Reading Challenge: Nebula Nominees Update #1

Remember my reading challenge? It’s time for the first update, N.K. Jemisin’s The Killing Moon and Mary Robinette Kowal’s Glamour in Glass.

To compare The Killing Moon and Glamour in Glass would be apples to oranges. They’re different styles of books with different goals. So it’s not my intention to pit them head-to-head, but since they happened to be the two books in the reading challenge that I tackled first I want to discuss them both.

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The Killing Moon

When I flipped to the back of The Killing Moon, I was pleased to learn that author N.K. Jemisin is a black woman. On the one hand, I try not to conflate any knowledge I have of an author with my experience reading their books. On the other hand, sci-fi/fantasy (and, let’s be honest, most other genres) is overwhelmingly over-represented by white, male voices, and it was really refreshing to know that Jemisin was coming from an entirely different world-view. I wasn’t guaranteed to like the book simply based on who Jemisin is. The one other black female sci-fi writer I’ve read (just one! I know!), Octavia Butler, gets rave reviews but left me cold. But I respect the need for broader voices in the genre and I probably anticipated The Killing Moon more because of it.

In a setting drawn from Ancient Eqypt and Nubia, the city-state of Gujareeh is founded on intricate system of religious magic. In The Killing Moon, Ehiru, a Gatherer (a high priest of the magic-religious system) goes through a crisis of faith, then discovers deep corruption at the roots of the Gujareehen state that puts his whole life’s work into question. His apprentice, Nijiri, struggles with the various tests inherent in becoming a Gatherer, the ultimate test being facing his complicated feelings for Ehiru. Sunandi, an ambassador from Kisua, the city-state Gujareeh came from, is the diplomat Ehiru and Nijiri are tasked to kill. She uncovers the corruption that lays Ehiru low, and struggles to save her city and her own life, all while discovering that Hananjan magic isn’t necessarily the vile force that has always disgusted her.

There is a glossary at the back of the book, and I highly recommend reading it first. As someone used to reading faux-European settings in high fantasy, it is easy to grow used to a certain terminology, and the Dreamblood terminology is completely different. That’s not to say the book is overly complicated, but it took me awhile to work out terms like shunha and zhinha and breezing through the glossary first might have helped.

The worldbuilding of The Killing Moon is extraordinarily in-depth, an intricate setting that breathes with a life all its own. It took a while for me to care about the characters and the plot, so transported was I by the exquisite detail Gujareeh is rendered in. But when I finally started to connect with the characters, principally through Nijiri and then later with Ehiru and Sunandi, I found there was much more to the novel than just vivid description and lyrical prose.

There are so many things about The Killing Moon that I loved. Celibacy and asexuality (seriously, how many fantasy novels feature characters that actually take celibacy vows seriously and keep them?). The young student idolizing his mentor and then overpassing him. Caste politics and intricate religious myth and practice. Characters who aren’t white (seriously, it’s so sad that this is a thing that has to be pointed out, but people do actually come in different colors, and fantasy is so whitewashed that any diversity is welcome). The ultimate identity of the Reaper and the secrets behind its making didn’t have quite the impact I wanted and the ending felt a little convenient, but I loved the journey to get there, and I can’t wait to pick up the other half of the duology.

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Shades of Milk and Honey

For me, Mary Robinette Kowal’s Glamour in Glass came as two books in one, because I had not yet read the first book in the series, Shades of Milk and Honey, though it had been on my list for a while. The concept of Kowal’s fictional world is charming if simple: an alternate history Regency England tinged with magic. Shades of Milk and Honey is an Austen-esque comedy of manners featuring Jane, the reliable heroine, navigating a number of complicated marriage schemes while learning more about her own skills as a glamourist. It was good as far as it went, but the concept started to wear thin after a while, and I worried that it wouldn’t be enough to sustain my interest for two full books.

Luckily, Glamour in Glass is a different book, maturer and deeper, that doesn’t just rest on the conventions of Regency novels. Jane and Vincent honeymoon in Belgium, where they confront common problems of young marriages (dealing with in-laws, learning to trust each other, family planning) and face outside danger when Napoleon returns and wants to use one of Vincent’s glamourist tricks as a military weapon. Jane comes into her own as she plots to save her husband, instead of fleeing to England as everyone advises her to, and while I’ll try not to spoil anything, I will say that the ending, while sad, was pleasantly unexpected in that I figured it would go an easier, happier route.

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Glamour in Glass

I’ll be honest, in Shades of Milk and Honey I found Jane to be somewhat insufferable, so confined was she in the role of “steadfast old maid,” misreading every sign around her. But in this second book she blossoms, and Vincent gains more depth as well, as his secretive past starts to come to light. I hope there are more adventures of the Vincents on the way.

This post is not a review, but if you got this far and are thinking “wait, where are the ratings?” here you go:

The Killing Moon 4.5 stars

Shades of Milk and Honey 3 stars

Glamour in Glass 4 stars

The next reading challenge update  a few weeks from now will feature Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon and Caitlin R. Kiernan’s The Drowning Girl. Given the quality of what I’ve read so far, I really look forward to seeing what these two have to offer.

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