Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Who We Are and How We Read: Rethinking N.K. Jemisin's The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

The Hundred Thousand KingdomsSeveral of us here at Fantasy Matters have read N.K. Jemisin's The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and really enjoyed it, and after reading Matt Rasmusson's review of the novel last week, two of our editors were inspired to write down their own thoughts about the novel.  Reading these reviews in conversation with each other is particularly intriguing, as it highlights how a novel can speak to different people in vastly different ways.  If you have read Jemisin's work, we'd love for you to become part of the conversation as well--post your thoughts in the comments!

Adam Miller:

Well, I did it again: I read a novel, then afterwards learned that it was part of an unfinished trilogy. This is my personal hangup, and it’s the reason that I was unwilling to start reading the Harry Potter series until The Deathly Hallows was released and remain unwilling to start the Kingkiller Chronicles. For high-profile novels, it's a relatively easy thing to do, but for newer novels that I’m unfamiliar with it seems to happens from time to time. The issue is that my memory for plots and characters is not stellar, so I generally feel like I have to re-read any prior novels when new installments come out. In this particular situation, it was an especially painful realization because I loved this novel and don’t look forward to waiting for another novel to be released. The good news in this case is that book two (The Broken Kingdoms) has already been released, and I only have a few months to wait for the trilogy to be complete.

I finished this book a few weeks ago, and have waited to write anything about it to let it steep in my mind. This was an extremely impressive novel to me in a variety of ways. I think the one that I realized first was the uniqueness of Jemisin’s world. I can’t think of a world that is at all similar to Jemisin’s city of Sky. One can certainly see inspiration in Greek epics like The Iliad, where gods and demigods interact directly with humans, but it’s such a deviation from that style that the similarities are almost not worth mentioning.

The other item I was struck by was how subtly and effectively the book is written from the female point of view. I have read several novels recently by female authors like Robin Hobb and Naomi Novik, and while I love their work, I don’t think of these novels as very different from other fantasy works written by male authors. Jemisin’s work is different. She doesn’t shy away from topics of motherhood or nurturing, but she doesn’t force these issues either. As a male reader, I found this technique engaging and very, very effective at getting me to think of fantasy literature in a new way. Before reading this novel, I would never have thought of those features as traits that I’d look for in a novel, but The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms has broadened my horizons.

I’d highly recommend this book to anyone looking for an exciting new voice in fantasy literature.

Kat Howard:

At one level, the categorization of a work of literature matters not at all.  The only thing that really matters is whether or not it was a good story, and good stories – like bad ones – can be found everywhere. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, by N. K. Jemisin, is a good story. And you don’t need to just take my word for this – aside from the Hugo nomination, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms was also a Nebula nominee, won the Locus award for Best First Novel, and was just announced as a World Fantasy Award Nominee. Not just a good book, but a major one.

At another level, of course, saying that the only genre category that matters is “good” is completely disingenuous. We as readers may not care about marketing categories, but we certainly care about reading conventions. We care about what sort of a thing the book is, because we use that as a short hand to decide whether or not the book sounds enough like our sort of a thing that we will want to read it.

So, first, what N. K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is not: a YA novel. Again, this says nothing about the quality of the book. Hugo nominators and voters have done very well in recent years recognizing excellence in YA and middle grade titles – see for example three of the five nominees in 2009: Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, John Scalzi’s Zoe’s Tale, and the winner, Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. But Yeine, though 19, is an adult in the world of the book (and in this one) and her story is the story of an adult woman. While there are certainly teen readers who would love this book (see above, re: good story) they are not the audience it is being written for.

Who, then, is the audience for this novel? Well, I would say that if you like complex political fantasy with a ruthless familial underpinning, a la Martin’s Game of Thrones, you’ll find much to enjoy in Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. If you like epic fantasy, but you are looking for something beyond the faux-medieval alt-European setting that is common to that genre, you will be pleased with Jemisin’s characters and cultures, as they are both well thought out and truly diverse. If you enjoy characters wrestle with morally complex issues in situations where there are no easy choices, only less bad ones, or a story in which both people and gods can surprise you with the depths to which they can fall and the grace they can achieve, I highly recommend this book.