In a city where the soul is both a traveler and a commodity, death has a different meaning.
Each night, the Gatherers go out. They visit the dying, the incurable, the aged, the insane, the corrupt. The souls they gather are nestled into a good place in the dreaming world forever. The dreamblood they gather is returned to the temple for the healing of others. Children with the dreaming gift who do not join the priesthood go mad.
In principle, this is very idyllic. No one drowns in their own lungs: they get a good death. The ill are healed, the mad are contained, crime is non-existent. Peace, perfect peace. In practice, however, the checks and balances are weak. Dreamblood is necessary/addictive to the Gatherers. There are hidden political currents using the power of the priests.
This is the story of the Gatherer Ehiru, his apprentice Nijiri, and the outland woman Sinandi, and how together they are all working toward peace, against steep odds. It's a heroic story, full of wit and strong will and deep, compassionate love.
I was deeply drawn to Ehiru's faith and dedication. He is the ideal of believers, steadfast and yet willing to listen, and performing his tasks out of love and service. Nijiri also has love and service, but in his case it's a toss-up of whether he loves his goddess or his mentor more. The end result is the same. Sinandi is a spymaster, a poised and competent woman protecting her country.
Worldbuilding has always been one of Jemisin's strong suits, and this book is a great example. Although I recognized some of the sources, she wove the whole into an intact and beautiful maze for our characters to grope through. The setting, the gods, the religion, all top-notch. The action, once it gets going, is both interesting and a mirror of the emotional processes of the characters. As a story, this book is excellent. If that's what you wanted to know, you can stop reading now.
Parts of this book revolted me, like literally lip-curling recoil. While it is true there are a lot of deaths that I think people would like to get through faster and more painlessly, the priests are not always invited by the dying person. Instead they are sent on commission, merciful assassins. A committee evaluates the legitimacy of the commission, but isn't it possible to disrupt such a system? Sinandi calls Ehuri and Nijiri "The most pitiful victims of all, because they believe."
Sinandi says to Ehuri -"You kill, priest. You do it for mercy and a whole host of other reasons that you claim are good, but at the heart of it you sneak into people's homes in the dead of night and kill them in their sleep -- you do this and you see nothing wrong with it." I think I understand Sinandi better than Ehuri. Later, there is a character who is dying, but rejects the dream-death because, as she explains, life is suffering and good things all mixed up together, and to avoid suffering is to also avoid potential joy. I thought the Gatherers should hear that, but it didn't seem to make much impression on them.
Sometimes I want pairings for books, like a well-constructed cheese plate. You should read this with Bad Cripple's blog, and Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow.
Read if: You want a meditation on end of life and addiction issues, you are fascinated by the corruption of power.
Skip if: You are bothered by stories of merciful death. You want a potato-chip book. Although maybe if you are not me, you can read it on the ninja priests and court intrigue level.