Before I say anything about this novel, two disclosures and a warning:
First: N.K. Jemisin is a friend; we met at the Launch Pad workshop last summer, and we went to and hung out at WorldCon last summer too. I don’t think that baises me too much: I know a number of people who are excellent and wonderful like Jemisin, but I wouldn’t say nice things about their books just on account of that; but anyway, in the interests of honesty and disclosure, I figured it’s best to throw that out there…
Second: I am not a regular reader of “fantasy” literature. Much as I am slowly discovering there is greater permeability between the genres than I generally have assumed, and though I am increasingly making short-length forways into the genre in my own writing, I am far from up-to-date with what is going on in the genre as a whole. Just thought I’d highlight the fact.
Also: there are some mild spoilers in this review. Nothing that gives away too much of the plot, but some people are just big whiners, and I figure I may as well warn you now. If, like me, you don’t mind knowing the vague shape and content of a novel before reading it, you should be fine with what’s below.
Back in those heady tweenage days when I was still playing D&D Basic — before I moved up to AD&D 1st and then 2nd edition — I bought the final box of the original D&D series, which was titled Immortals. Reading through the rules, I kept asking myself, “How could someone tell fantasy stories in a fantasy world where so many of the major players are deities and demigods?” The boxed set ended up in the back of my closet, and then sold off to someone or other, because I had no idea what to do with it. (And, indeed, a few years later, when I grew elf-weary and dwarf-sick, I turned my back on “high fantasy” altogether, which is why this review is quite unusual; I don’t often have much positive to say about fantasy novels, fantasy novel trilogies in particular.)
Reading N.K. Jemisin’s debut novel, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, I finally see that the genre might have a few interesting things to say yet. I also see, suddenly, how a fantasy narrative featuring gods-as-major-characters (or even protagonists) could not only work, but could be the basis of a fascinating fantasy setting and narrative. I say this realizing that at the tender age of 12, I really could have gone off and read The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Mahabharata, or some of the world’s other great pantheonic mythologies and narratives.
The book, though, is more than just a story featuring gods as major players. Yes, it is a story, and yes, the character are mostly quite compelling, and yes, the setting is often gloomy, frightening, and powerful , yet also haunting and fascinating — especially all the deep backstory and cosmogonic secrets upon which Jemisin has built the world. There’s a wonderful set of clashing interests and powers, there’s a sense of an author breathing life into clay figurines and then opening the curtain to let us watch the bizarre show that ensues, and yes, there’s definitely a reason the book has been getting star-studded reviews all over the place. People who read fantasy will be well-rewarded by a trip into the gloomy halls of Sky, a gods-haunted imperial capital city ruled and populated by a single extended family so weird and complex (and dysfunctional) that one cannot help but watch, like the outsider protagonist Yeine, and cheer her on as she resists, survives, and searches for a way to fight back. It’s a driving narrative about a theocratic superpower, a country girl comes to the city bildungsroman, and a bloody good book.
I really liked and cared about a number of the characters, and found especially Nahadoth — a shadowy, powerful deity at the pinnacle of the divine cosmology, but who has been struck down very far — and the (mostly) human narrator Yeine quite interesting. Likewise, there are satisfying twists and turns to the interconnected mysteries that Jemisin sets up: a murder mystery, a theological mystery, and a mystery concerning her own identity, each with as many suspects as there are characters; a shadowy family history braided into the most monstrous of forms, and much more. All these elements — the threads of mystery, the interconnections between the characters — twine together, resulting in a very satisfying conclusion which, however satisfying, only amplified my desire to see more of Yeine’s world… especially the world that follows from the outcome of the novel, which is a heck of a thing for an ending to do, especially in a debut novel, and also exactly what Jemisin needed to do in the first novel of a trilogy. (In fact, I was actually annoyed because the preview for the second book in the trilogy, provided in the back of my advance reading copy, was so very short.)
But what I like about it is the level on which the book is also a meditation on fantasy and the fantastical imagination in the West, on narrative, on religion and power, family, and on self-definition.
On fantasy: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms describes a very unusual and often-surprising world littered with vastly different kingdoms all under the rule of one supreme hierarchic superpower, a family called the Arameri who rule the strongest of peoples around, the Amn. These bunch are, well… they’re interesting in a few senses, including the sense implied in the Chinese curse involving living in “interesting times”. One of the things I really don’t feel comfortable with in a lot of “classic” high fantasy literature is its baggage in terms of glorifying monarchies, empires, and theocracy — just like the fascist baggage in some classic SF. These are things that we revile in our daily lives as free citizens, with the (notable) exception of the rhetoric in popullar use in Christian churches.
Jemisin’s not alone in responding to this baggage, of course: a number of contemporary fantasy writers are apparently doing so, according to the buzz floating around these days, and the trends I can extrapolate from the work of fantasist friends. As with SF, fantasy was too long pasty, male, and Eurocentric. People are moving on. However, what I found striking about Jemisin’s response to this baggage is how her world responds to it by taking seriously the idea of a pantheon, of gods incarnate, of empire. She explores the baggage by taking it seriously, instead of imposing a modern, twenty-first century sensibility upon it. Thus the world of the novel feels strangely like the world one enters when reading the chronicles of the Greek, Roman, Hindu, or Norse mythologies (though, to me, it felt more akin to a Westerner’s reading of Hindu mythology than anything): gods and mortals mating, great deities and godlings fighting wars (directly as well as through mortal agents and in avatar form), and the Great Powers enslaving one another as the power plays in the sky finally panned out one way or another — divine or infernal, if indeed they can be distinguished. In Jemisin’s world, they often explicitly cannot.
The interesting difference, though, is that Jemisin fast-forwards past the Big Long Historical Wars and revolts and hagiographies and recoveries, past the tangling of the divine and infernal affairs and the births of the demigod bastard children, to point us to one obvious but (as far as I know) rarely-explored fact: that such a glorious pantheonic cosmology really could, or perhaps even inevitably would, lead to horrors we can barely imagine. Think of the worst evil humans have visited upon one another. Now imagine that human capacity for evil fueled by magic, divine power fueling a theocratic empire. As above, so below: one of the striking suggestions is that the divine pantheons, had they been literally real, would have ended up embroiling the world in genocide, slavery, colonialism of kinds barely imaginable to us, as well as in total war of a kind of absolute it could devastate the fabric of the universe, and the wholesale mangling and bestialization of the general human spirit.
(I mean, we do quite well enough making the world hell for one another when only stupid human conflicts are at stake. Imagine how much worse it’d be if deities had spent chunks of our history duking it out, too. It’d be like all of humanity were the people in places like Vietnam, Afghanistan, Korea, and so on, while the gods played the roles of the USA and the USSR. Not at all pretty, is what I am saying.)
To me, this was refreshing, a sort of modern response to the question of what would really happen in a world where Sauron was possible, and where there were no white and black cowboy hats for the gods to wear. What you get is a plain of all kinds of shades of gray, shifting and melding. The question that emerges then is the same question that emerges in adulthood, for us all, which is: how to self-fashion in a way that is responsive to the tangible, and compassless, reality we encounter, and which is still tied to one’s sense of self and one’s sense of values, without letting those values carry one down to the bottom of the ocean? How to be ethical in a world where ethics is constantly being renegotiated, and when one must, finally, create a self to go out into that world and take part in the negotiation, too? Not to give too much away, but the degree to which this novel suggests self-refashioning can happen, while still working with whatever you’ve got — the inevitable heredity, the inevitable past — is pretty astonishing. It also suggests that the degree to which reality and selfhood be mediated by others’ power, expectations, and demands is likewise quite astonishing.
It is difficult to miss the point that similarly, the Amn Empire, telling itself the same kinds of stories that imperialists in our own world have been telling themselves for ages, such as its divine providence, has been the agent of oppression, destruction, and violent “civilization” of the rest of the world that they have conquered. The point that Jemisin doesn’t quite come out and bang you over the head with — she seems to prefer narrative land mines — but which is implicit, I think, is that theology is, or can be, not just an essential part of the colonial enterpreise, but also in itself as essentially totalitarian as the colonial enterprise, period.
That said, what we see of the colonized world of the novel is mainly confined within the walls of the empire’s capital city, a place shadowy, dangerous, twisted, and frightening, for reasons that become increasingly apparent as the plot unfolds. Sky, the city of the gods, floats above the world, but in a sense it is more like an underworld — a tumor that ought to be buried in the flesh of the world, instead protruding up into the sky and disguised as a marvelous metropole. The city is ruled by one family, the Arameri, and littered with gods-among-mortals: it is, one could say, the Vatican of the novel’s world-spanning cult. Yet the city is not only ruled, but also populated wholly, by members of the Arameri family (however tenuously related, in the lower castes).
It is a harrowing setting, in fact a place that is fairly twisted and, by the ethics of anyone I’d consider sane, relatively evil. That said, Jemisin’s handling of the setting ensures that we can see how and why the city got that way: she does some really excellent worldbuilding and in the end, even though Sky remains in many ways horrifying and certainly no place I’d like to visit, the reasons why it is how it is are to some degree comprehensible — to me, as well as to her protagonist, a young Northern barbarian woman of (partly) royal blood named Yeine who, like the reader, experiences Sky as a foreigner. For some reason, as I read and found myself horrified by this part of Sky, or shocked by that tradition in the city, I kept wondering what in our world would look fundamentally evil to Yeine, what she would think of the fundaments of our world, what she would say about our own status quo.
There are meditations on a number of interesting themes, such as the discussion at page 300-301, about what life would be like in if the gods simply abdicated and “went away.” As a non-religious reader, I found this discussion refreshing, especially since I have never seen such a discussion before in a fantasy setting. (That may be because I don’t read much fantasy, but it’s also why I don’t read much fantasy.) It also strikes to the heart of the novel, since a lot of what is explored relates to (though this is never overtly stated in such terms) the totalitarian nature of theology, religion, and empire — and how intertwined they are. Of course, this raises important questions about the ending, but I’m not sure whether Jemisin is planning on resolving those questions. I can’t say more about the question here without giving the ending away, and I daren’t do that, so, well, just think of this passage above when you hit the conclusion of the tale.
If I may wax just a bit more analytic (or even academic) for a few moments: while Jemisin doesn’t go into any long rants on the subject, the book clearly incoporates on one level a postcolonial and feminist response the more staid and familiar type of fantasy narrative we all know, templated from Tolkien and used to print off hundreds of trilogies since. Jemisin makes her response to this body of work not through any direct commentary, however, but instead — and much more effectively — through very careful, thoughtful worldbuilding, by exploiting the traits of her world in such a way as to grate surreptitiously against the assumptions of Eurocentric fantastical imagination — the type which dominates today (at least in the vast majority of the fantasy I’ve read). In other words, instead of pointing out the limitations of more traditional Eurocentric fantasies, she simply shows you a broader world and lets you detect the gaps in your imagination that limit how you interpret her world.
One simple (but effective) example that I enjoyed of was the very simple entho-geographic reversal of North and South: in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, the North is the land of darker-skinned (“barbarian, in the case of Yeine’s homeland) folk, and the south is the land of the pale-skinned, “civilized” folk. This was a neat trick for me, one I appreciated since I had periodically to remind myself to reverse my orientation — a reminder of how very lazily , Eurocentric my own imaginary repertory, and that of a lot of mainstream fantasy, long has been. It’s a very minor point, and for all I know it’s common in high fantasy now to play this game with the reader, but for me it was a neat mental trick.
On the subject of Yeine’s homeland, I wanted to see Darr a little more, actually, because I wanted to see how a society where women do the fighting would, say, repopulate itself after a major war. That’s the one oddity I couldn’t quite figure out when thinking about Darr’s martial matriarchy. I imagine Jemisin has an answer to the question, but I couldn’t help but wonder anyway. I found it quite interesting how the Darre considered their retained “barbarity” something of a point of pride: as someone who is occasionally regarded as a barbarian himself, I tend rather to laugh at the implication, or get annoyed, rather than take pride in the label. Maybe I should, as a foreigner in Korea, reclaim one of their words for “foreign barbarian,” and take pride in it. Barbarians, at least, are free from the neuroses and sicknesses of a certain kind of civilization, as Yeine clearly demonstrates. That said, I also found it really interesting that Yeine’s people have not truly internalized the colonial order of the world: pride in one’s barbarism suggests awareness of the (usually pejorative) term “barbarian,” as opposite to “civilized,” yet the internalization of this pejorative sense is all but absent in Yeine’s use of the word. Anyway, I really wanted to see more of the differences between cultures, the differences between languages, the differences between races that are hinted at here and there throughout the novel.
Sexuality, too, is treated in a way that is less guided by the mores and ethics of European Christianity… let’s be honest, it’s not Euporean Christianity, which millions flounted, but Victorian prudery and American neo-Puritanism that Jemisin’s book sloughs and ignores like so much useless baggage. That ‘s probably more common in fantasy now, but anyway, but what I liked about it in this book was that the sexuality that permeates the novel ties together the empire, the humans and the gods, the gods to one another, and so on. (There are mild elements of yaoi in this novel, though it’s gods-scale and not so much salacious as it is outright cosmogonic.) Incest among deities is part of the world’s fundamental mythology… but then, gods–like the rich–aren’t really like us, are they? It took me a while to get used to the sexual elements in the book, especially their prominence, but that’s likely just because I’ve never read a romance novel before. There are definitely passages which read like (well-written) paranormal romance here — which isn’t my thing, but I didn’t find those to be distracting, as all those passages also are important to the advancement of the plot and worldbuilding, and reveal a lot about the characters involved.
Finally: family. That old saying, “As above, so below” certainly applies in Sky: the Arameri society living within the palace mirrors the society of the gods with which it is intertwined (in a fascinating way, incidentally): incest, fratri-/sorori/fili-/matri-/patricide, abusive relationships of all kinds, loveless pairings and loveless parent-child relationships, all make appearances. In a sense, the dysfunction of Sky and the darkness of the world of the novel amount to an intimate exploration of familial dysfunction — a dysfunction that extends to the scope of the pantheon’s theogony/theomachy (the creation of, and battles between, the gods), and the resultant cosmogonic manifestation of each at the very roots of the world we find ourselves exploring in the novel. In a sense, this book is all about dealing with, and fixing, an extremely dysfunctional family, and the theocosmic family echoes the aristocratic one, which echoes the world itself. It’s a very deft, fascinating setup.
And I have to say, for a debut novel, the ending is a goddamned homerun, and it even goes some way towards mitigating the one thing I didn’t like about the novel — the recurrent asides that Yeine, the narrator, engages in as she tells her story. (Jemisin’s conclusion at least makes it clear why her narrator so often reverts to those asides, though I still think the novel would run more smoothly without their being punctuated so clearly typographically and in terms of voice.) I won’t say more about this ending, even though there’s so much to say about it, because I can’t bear the idea of spoiling this ending for a reader. But will say that I was fighting to take mental notes as I was swept along, caught up in the action while I tried simultaneously to watch Jemisin cut the umbilical, tie it off, slap the novel’s ass, and hear it cry out, alive. As an author, she certainly has a grip on the practice of, in the famous words of Lester Dent on how to work toward the end of a novel, “Shovel the difficulties more thickly upon the hero.” But Jemisin also has a way of pushing everything so far beyond the limits you imagined that for the novel’s end, that you can’t help but shake your head and say, “Damn!”
Having said all that, I am obviously far from surprised at the positive reviews that the book has been getting all over the place. Jemisin’s done a wonderful job of putting together a bloody good first novel. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms comes out this February, published by Orbit, but Amazon will let you preorder it now. You can see sample chapters on Jemisin’s website, and if you’re one of the Early Reviewers at Librarything, the book is one of those on offer for freebies for the January list — on condition that you review it after reading it. Finally, check out Jemisin’s blog to see more reviews of the book, all of which are pretty spectacular, and her first blog post over at Orbit, which is about Power and Privilege in Fantasy.