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.