaareh. Magic, dirty politics, and angst ensue. I enjoyed it.

Jemisin plays some games with U.S. cultural norms in this. The society of Gujaareh far from perfect, and as in many societies, some groups of people are considered better than others. Higher-caste people have darker skin. Women "are goddesses": for this reason, they are not expected — or permitted — to work at most professions. The sequel, The Shadowed Sun, delves more deeply into the issue of women in this society.

One aspect of the worldbuilding that I especially liked is that the neighboring country of Kisuati is Gujaareh's motherland. The two cultures have a number of aspects in common, still: for example, Hananja is also a goddess there, although she is just part of a wide pantheon instead of reigning supreme. This is a realistic situation that existed and still exists in many places in our world, but it doesn't come up all that often in fantasy.

 

The Killing Moon (review)

So one thing that I've found interesting is that the reactions of the reviewers of this volume and the sequel are often the inverse of each other. A number of the people who love Ehiru and Nijiri's (celibate male-male) relationship hate the heterosexual relationship that's at the center of the sequel, and people who find Ehiru and Njiri opaque and unapproachable are often much happier with the main characters in the sequel. It's rather interesting.

I enjoyed both books, and both relationships, and I think Sunandi is awesome. I liked the cultural details a lot and also the magic system.

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