The Big Idea: N.K. Jemisin

N.K. Jemisin is has been on a hot streak for the last couple of years; her novel The Kingdom of the Gods was nominated for the Nebula Award this year, and its predecessor The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms was nominated for both the Nebula and the Hugo. That being the case, it’s not entirely a surprise that her latest novel, The Killing Moon, the first of two “Dreamblood” titles, is garnering starred reviews and other praise. So it might surprise you that the original idea behind The Killing Moon was maybe just a little silly. But as Jemisin explains, it’s not always just the idea, it’s what you do with it, and where it takes you.


I’m supposed to talk about the idea that touched off the Dreamblood duology here, but if I talked only about that, this would be a really short post. That’s because it wasn’t a very big idea, at least at first; really, I just wanted to write about ninja priests. Nothing grand or revolutionary, nothing especially thought-provoking, no gods or universes at stake. Just shadowy figures who would creep into people’s rooms in the dead of night and… I dunno, bless them to death or something. “Missed you at confessional today, Bob.” “Wha — AGCK!” That was how all this began.

But that’s the punchline of a bad joke, not a story, and fortunately the image that popped into my head to accompany it was considerably less silly than the idea itself. I envisioned a man — tall, shaven bald, remarkable in his stillness both physically and spiritually — standing at the foot of a bed and contemplating the person who slept there, whom he meant to kill. This man, this priest, would work only at night; indeed, night would be a holy time for him. And the clincher of his character was that he wouldn’t be doing it for some paltry material reward or to satisfy a bloodthirsty god; he would be doing it because he cared. He would intend only the best for his victims; indeed, he would be trying to save them from a far worse fate. He would love them. And what could be more effective — or relentless — than an assassin motivated by love?

This was the Gatherer Ehiru, protagonist of The Killing Moon, who spun himself in seconds from subconscious nothingness into conscious near-completion as a character. Once I had him, though, I had to begin the much more difficult work of figuring out what sort of society would harbor a man like this, and consider him an asset rather than a monster.

From the beginning I envisioned this story taking place in a land of warmth and water. I had a vague idea at first of placing it in pre-Columbian South America, possibly a fantasy analogue of the Incan Empire — but the place in my head felt much older, relatively speaking. It would be a society weighed down by tradition, I felt instinctively, and wealthy enough to support a large, powerful priesthood. It would be a civilized place, full of sprawling cities and temples, with an enormous populace and monuments huge enough to inspire awe… kind of like ancient Egypt. Since at the time I knew squat-all about ancient Egypt beyond what I’d picked up from many bad movies, I started researching it, and that only confirmed my choice. Egypt was perfect.

Next I tried to figure out why Ehiru — his name popped into my head too — would be sneaking into someone’s home to kill them. Obvious answer is obvious: for mercy. To ease pain or a lingering death. But that seemed too easy. Lots of societies have had to wrestle with how to care for their dying elders or deathly ill; none that we know of have evolved a cadre of mercy-killing priests. That suggested to me that there had to be something more involved. Something that would give the whole nation a stake in not only allowing but encouraging this priesthood’s activity. What could a priesthood provide that would benefit every citizen so much that they might be willing to sacrifice their sick and old…?

Health and longevity, of course, for the rest.

There are some obvious real-world inspirations here. Gujaareh is in many ways a land out of a Sarah Palin nightmare; every older citizen’s final days are decided upon by a literal “death panel” consisting of both priests and the person’s own relatives. Also, as an American I live under the constant shadow of worry that I will fall ill or get hurt during a time when I’m without insurance. For most of us that means bankruptcy at best, homelessness or a terrible death at worst. This fear peaked for me a few years ago, when I took time off 9-to-5 life to write the last two books of the Inheritance Trilogy — just as the housing crisis triggered the Great Recession. So although in day job life I’m a career counselor who’s never previously had much trouble finding employment when I needed to, I did that time. Oh, I had insurance via the Freelancers’ Union, for the “affordable” price of $400/month. (If I hadn’t lived in New York, where there’s a critical mass of freelancers [including writers], it would’ve been $1100.) But as my “writing year” ticked into 15 months, then 18, my savings dwindled first to dregs, then fumes.

I was lucky: I found a job about a month before I would’ve had to cancel my health insurance. But I know many, many people who haven’t been so lucky. And while in theory the Affordable Care Act might alleviate some of this fear (if it’s allowed to stand by the Supreme Court)… it’s not really a solution to the problem, just a small and ill-fitting band-aid.

But Gujaareh, the Egypt-esque land in which Ehiru plies his trade, has found a workable solution. In Gujaareh every citizen contributes to the system: they are required to make monthly tithes of dreams. In the hands of skilled narcomancers — the priests of the Goddess of Dreams — these dreams can be used to generate a kind of supercharged placebo effect, accelerating wound-healing and boosting immune response to nearly every disease. Wet dreams can be used to encourage abnormal growth — the regeneration of lost limbs, for example — while nightmares stop abnormal growth, such as cancer. But the most powerful dreams, which can ease the most debilitating mental or physical pain and extend life itself, is obtained only at the moment of death. That’s where Ehiru and his fellow priests come in… and that’s when I realized I had a real story on my hands.

I also had to figure out Ehiru himself, and the circumstances that drive him to kill people out of love; the priesthood that supports and controls him like a family, and the theological cosmology behind it; the political and economic pros and cons, and the kinds of hard choices Gujaareen citizens have to make; and most importantly I had to figure out all the ways this whole system could go horribly, horribly wrong. But I don’t want to spoil any more.

So I guess we’ll have to see which part of the story attracts more readers: the adventure and conspiracy? The magical examination of socialized medicine and its consequences? Ehiru, the loving killer? His companions: Nijiri the killer-apprentice, Sunandi the nation-killer? The magic system rooted in psychodynamic dream theory, the medical system based on the collective unconscious? The promise of a sequel which will come out in just another month?

‘Course, if it’s the ninja priests that intrigue you, I won’t judge. That’s what did it for me, too.


The Killing Moon: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read the first three chapters. Read the author’s blog. Follow her on Twitter.

20 Comments on “The Big Idea: N.K. Jemisin”

  1. Damn! She is on fire! I still have 100K Kingdoms and sequel bouncing around in my head, a year after I’ve read them. Will be grabbing this one post haste.

  2. My first reading love is fantasy novels, so this was a no doubter for me. I loved you Inheritance Trilogy, so I’ve been eagerly awaiting this one. Haven’t cracked it open yet, but I will by this weekend.

  3. Just picked up The Killing Moon on Audible. The audio adaptation of 100K Kingdoms was just fantastic, really looking forward to this one.

  4. the number of fine books and authors I’ve discovered through this site is fantastic. I am now the goto person among my friends for new books (flexing of nerd muscle). Its why I keep coming back. That and for the excellent snark. “Your hate mail will be graded” is a great “snuggle in bed read to your spouse and giggle” book. Now I have “The Kingdom of the Gods” and the “The killing moon” to get.

  5. News of a new Jemisin novel is always welcome. Must go visit Amazon now.

  6. If I have to die anyway, I have to say that ninja euthanasia would be the way I’d want to go out.

    Also, “Ninja Euthanasia” would be an excellent band name.

  7. I wonder how many tales of inspiration actually start at the second or third idea in the chain, because the teller doesn’t really want to admit to ninja priests. I think ninja priests are a fine idea. I once ran an RPG that featured kung-fu-monk librarians. Their acquisitions dept. was rather aggressive.

  8. I’m really excited for this book. I keep hearing great things about it, and learning how you came up with it just makes me even more curious. :D

  9. If I wasn’t already going to buy the next thing you did regardless, you’d have had me at ‘ninja priests’.

  10. Wow. Sounds like a cool concept for a fantasy.

    I’m mostly a sci-fi/cyberpunk/space opera kind of a reader. Lately though, with great fantasy like Game of Thrones on HBO, I’ve been itching for some fantasy to read. The recent episodes of Game of Thrones with the small glimpses into the exotic city of Qarth have me craving some non-western/medieval themed fantasy. The Killing Moon sounds awesome in that regard. I also dig stories that deal with dreams. This seems to be just the thing I’ve been looking for.

    Ninja priests are fine by me as well. After all, a man (or woman) of the cloth that kicks arse for the Lord (Bad Taste/Braindead reference anyone?) seems like they might be someone that gets into interesting and exciting situations. I wouldn’t doubt that something like The Matrix was conceived because gun-toting kung-fu hackers sounded cool and fun too.

  11. Carl Jung meets Ursula K. Le Guin’s own biting critique of zero-sum economics, The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas. Cool.

    The magical examination of socialized medicine and its consequences?

    The zero-sum socialized medicine that’s been promulgated and practiced by governments to date, at least. If U.S. health care is a terminal patient and PPACA is a tiny band aid, socialized medicine as practiced by most countries is a life support machine with a waiting line around the block. No one with any influence wants to address the systemic differed-responsibility lifestyle problems that let circumstances become so dire in the first place. Partially I suspect this is due to a widespread unwillingness to distinguish between superficial body-image politics and actual health concerns that effect quality, duration and sustainability of life, and partially because of health extremists that consider the only valid diet one that makes Kashrut seem positively lackadaisical in comparison and spread the malicious notion that if one isn’t eating perfectly then there’s no point in eating healthy at all (much like exercise extremists that look down their noses at anybody with the gall not to build their life around working out).

    As long as the “laissez-faire” zealots who think they’re living in a free market won’t touch socialized medicine with a ten meter catheter (sorry, ten yard catheter) and socialists won’t harness the power of markets to save their collective butt, I predict things will not much improve in my country or elsewhere.

    ‘Course, if it’s the ninja priests that intrigue you, I won’t judge.

    Come for the ninjas, stay for the psychocollectivized medicine, I always say!

    Incidentally the name of my next band: Psychocollectivized Medicine.

    @ gar

    the number of fine books and authors I’ve discovered through this site is fantastic.

    Tell me about it! I never considered myself much of a fantasy reader until I started reading the Big Idea segment.

    @ Linkmeister

    Geoff Brown, not to mention a natural mondegreen: “Ninja Youth In Asia.”

    Back when I was still in college – can’t recall where I first heard the pun – at Thanksgiving dinner with the extended family of the woman I was dating at the time, the topic of conversation turned to life and death (they were all Catholic) and then euthanasia and someone asked me what I thought. I replied that I’d never met any kids from Asia, but I was sure they were fine children. You’d think I’d hailed Hitler from the stunned silence I elicited. That relationship did not last.

    @ Craig Johns

    Ninja priests are fine by me as well. After all, a man (or woman) of the cloth that kicks arse for the Lord (Bad Taste/Braindead reference anyone?) seems like they might be someone that gets into interesting and exciting situations.

    Although ninja is a distinctly Japanese term for a type of stealthy assassin (and a guy on YouTube), fighting monks were indeed a very real phenomenon throughout medieval East Asia, from the Sōhei to the Shaolin, and they were very much religious conservatives of the Buddhist/Confucian variety. It was no less serious to them than it was to the Knights Templar who sold protection to Christian pilgrims or the Aztec warrior priests such as the Tlacochcalcatl (The Man from the House of Darts) who choose human sacrifices as tributes from subjugated cultures.

  12. Somewhat offtopic, but:

    i *loved* the inheritance trilogy, and so as soon as i saw this book was coming out, i ordered it from amazon … and i wanted to take the opportunity to say ‘thank you’ for the wonderful stories you have brought into my life. :)

    so, thank you. :)

  13. Now I shall have Echo & the Bunnymen stuck in my head the balance of the evening.

    Luckily, it’s getting late.

    In other news…she had me at ‘ninja priest,’ but she knew that. Nice of her to give further detail, but it wasn’t entirely necessary.