N.K. Jemisin's Hundred Thousand Kingdoms: An Original and Accomplished Fantasy Novel
Orbit has fast become one of my favorite fantasy publishers, and they've started off this year by bringing a very interesting and dynamic first novel to readers: N.K. Jemisin's The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, book one of the Inheritance trilogy. The protagonist, Yeine Darr, is one of the most compelling I've read in recent years, and Jemisin quickly embroils her in a complex political situation. Darr is summoned to the city of Sky after her mother's mysterious death. There, the king names her one of the heirs to the throne, putting her into conflict with cousins she's just met. Complicating matters, the rulers of this world harness the powers of gods and goddesses...and they are as shifty and contradictory and real to the reader as the other characters. Darr tells her story in deliberate fits and starts, from some point in the future, and this approach allows Jemisin to include effective and vivid stories within stories that not only entertain but give the reader important information about both the world the author has created and also Darr's place in it.
What most impressed me about the novel is Jemisin's ability to show the reader real human emotion and depth in her characters without descending into sentimentality. Equally impressive is her ability to convey the particulars of a complex political and social situation in a clear and concise way without being didactic. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is an auspicious start to Jemisin's career.
I recently interviewed Jemisin via email to talk about the novel. You can find out more about the author at her website, including links to her short fiction, which has been published by, among others, Strange Horizons and Clarkesworld.
Amazon.com: Can you describe for readers where you are while you're answering these questions?
N.K. Jemisin: I'm in the tiny little room that I use as an office, but which I pretentiously call my "study", 'cause I'm an author and using that word makes me feel important. On either side of me are massive Ikea bookshelves, some of which are stacked two deep with books. Books are my vice; I buy them when I won't let myself buy any other luxuries. There's also my desk, which has several piles on it: books-to-read, which at the moment is 15 deep; manuscripts that need work or putting away (short stories I haven't revised, a copyedit of my last novel, etc.); contracts and business stuff; printer paper and recyclables. A coaster, for coffee cups, has a permanent place of honor here. Oh, and my laptop, which I'm using to type this.
Facing my desk is my first rejection letter, which is framed--I think it's from 1998 or so. Not sure because it's a form letter, with no date. I used to look at that letter to motivate myself, because it would piss me off, and nothing gets me going like being pissed off. I would think, "OK now, I know I'm a better writer than some of the folks I've seen published. So the problem must be that I'm not writing what the market wants. Simple problem, simple solution: if I just keep writing books, I'll eventually write one that will sell." These days, I look at the letter and feel smug, because I was right. It's not schadenfreude, exactly, because the book that earned that rejection letter was actually pretty bad. But it makes me feel good to see how far I've come.
Amazon.com: How long have you been writing, and is The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms your first attempted and published novel, or were there other novels before this?
N.K. Jemisin: I've been writing since I was a child. My father claims I used to tell stories as a toddler, complete with "the end", but I don't think I wrote them down 'til I was around 9 or 10 years old. I "self-published" my first book using cardboard wrapped in construction paper for the hardcover, with yarn binding. The title was "Horror of a Holocaust: How Dogs and Cats Started Hating Each Other and Forgot How to Talk". It was a political cautionary tale! The cat-and-dog civilization destroyed itself in nuclear war because they couldn't resolve their differences! If we humans don't get our stuff together, we might end up as furry mute pets of some future species too! Can you tell I grew up on old Star Trek and The Twilight Zone?
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms isn't the first novel I've attempted to publish. I tried three or four before it -- I say "three or four" because I actually wrote The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms twice. The first time was about ten years ago; it had the same basic concept but was executed very differently (third person, for example, versus the first person of the current version). It didn't sell, though, and I couldn't even get an agent with it, though I did get some encouraging rejections. So I trunked it, then went off and wrote two other novels, got an agent, attended some workshops, joined a writing group, and just generally spent a lot of time working on my skills. Then one day I went back and looked at that old trunked novel, and realized it really did have potential--but man, did the execution stink! So as an experiment I tried reworking it using some of the techniques I'd mastered in the decade since, changing this and that just to see how it affected the story. I got a little wild with it, writing in this semi-epistolic, semi-stream-of-consciousness mode that I'd never tried before--but hey, it was a trunked novel, not like I could hurt the thing.
I was so pleased with the result that I kept going. After awhile I sent the first hundred pages to my agent and asked if she thought there was any hope of getting something with such an weird style published. She called me back and demanded to know how soon I could finish it. I was floored.
Amazon.com: Can you describe your typical writing week. Where do you write, when, and how does a novel come together for you?
N.K. Jemisin: Generally I write a big long outline at the start of a new project, carefully laying out important characters and themes and an overall breakdown of the plot. Then I ignore it and start writing! The outline is useful, really--for giving me a general direction to travel in, and for reminding me of where I want to go whenever I hit a snag. But I'm not slavishly adherent to it. Right now, for example, I'm in the middle of revising the outline of the third book of the Inheritance Trilogy, because I've decided to switch point of view characters. So although generally I write 2,000 words a day, I've taken the past week off to read what I've written so far and reassess the direction I planned to go. I'll write the new plan down to clarify my thoughts, then I'll resume forward progress in a few days.
Amazon.com: Does your job as a counseling psychologist inform your fiction?
N.K. Jemisin: Yes, very much. In particular I find I'm influenced by classic psychodynamic theory--Freud, Jung, all the old guys--and modern identity development theory--Gilligan, Helms, Chickering, folks most people have never heard of. I don't plan to insert all this stuff, note; it just shows up. In The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, for example, a reviewer pointed out that the three central gods of the story's cosmology correspond roughly to the Id, the Ego, and the Superego. Wasn't at all what I intended, but when I thought about it, she was right. Stuff like that surprises me all the time.
Amazon.com: Did you originally conceive of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms as the first book in a trilogy? And why do you think so many fantasy series take the form of trilogies?
N.K. Jemisin: As for whether I originally planned this as a trilogy: it's complicated! With the ten-years-ago version, I'd actually outlined and partially wrote a prequel and sequel, though I trunked them when the first book didn't sell. But when I revamped this book, I hadn't quite gotten around to revamping the followup books when suddenly the book deal happened! So I definitely intended for this book to have at least one followup--because there's a big unresolved question at the heart of the story, even though each book has a discrete plot and more or less stands alone. It became two followups because I realized I couldn't resolve that question too quickly. I thought the story deserved something better than a hasty wrap-up.
As for trilogies in general: I think trilogies are good business, but not always good fiction. They're good business because writers can use them to build a following--sort of a live-action way of mimicking the "if you liked ___ then you might like ___ " feature of any online store. "If you liked Book 1 of the Blah blah blah Trilogy, you'll love Books 2 and 3!" And readers probably will, since it's the same author writing in the same universe, usually with the same characters.
The thing is, trilogies have become kind of predictable, as a result. The first book is always a rollicking adventure with a satisfying-but-ominous ending; you know the heroes aren't done yet. The second book is usually darker, as the heroes discover just how bad the Big Bad is and suffer some setbacks. The third book usually features a bigger cast and lots of stuff blowing up, along with an even more satisfying ending, free of ominousness. There's really nothing wrong with this; sometimes readers *want* predictability. It's an emotional roller-coaster--you can see all the curves coming, but they're fun anyway. But sometimes readers want something different, and it's hard to give them that within a traditional trilogy structure.
I think that's why I decided to go with something a little atypical for the Inheritance Trilogy. Each book is essentially a standalone--it helps to know what happened before, but each one has a different protagonist with her or his own character arc. Each is actually written in a slightly different style, and is actually a very different kind of story. The first book was sort of a gothic mystery: what's going on in this weird place, and what's wrong with all these people? The second book is more of a traditional urban fantasy: experience this beautiful, terrible magic city along with one of its inhabitants as she copes with strange events. The third book is shaping up to be the most typically epic-fantasy of the three, with a big cast and a plucky hero and a pyrotechnic showdown. I love having the freedom to play with all these different storytelling forms.
Amazon.com: What¹s the secret to creating gods who are both larger-than-life and yet feel real?
N.K. Jemisin: Well, putting them through hell seems to do the trick! I think we instinctively tend to empathize with any character, even a powerful one, once we realize they're capable of suffering. I recently heard an anecdote about a robot that was being put through some kind of testing range. The robot got torn apart but kept going, eventually crawling along, and the test observers got so emotional about it that they asked the testers to put it out of its misery. The observers might have been joking, might've been serious, and the whole anecdote might be somebody yanking my chain--but I kind of believe it actually happened. That kind of empathy is common to human beings--with the possible exception of sociopaths--and it's a writer's job to, well, manipulate that.
Amazon.com: What¹s personal to you about the gods Nahadoth and Sieh? And what do you find most interesting about them as a writer?
N.K. Jemisin: Nobody ever asks about Kurue and Zhakkarn! Goddesses get no respect, I'm tellin' you. I created the four Enefadeh (enslaved gods) as a set, and all of them represent realistic reactions to slavery. Two of them endure, two of them fight back. Kurue, the leader of the group, is also the most "human" of them--she's resigned to her situation and has adapted for the most part, but she's still deeply angry and resentful about it. She resists, but not openly. Zhakkarn is the most alien and "godlike" of the group; she adheres to her nature as the goddess of battle no matter what, even in moments of great compassion or sorrow. She does whatever is necessary to help them all get through--resistance if she can, submission if she must. This battle is for survival, and she's a good soldier through and through.
Nahadoth and Sieh are the two who openly fight back, and I guess that's why so many readers empathize with them the most. We all like to think we'd fight back, if we ever found ourselves in a similar situation. But in truth it takes both "endurers" and "fighters" to survive under those kinds of horrible conditions; neither can make it without the other.
Amazon.com: As interesting as the deities are in your novel, the character of Yeine Darr is even more fascinating. She¹s thrust into a volatile political situation that might cost her her life. She¹s also fully three-dimensional, in terms of not being just one thing. Did you have a kind of compass, for lack of a better word, for her character?
N.K. Jemisin: Yeine is angry. She enters the story angry, because her mother's dead and anger is a typical reaction to grief, though in this case she also suspects her mother was murdered. When she's summoned to Sky and plunged into the contest to succeed her grandfather, it does throw her for a loop. She's not interested in ruling the world; she just wants to go home, and she knows these crazy people will never let her do that. The whole situation is so completely unfair, so insane, so frightening, that her anger becomes the only lodestone she can follow. So she commits herself to that anger: no matter what else happens, she's going to give her mother's death meaning. She's going to take control of whatever part of her life she can. She may be stuck in an unwinnable situation, but she's going to give the world hell before it takes her out.
Amazon.com: With regard to the political situation, did you have any historical periods in mind as partial templates?
N.K. Jemisin: The specific time-period that I had in mind as I created the world of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms was the Enlightenment--the time when Western society's golden age was fueled by the worst of colonialism for the rest of the world. So many great things came out of that period of history, yet much of that progress was paid for by genocide, the wholesale destruction of civilizations, and the enslavement of millions. And much of this horror was inflicted, ostensibly, for a good cause--saving the souls of the savages, spreading civilization or democracy, and so forth. So it wasn't difficult to imagine what might happen to a fantasy society if one group of people gained a similar ability to impose its "good cause" on the rest of the world. Good things would happen, but so would terrible, nightmarish things. So I tried to address all of that.
Amazon.com: Have you finished the second book? How does it feel different to you than the first?
N.K. Jemisin: Yes, The Broken Kingdoms is finished and in the production pipeline. The first book took place almost exclusively in Sky, the palace of the elites who rule the world. The second book will be set in Shadow, the city beneath Sky, ten years after The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. As the world begins to transform in response to the events in the previous book, the story focuses on Oree, a young blind woman who gets herself embroiled in cosmic and political trouble when she takes pity on a homeless man she finds behind her house. The first book's readers will know exactly who this homeless man is, but she doesn't--and unfortunately, what she doesn't know can hurt her.
It's a very different story, in part because it's in such a different setting. In the city of Shadow, godlings walk the streets among mortals. Some have joined mortal society by going into business, offering magic in exchange for money or worship or love. Some prey on mortalkind, figuratively or literally. Oree is a typical city dweller, taking all this strangeness in stride -- but she's also an artist, uniquely engaged with the strange world she finds herself in. Gradually the reader will realize she's pretty darned strange herself. Still, compared to the company she finds herself keeping, she's the closest thing to normal readers will see. Several familiar characters will put in an appearance, note, including Yeine, Sieh, Nahadoth and T'vril. But the story's not really about them this time.
Amazon.com: I know your book¹s just come out, but I wonder if you could share what the reality of being a first-time novelist has been like so far as compared to your expectations or imagining of the experience?
N.K. Jemisin: There's a lot more "business" to the business now. I'm spending more time thinking about promotion and sales statistics and contracts and distribution/supply chain models than I ever dreamt I would. A lot of this is fascinating to me, because I'm finally beginning to understand the "big picture" of the business. But it's also been tough to find the right balance between the creative side of my work and the business side. I can't neglect one or the other if I want a long-term career, so I've still got to figure that part out.
Amazon.com: Are there any other projects you¹re working on that you¹d like to tell us about?
N.K. Jemisin: At the moment I'm hard at work on Book 3 of the Inheritance Trilogy, which I'm tentatively calling Kingdom of Gods. (I'm not all that great at titles, so I tend to change them often!) This book focuses on Sieh, the trickster child-god first introduced in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, who suddenly and inexplicably begins to grow up at the beginning of the book. So the story is in part a coming-of-age tale--for being who's already several billion years old. He's very put out about having to go through puberty again, and he's got to deal with both the Arameri and drama in his own family on top of this. It's a lot of fun.
After that's done, I'll probably work on short stories for a little while, because I haven't done that in ages and I really need to stretch the ol' shortfic muscles. But the next novel project I want to work on is a YA "cybergoth" story--dunno what else to call it; it doesn't feel like typical cyberpunk--that I'm tentatively calling Archetype. I'll have to play with that one to see how it goes.