I blame Austin Powers.
Now, in the more innocent (ahem) times B.A.P. the makers of the Bond films and their imitators felt quite happy to crank out the same old formula revolving around sex, violence, weak innuendo, and the fundamentally essential work of maintaining a world order with heterosexual white men at the pinnacle. Then along came Mr. Myers and, if nothing else, took the weak innuendo off the table.
And that killed Bond, or at least the Roger Moore, Piers Brosnan, raised-eyebrow ‘cunning linguist’ incarnation. Without the figleaf of more or less ironic humour the latent misogyny and racism of the series had nothing to hide behind. It took the Bourne films to show the way to do secret agents in a P.A.P. world. Less of the jokes and the sex, more of the monosyllabic violence, and you’ll get to keep your world order as it is. The antidote to parody is grit, because while parodists can happily lampshade the more coercive aspects of Bond’s traditional seduction techniques, they’re less willing to tackle the straight-up tortures, murders, and rapes.
Actually, scratch that. The tortures and murders are fine. Fertile ground for comedy, those. Rape and violence against women, not so much. At least not if you want to make money out of it; you can implicitly endorse the attitudes leading to them, but woe betide anyone seen overtly playing them for laughs.
Grit isn’t really an antidote to parody, then, but more of an attempted vaccine. Parody-proofing by making things so unpromising as source material for comedy that no satirist wants to touch the stuff. And thus we end up with the current Bond incarnation and his more ‘complicated’ relationships with women and take on gender politics (though in fairness, for my money Daniel Craig’s Bond is the closest any incumbent of the role has got to the books since Timothy Dalton. Because as written Bond is a screaming, gaping arsehole of the first degree, and thus the Craig-era Bond films are not so much a reboot as a more faithful reinterpretation of the original source material).
Which is all by way of saying that the two books I was most reminded of whilst reading The Killing Moon were Small Gods and Pyramids.
This is the highest of High Fantasy; kings and ambassadors, High Priests and humble men of royal blood. It’s very good, I have to make that perfectly clear. But it’s also clearly something of a reaction to those trends towards grimdark grittiness prevalent in the wider genre. This means that here you get: genuinely engaging and proactive characters of both genders; sex and violence that are mainly threatened instead of depicted, and that which is depicted is mostly done so off-screen; only a single white character in the book (who, blessedly, isn’t the Chosen One leading everyone else to their destinies); and a well-realized world which is defiantly not medieval Europe with a lick of paint. Everything, in fact, that we should be seeing more of – yet my first point of reference was Terry Pratchett.
Jemisin plays it all with an incredibly straight bat – there are no little genre-savvy asides or self-conscious references. The decision to get by on quality of storytelling alone is actually quite a brave one; that figleaf of cautious irony is conspicuous by its absence. It’s definitely a decision that pays off but still, every time Nijiri appeared on the page I couldn’t help but think of Pteppic.
I don’t quite know where I’m going with this. Some things can’t be unseen, I suppose. I’m not a huge fan of Fantasy, though obviously I enjoy it on occasion. By far my largest exposure to the genre has been through the Discworld and I guess I’ll have to make my peace with the fact that’s going to colour everything else I read. But if a book can stand comparison with that and survive then it must be doing something right. The Killing Moon can and does and is. Recommended.