by Terence Taylor
Death has been much on my mind lately.
In January a friend asked if I’d heard about David Bowie as I let him in the front door, having just opened an email link to what another friend had called Bowie’s last video, Lazarus. I’d been composing a smart-ass reply in my head as I headed downstairs to answer the buzzer — “You mean latest, don’t you? Not his last…” only to realize that she’d said what she meant and the man who’d given me a key to the doors of perception with Ziggy Stardust was gone.
I found him when I was a closeted black gay Catholic schoolboy who’d been dropped from a lifetime on Air Force bases around the world to Jamaica, Queens. With his haughty stare in his turquoise jumpsuit from the phone booth on the back of the album cover, Ziggy looked as alien as I felt, and gave me a mask of ironic indifference to shield myself from a world that didn’t get me. His songs were my first introduction to a particular power in words that eventually led me to the inspiration for Bowie’s cut up lyrics, the books of William Burroughs, whose work inspired me to write.
From there to here, and all that lies between…
In April another friend texted “Prince is dead” and I immediately Googled to find that it too was true. My late partner of six years had worshiped his music and would have dropped me in a second if Prince had extended a hand. Carlton had exposed his complexity — I’d grasped Prince’s genius in music and movement from Purple Rain, but have friends who still haven’t forgiven me for dragging them to Under the Cherry Moon. Carlton’s love for his work spread to me as he shared his musical idol on LPs and bootleg cassettes of The Black Album. Now they are both gone. I can only envision my lost love dancing forever in an eternal club party presided over by Prince, Bowie, and an infinity of musical talent lost to us but not to God.
Screw harps in Heaven. God grooves.
Death came to mind again as I started N.K. Jemisin’s Dreamblood duology, next up on my stack of books to be read. Several of the many major protagonists are Gatherers, high priests of the goddess Hananja. Their spiritual task is the harvesting of dreamblood released at death while they ferry souls to a peaceful afterlife, a last reward from the goddess they worship. This process actually ends lives and Gatherers leave the bodies posed peacefully and marked as having been vacated in official care. Deaths can even be commissioned for ailing or aging friends or family, contingent upon their agreement at the Gatherer’s arrival. It is a ritual that goes horribly wrong in the beginning of The Killing Moon, an isolated event with deeper repercussions that eventually unravel a dark conspiracy using the Gatherers as political assassins while a greater evil looms.
I had been unfamiliar with Jemisin’s wealth of short stories before I’d read her first novel, and in the interest of full disclosure, I know her socially and had for at least a year before it was released. She’s what you would expect from her writing, brilliant, funny, with a sharply analytic perspective on the world. I’d heard about her first published novel in bursts, like missives from the front, over drinks and group dinners as she wrote it. When it finally came out I bought it at her first reading to be supportive. I made time to read when a job ended, picked it up and hungrily devoured The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, surprised at how much I enjoyed it for someone not usually a fan of Fantasy.
I’d read The Hobbit at age ten and loved it, had tried to read The Lord of the Rings at that age as well, but it lost me completely. Since then I’d enjoyed stories with magical elements or supernatural beings, but the domain of Fantasy in my mind involved convoluted and fey period tales of sword and sorcery that I’d decided since then were not to my taste.
Jemisin’s first published novel, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, was not what I had expected under the rubric of Fantasy. I ran to buy the others when they came out. Each book in the trilogy had its own path and power, intimately connected to the world of the first, but individual in whose story was told and how.
I loved them. When I bought The Killing Moon and The Shadowed Sun I expected the same or a similar setting as the first trilogy. Instead, I learned that one mustn’t underestimate her range of vision. The world of Dreamblood is inspired by ancient Egypt, but to me felt much like the world of the Book of the Thousand and One Nights by Sir Richard Burton, a world filled with lush fabrics, exotic foods, caste divisions, and strange gods. I’d grown up with it in a highly truncated one-volume copy in my grandmother’s house. Thanks to Project Guttenberg I now have the unexpurgated original ten volumes on my iPad, plus the six supplements, and am slowly working my way through them. The writing is wildly racist by contemporary standards — terms like “slobbering blackamoor” and “black bitch” get thrown around far too easily — but, like Lovecraft, the collection contains narratives of such striking interest that I overlook their obvious issues.
I have no such problems with Jemisin’s duology, where complexion can denote station or origin, but seems not to restrict the possibility of crossing class lines. In fact, the adjustments some characters in both books make to do so becomes part of who they are and why they make decisions that alter events.
I remain deliberately vague on plot details because Jemisin’s story construction is a large part of why I take pleasure in her work. To show her cards too early in the wrong order would spoil much of your enjoyment. I can say that she has a gift for deftly and quickly depicting depth in even minor characters, making the many deaths in these two novels all the more heart wrenching in that we feel the pain of every loss.
Even that of an apprentice and merchant at beginning of The Shadowed Sun, set ten years later — who we never actually meet — who die in the midst of a ritual of healing conducted by a young woman who becomes our protagonist, drawn out of the dream world (or more accurately, the world between dreaming and awake) by the sounds of discussion around her about what has happened. We feel her shock and follow the ramifications of deaths she feels responsible for, until once again, a deeper evil is revealed to be rising. In both novels, it is not the monsters on the loose that are the greatest danger, but the machinations of those craving power that create them, in one way or another, and unleash them.
In The Killing Moon Jemisin creates an antagonist — I hesitate to call him a mere villain — worthy of Hitchcock, a man so persuasive in selling his own narrative that there were times in the novel when he’s “monologuing” that I found myself saying, “well, when you put it that way, I kind of see what you… hey, wait a minute!” The first and most disturbing reveal of his true nature comes when he leads an intimate associate who’s betrayed him away from the others to a room where his killer waits, quietly explains what’s about to happen and why as the man slowly realizes he is doomed, and that it’s really best that he just let it happen as he’s left to fight for his life.
From his introduction, this man is artfully portrayed as “the most interesting man” in this world and is slowly and artfully revealed to also be a dangerous sociopath — if not outright psychotic — a fully rational serial killer who delegates mass murders and keeps his own hands clean. I found myself hanging on his every word, even as the full horror of what he said sank in. It is the kind of charisma that drives campaigns like Donald Trump’s, the allure of the truly mad visionary, the man who wants nothing less than everything, though Jemisin’s comes in a far more palatable form.
It’s often said that genre fiction reflects the age in which it’s written. I have come to believe that only the ones that do so survive and the others are forgotten. I think The Inheritance Trilogy and Dreamblood can survive the test of time simply because they so accurately reflect the widespread hypocrisy of our era. The ways in which she portrays the complexity of the layers of control her characters live under, even, or especially, with a regime change between novels, reflects the same calculating corporate and political policies that have crashed economies around the world and put 98% of the planet’s population at the mercy of the top two percent. Corruption is the mortal sin of this world, yet it’s revealed to be rife in The Killing Moon, and reinforced in The Shadowed Sun, much like our own politicians from Larry Craig to Dennis Hastert who rail against immorality, but fall to scandals.
I learned recently that though it was published after her trilogy, Jemisin wrote the duology first, a fact she’s discussed publicly herself. That explained to me why I’d been slow to warm to Book One until I got through the first third. The writing is skillful, but the build was slow and I felt the world being laid before me with each step. It took a while for me to see beyond the bricks that composed it as they were going down, but once built I was fully engaged. As I began the second novel, I was immediately struck by the increased ease I had in immersing myself. Book One built up to full speed, but by Book Two Jemisin had found the irresistible clarity of voice that sucked me into the trilogy I read first.
I enjoyed the stunning reveals and twists of The Killing Moon, but found myself actually gasping aloud as I read The Shadowed Sun, no doubt alarming those around me on the subway. Never has a book about death been so lively. The only good thing about finishing it was that I knew there was already more to read. So, as it turns out, I do read and enjoy Fantasy.
And it looks like I’ll be reading more.
Terence Taylor (terencetaylor.com) is an award-winning children’s television writer whose work has appeared on PBS, Nickelodeon, and Disney, among many others. As an author of fiction, his first published short story, “Plaything”, appeared in Dark Dreams, the first horror/suspense anthology of African-American authors. He was one of a handful of authors to be included in the next two volumes, with “The Share” in Voices from the Other Side and “Wet Paint” in Whispers in the Night. Terence is also author of the first two books of his Vampire Testaments trilogy: Bite Marks and Blood Pressure. After a two-year hiatus he has returned to the conclusion of his trilogy, Past Life. Find him on Twitter @vamptestaments.