The Big Idea: N.K. Jemisin
Posted on February 26, 2010 Posted by John Scalzi 31 Comments
Author N.K. Jemisin has a lot to be excited about today: Yesterday saw the release of her debut novel The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, and the book is getting the sorts of reviews, starred and otherwise, that most debut authors can only dream about (“Multifaceted characters struggle with their individual burdens and desires, creating a complex, edge-of-your-seat story with plenty of funny, scary, and bittersweet twists,” reads one of those starred reviews, from Publishers Weekly).
But in the middle of all of that excitement in the present, Jemisin is thinking about history: Who writes it, what it reveals (and what it doesn’t), and what it means for the people who have learn their history or be doomed by it. How does this tie into her novel? Well, I’m glad you asked. N.K. Jemisin is on hand to tell you.
This week, in my copious free time, I’m reading Charles C. Mann’s 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. It’s basically a dissection of the history that most US citizens learned in school, and some of its core fallacies — like the idea that the New World was an undeveloped, sparsely-populated wilderness before Europeans arrived. In reality, Mann explains, the pre-Columbian Americas had a population to match that of Europe — much of it concentrated in sprawling urban-centric empires like those of ancient Rome. And like ancient Rome, these New World civilizations thoroughly engineered the landscape, building aqueducts and roads and planting forests to optimize hunting, fishing, flooding, and commerce. (Did you know there’s a “Great Wall of Peru”? I didn’t.) It’s a fascinating book, though obviously not without controversy, and it seems well-researched and well-written. I’m not done with it yet, but I’m enjoying what I’ve read so far.
Why am I talking about somebody else’s book when I should be talking about mine? Because this is the kind of thing that really gets me going: hidden truths. History is written by the victors, after all — which means that beneath many historical “facts” lie counter-facts and conflicting events, illogical assumptions and unrealized motivations, all of which would shake us to our foundations if we ever found out the truth. Maybe. Because there are always those who have reason to keep the truth alive, often at great personal risk, even if only via whispered tales and half-remembered songs. And yes, via a few lies too, told maliciously or through ignorance. One person’s truth is always someone else’s heresy. This is what I decided to write an epic fantasy about.
Hidden truth isn’t really a new concept in fantasy, granted. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” (LotR) trilogy is basically the coda of a much longer symphony that most of its principals don’t know they’re playing. Discovering the symphony’s earlier movements (OMG, Uncle Bilbo’s gag ring is really Teh Ultimate Accessory of Ultimate Eeeevil!!) is a big part of what makes the story “epic”. Thing is, what makes LotR work for most readers is that it isn’t really about the whole symphony. Although the scope of the story widens as each hidden truth is revealed, it remains resolutely centered on people — the hobbits, mostly — who are ignorant/innocent of the weighty history that precedes them. And they don’t particularly want to be enlightened. Even as they discover the truth, they don’t really care about it beyond its effect on their everyday lives and comfort. With the revelation of the One Ring’s origins, their whole world has been knocked off its foundations… but all they really want to do is put it back the way it was, so they can go home and have a beer.
This kind of epic fantasy has always felt incomplete to me, somehow. Yeah, sure, there’s a certain mental comfort food in the idea of putting the world back to rights. But there’s always a part of me that wonders, which rights should it be put back to? Did the heroes make the best choice, or just the easiest one? Who gets to answer that question? But such questions aren’t easy to answer, which is why I think a lot of fantasy simply doesn’t try.
So. In The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, I start with a woman who isn’t happy with the world as it is. Yeine would like to go home and have a beer too — and she’s the kind of girl who would happily do so, though never to excess. (She’s very responsible.) That beer’s not likely to happen, however, because her kingdom is suffering through a terrible economic crisis and most of her people can barely afford food, much less beer. The reasons for this crisis seem simple at first: her people have offended the most powerful family in the world. Yeine’s mother, once a member of that family, committed the sin of marrying beneath her station — Yeine’s father — and the family disinherited her and blacklisted Yeine’s kingdom in retaliation.
Standard overthrow-the-tyrants fantasy plot, right? Well, no. In fact Yeine’s world exists in a golden age of peace and prosperity. War is strictly controlled and limited, slavery and child exploitation have been eradicated, starvation and illiteracy are rare, and all nations function at a baseline of technological and social sophistication so that none are left behind. All these wonders are the doing of a single family — the same family that’s tormenting Yeine’s people. Overthrow them, and the result would be anarchy, horror, and death on a global scale.
Or so they say.
But history is written by the victors in this world too, so Yeine spends most of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms trying to figure out the truth about her estranged relatives and the sources of their power. But what happens if she learns the truth? What if those truths could destroy the world? Is she really doing a good thing by trying to put the world back to rights? Which rights should she put it back to? And will she make this decision based on what’s best for the world, or based on her own selfish motives?
These aren’t easy questions, and although the first book wraps up Yeine’s story pretty solidly by the end, I don’t think I go for the easy answers. The implications of Yeine’s decision will impact her world for two more books, and the ultimate outcome… well, I’m still writing Book 3. But let’s just put it this way: in the end, no one will want to put things back the way they were. Mostly because that would mean going through the whole mess all over again.
(I, however, will want a beer.)
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s
Read the first three chapters here. Follow N.K. Jemisin on Twitter.
Very eager to start this one. After Guy Kay’s amazing Under Heaven I’m still in that “multifaceted complex edge-of-your-seat epic” zone.
Absolutley the best new Fantasy concept I’ve read all year and last year as well. You should buy this book. It’s amazing. Kudos to Orbit for picking a great new debut author.
The main advantage I see of ebooks is that it will be somewhat less likely for my to-be-read pile to fall over and crush me.
That said, this one’s going on the list. From the first chapter, it sounds fascinating.
As for Charles C. Mann’s 1491, I found it fascinating as well. If he’s right, the “New World” was literally a post-apocalyptic land, the apocalypse having been accidentally triggered by some of the peoples who eventually “won” it.
Really this needs to stop…I’m up to at least a half dozen books I’ve bought just because I’m introduced to them from this site. I don’t think I’ve even been lurking here for six months. I’m having trouble keeping up. Please, please, please stop putting up interesting books. My bank account will thank you. =)
My pre-order copy has not yet arrived, and I am sad. (I wonder if Amazon has sensed that I have, since pre-ordering, become quite miffed at them…) ;-D
I almost bought this last night for my Kindle, but was put off by the Publisher’s Weekly blurb on the Amazon site. Sounded like typical fantasy trope, and I’ve gotten tired of those books.
This is why Bossman Scalzi’s Big Idea is so wonderful. The author has a chance to explain what the book is really about. I’ll be downloading this one immediately.
Wow, this sounds fascinating. The initial idea sounds similar to one of the ideas driving something I’ve been working on, but this takes it into a very different, and very cool direction. Added to my wishlist…
Also… I’m with Laen. The Line Must Be Drawn Here!
I bought these book last week at my local B&N and it is objectively great. My wife concurs. Ms. Jemisin clearly knows what she’s doing.
I will say that while it’s the first book of a trilogy, it ends in a very satisfactory way. No cliffhanger-tune-in-next-year ending here.
Seriously. Go buy it and read it.
The book sounds like it may be good, but I am tired of authors needing to oversimplify Tolkien to throw into relief how much more complex they think their work is. Anybody who thinks LOTR is about putting Middle Earth back to normal has a bad memory or was not paying attention. To be fair I think this impression stems more from the fog rising off all the cheap imitations than it does from the original.
I DEVOURED this book. Read it in a single day, could not put it down. Hope she writes more…I’m becoming increasingly picky as I get older.
Sounds good, and yeah, I’ve gotta quit adding books to the list from this site. People ask me what I’ll do when I retire, and I’m telling them, “Well, for the first six months or so, I’ll read.” I’ll bet they think I’m joking…
(I, however, will want a beer.)
I, however, will buy your book.
:::Laura logs into Sony ebook site muttering ‘be there, be there, be there’:::
W00t. and it is… thanks.
Bought it. Reading it during my lunch break.
There is a rose that is famous in the High North. (This is not a digression.)
Gotta love that confidence in the writer.
Started to have to prioritize my reading order since I started following Whatever. Good thing is I am probably saving money buying books instead of spending it at the bar. This title is moving into one of the next three books I read. Buying it today and looking forward to starting it soon.
Curse you N.K. Jemisin!
I really did *not* want to stay up until 4:00 a.m. the following morning finishing your book, but I couldn’t help myself.
My advice to everyone else: Don’t start reading it at night!
Working my way through chapter 4 right now. Off to a fantastic start so far storywise, and I love the world that she has created here, but if I had to find one thing to pick on, it would be that only about 3 characters out of about 20 introduced so far seem to have any real motivation. But then again, that’s just me forcing a criticism out of it. I’m sure the rest of the book will breath more life into the characters and reveal what really drives them.
I has scored me this book!
But it is now night…and Gary at 16 says I should not start at night.
And I should probably listen to Gary since I have friends who depend on me hanging out in the morning and if I stay up all night reading, I will be like unto a zombie, come the dawning hour.
So regretfully, I must delay starting this.
I’ve had to sit on my hands about this book for three months, because my review will be published in SF Site in just a few days (was supposed to be in February, but there was a miscommunication on the release date, so it was held back). Nora was very generous in getting an ARC to me back in November, and I’ve been wanting to spread the good word about the novel all over the internet ever since finishing it.
Though y’all won’t be able to read the SF Site review until next week, here’s a capsule review I wrote for Goodreads and my own website back three months ago:
“An incredible secondary-world fantasy that combines living mythology with practical magic in completely unexpected ways. Yeine Darr has been chosen as one of the heirs of the Arameri empire, and must navigate the perils of court intrigue and the machinations of enslaved gods. Wildly original and gorgeously written, full of danger, sensuality, and wonder. An unbelievable debut by a truly talented author. Highly recommended.”
I read the first chapter of this on the authors website. Looked good. I won’t be able to buy it for awhile, though. Darn. But I will read the two other sample chapters soon.
I was just at Barnes and Noble and I saw a copy of this book on the shelf, and thought “didn’t I just see this on Scalzi’s ‘Big Idea’?” I checked with my trusty blackberry, read the little essay, and decided to buy it on the spot.
Publishers should be paying you for the marketing.
Looking forward to reading this and the other three books I bought…the latest in the never ending stack of books!
Argh…..trilogy. It sounds interesting and I may well pick up the first one, but…argh. It’s like going on a first date and the other person starts talking about how many children they want to have.
I don’t need to be convinced to buy the book it is on my shelf. I will start to read it next Sunday.
But in the meantime I enjoy to read posts like this one.
“History is written by the victors”
Is there anyone who can deny this statement?
Well done John Scalzi and N.K Nemisin.
Wow, scratch my comment @#17. Motivation aplenty the further along you get, and all of the disparate points made early on in the story really come together in a climactic finish. The woman’s prose is magnificent, and at least one of her characters is so engaging that I was actively hoping he would appear on every page. Fantastic read, best I’ve read so far this year, and I eagerly await the next book in the series.
mythago: I’ve just read it, and it works as a self-contained story.
Wow, synergy. I just read a comment on another site saying that they’d just finished this book and want the sequel NOW.
Granted, this other site was Tor.com, which maybe lessens the Wacky Coincidence Factor, but still. Anything Kate Nepveu genuinely squees about is worth taking a look at.
Leigh – 100k Kingdoms is an Orbit book. It’s getting a lot of good buzz all over the place. Deservedly so.
Oh, I just meant that Tor publishes Our Host’s books. But your point is taken.
Actually, I think (could be wrong about this) that Kate and Nora know each other from elsewhere on the internets, and the book probably would have gotten a review by Kate Nepveu even if it didn’t get written up on The Big Idea.
picked up 1491 on my way home and have The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms on reserve for when it comes in. Thank you for the insight into the thought process!
I do know the author from elsewhere but I would probably have picked up her book regardless because of the buzz it’s getting. And I will be reviewing it for Tor.com (yes, it’s an Orbit book! I reviewed _Acacia_ too and that was Doubleday! Publisher-agnostic, honest!).
Leigh, I think you will like it. And I hope you do.