No, let me rephrase that.
One of the things I miss about not doing Emerald City is not getting to tell you folks in advance about the latest hot new writers. The buzz about N.K. Jemisin’s debut novel, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms [buy isbn=”9781841498171″], has been all over the Internet for some months. I have finally got my hands on a copy. I haven’t been so excited about a new writer since I first read Perdido Street Station1.
The people who write those tiresome “rules of reviewing” articles will often tell you that comparing a writer to another writer is lazy and should never be done. In the spirit of rule-breaking, let me draw a few parallels to give you some idea of what Jemisin has created here.
The world of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is an empire, though its rulers are too polite to call it one. Their court politics is every bit as vicious and depraved as you might find in Robert Graves’ I, Claudius. The empire is sustained thanks to a group of captive godlings who remind one rather of the Andat in Daniel Abraham’s magnificent Long Price Quartet, except that while the Andat are cool and rational, Jemisin’s Enefadeh have the bottomless hunger of Elric’s demon-sword, Stormbringer, and the sexual allure of Storm Constantine’s Wraeththu.
None of this is to say that Jemisin has somehow “copied” these ideas. Like any good writer, she has taken what is floating around in the fantasy zeitgeist, picked out ideas that appeal to her, and re-fashioned them to make something wonderful and new. Into this heady mix is thrust the Lady Yeine, granddaughter of the current not-Emperor, Derkata. Yeine’s mother renounced her non-imperial status to marry a prince from a small client state; but Derkata is ailing, and is none too impressed with his drunken nephew, Relad, or his sadistic niece, Scimina, so he has decided to name Yeine as a possible heir. Members of the palace staff are already taking bets on how long she will live. But the Enefadeh have plans for the new girl, and she’s not as naïve as she is barbarian-looking.
Because not everyone likes the same things, it is entirely possible that you might not love this book as much as I did. However, having being doing this book review gig for a few years, I am fairly confident that there are award nominations in Ms. Jemisin’s future, and at least one award that I think she has a very good chance of winning.
You might reasonably ask how I know such a thing. Much of it, of course, comes down to experience. I read something and my spidey-sense starts tingling. By now I have a good, innate idea of the sort of novel that award juries like. I also take note of who else has been praising a book. I would like to be able to point you to passages and explain why they are so good. However, experience as a reviewer suggests that the most likely result of simply quoting something you think is beautiful prose will be for someone else to respond that it is the most craptastic piece of turgid, over-written nonsense it has ever been his misfortune to read. And if I was smart enough to analyze the text and explain why it was so good I would be Samuel R. Delany, which I’m not.
I do, however, think it is worth talking a bit about what makes a good fantasy novel, and here I’m going to break another one of those rules and quote extensively, lazy chit that I am.
To begin with, a successful book of fantasy or science fiction is often one that engages the Sense of Wonder. What’s the point in having all that magic or high tech if it doesn’t cause people’s jaws to drop, eh? (No, don’t answer that, there are plenty of other ways to write a genre novel, but engendering a sense of awe is a very good one.) Early on in the book, Jemisin describes the city of Sky where most of the action is set, but she does so with a very clever analogy.
There is a rose that is famous in the High North. (This is not a digression.) It is called the altarskirt rose. Not only do its petals unfold in a radiance of pearled white, but frequently it grows an incomplete secondary flower about the base of its stem. In its most prized form, the altarskirt grows a layer of overlarge petals that drape the ground. The two bloom in tandem, seedbearing head and skirt, glory above and below.
This was the city called Sky. On the ground, sprawling over a small mountain or an oversize hill: a circle of high walls, mounting tiers of buildings, all resplendent in white, per Arameri decree. Above the city, smaller but brighter, the pearl of its tiers occasionally obscured by scuds of cloud, was the palace — also called Sky, and perhaps more deserving of the name. I knew the column was there, the impossibly thin column that supported such a massive structure, but from that distance I couldn’t see it. Palace floated above city, linked in spirit, both so unearthly in their beauty that I held my breath at the sight.
Those of you who are of an horticultural bent are probably thinking that this analogy would have worked much better had Jemisin opted for a tulip rather than a rose, but minor nits apart, this is a lovely piece of scene setting. It makes it very clear that the Arameri not-emperors have access to powers far beyond those of mortal man. Powers so great that they are indistinguishable from the sort of advanced technology you might find in an Al Reynolds novel.
Jemisin, however, goes one better than that. She continues as follows.
The altarskirt rose is priceless because of the difficulty of producing it. The most famous lines are heavily inbred; it originated as a deformity that some savvy breeder deemed useful. The primary flower’s scent, sweet to us, is apparently repugnant to insects; these roses must be pollinated by hand. The secondary flower saps nutrients crucial for the plant’s fertility. Seeds are rare, and for every one that grows into a perfect alterskirt, ten others become plants that must be destroyed for their hideousness.
Therein lies the brilliance of the analogy. Not only has Jemisin given us a beautiful image of the city of Sky, she has also told us much of what we need to know about the Arameri dynasty. The altarskirt owes its fame to a certain amount of luck in the genetic lottery, to a considerable amount of hard work on the part of its human servants, and to terrible sacrifice on the part of its flowery siblings. This is the sort of life into which Yeine is about to be thrust.
Another thing that we should expect from a critically acclaimed fantasy novel is a sense of responsibility and consequence. A novel can become a best-seller if it is purely about wish-fulfillment and consolation, but that won’t normally impress an award jury. We critics tend to think that we are made of sterner stuff.
All too often fantasy novels present their gods as a bunch of naughty schoolchildren like something out of a 19th Century sanitized version of Greek or Norse myths. Jemisin is well aware that if her gods created the universe, and everything in it, they should surely be capable of a little more than occasionally smiting people with angry thunderbolts. Just to make sure that Yeine is aware of the sort of beings she is bargaining with, the Enefadeh send her dreams about her ancestors. In the following passage one such ancestor has just carelessly asked the god of chaos to dispose of an enemy army, leaving no survivors.
At the center of the army, there is a sound. No, not a sound, a vibration. Like a pulse, except that it shakes the whole earth.
And then a black star blazes to life at the army’s heart. I can think of no other words to describe it. It is a sphere of darkness so concentrated that it glows, so heavy with power that the earth groans and sags beneath it. A pit forms, radiating deep cracks. The enemy fall inward. I cannot hear their screams because the black star sucks in the sound. It sucks in their bodies. It sucks in everything.
The earth shakes so violently that I fall to my hands and knees. There is a hollow, rushing roar all around me. I look up to see that the very air is visible as it flies past, sucked down into the pit and the ravening horror that Nahadoth has become. Kurue and the others are around me, murmuring in their tongue to command the winds and whatever other terrible forces their father has unleashed. Because of that we are safe, enclosed in a bubble of calm, but nothing else is. Above us, the very clouds have bent, funneling down into the star. The enemy army is gone. All that remains is the land we stand on, and the continent around it, and the planet beneath that.
This, then, is the sort of power that the Arameri have leashed and at their disposal. It is the sort of power that makes Dubya’s “Shock and Awe” seem feeble by comparison. And you know what they say about absolute power. To handle such forces requires a special sort of person, and to make the story of such a person remotely believable requires a special sort of writer. Jemisin has perhaps been slightly less rigorous in carefully checking exactly what Yeine says to her magical allies than Daniel Abraham was with the Andat, but that’s kind of excusable as there is a lot more interaction. Overall I think she has done a fine job. I hope you enjoy the book too.
(1) Yes, I know that Perdido was not China’s first novel. It was the first one I read.