Roundtable: N. K. Jemisin

Karen Burnham

Welcome to this panel on up-and-coming author N. K. Jemisin. Her debut fantasy novel has been nominated for six awards so far this year, including the Hugo, Nebula, and Tiptree awards. Last weekend (after this panel was concluded) we learned that The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (HTK) won the Locus Award for Best First Novel. Last year her short story “Non-Zero Probabilities” was also short-listed for the Hugo and Nebula awards, and she’s had short fiction appear in venues such as Clarkesworld and Strange Horizons since 2005.

We have four panelists to discuss Jemisin’s career to date. First up is Siobhan Carroll, a professor at the University of Delaware who also writes short fiction. Next we have Jeffrey Ford, teacher and winner of World Fantasy Awards.  Maureen Kincaid Speller is an editor, academic, and critic. We’re also joined by multiple-award winning Rachel Swirsky.

As always, this discussion is broken up into multiple pages for ease of reading. If you’d like to read it all on a single page, select ‘View All’ from the drop down menu above. If you don’t see the drop down menu, please click here.

Could the panelists start by talking a little bit about how you first discovered Jemisin’s writing and what you’ve read so far?

Siobhan Carroll

My first introduction to N.K. Jemisin was the free copy of HTK that I picked up at ICFA. I was astonished to find out that HTK was a debut novel, because Jemisin’s characterization of the dead/mentally-shattered Yeine was so masterfully done. I’ve seen fragmented first-person before, and while it often reads beautifully, I think it’s difficult for a reader to identify with a narrator who is as confused as Yeine is here. Yet it was precisely Yeine’s voice that drew me in and made me want to read more about the world Jemisin had created.

Since then I’ve read The Broken Kingdoms (TBK) and several of Jemisin’s short stories. Donating that free copy was a smart move on Orbit’s part — they’re going to sell a lot of Jemisin books to me because of it.

Rachel Swirsky

Well, one reason HTK may read so smoothly for a debut is that Jemisin had written a number of novels before then. I know that’s not uncommon, but I hope we get to read some of the ones that never found a publisher.

I started reading her work after hearing her talk on a Wiscon panel–she’s extremely eloquent and I was unsurprised to find that her writing is also really smart and interesting. She sent me a number of her short stories for consideration when I was editing the reprint market PodCastle; we ended up broadcasting “Red Riding Hood’s Child” which is a very dark retelling of the folktale that has some themes in common with HTK. (PodCastle has run several more of her stories since.)

Jeffrey Ford

I’d met Ms. Jemisin in New York a couple of times at different readings, just in passing or in a group of other people.  At first, I had no idea she was a writer.  I knew her name was Nora, that was about it.  Then, I think it was at a reading for the Interfictions 2 anthology, where in a group of people someone mentioned she had a book coming out.  Later on, I asked, I think it was Rick Bowes, if he’d ever read her fiction, and he told me she was a terrific writer and definitely worth checking out.  OK, I squirreled that info away in my head and figured I’d run into her stuff some day.  Then months passed, and I started reading on the internet about a new novel, an epic fantasy, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms.  It was by this writer, N. K. Jemisin.  I had no idea this was the same person.  The book sounded interesting, and I’d been thinking about checking out some more “traditional” fantasy as it seemed there was a whole new crop of writers doing really interesting things in this field, like Patrick Rothfuss and Scott Lynch, being two.  The descriptions of the book were pretty fascinating.  “Epic” or “High” fantasy, I’m not sure what it’s called now, was never really my first choice in Fantastic Lit., but I do like to read outside my favorite areas from time to time if just to mix things up.  I figured I’d try this book because why mess around with anything else when you can get a Hundred Thousand Kingdoms instead of just one or two. The book’s cover appealed to me as well.  Somewhere between my deciding to get the book and actually getting it, I saw on the internet a picture of the author, and I made the connection.

I confess I came to the novel with a boatload of preconceived notions based on other epic fantasy I’d tried to read in the past.  Once into it, though, it soon became clear to me that this was a very original work and that inclination grew as I continued through it.  I’m a sucker for the first person point of view, and Jemisin uses it expertly as a way of circumventing a lot of lengthy explanation and info-dumping.  You learn about the world of Sky as Yeine (the main character) encounters it. And she is a wonderfully complex character, innocent, shrewd, feaful, courageous, smart and also capable of blunders.  She seemed real as did the world to me.  History, politics, economics, racial politics, religion, etc. are all layered into Yeine’s first-hand experience without lengthy asides.  The story keeps moving.  And because the world is so well grounded, the magic, when it happens, a lot of times suddenly, is startling, as magic would be if one were to encounter it.  The writing was clear and compelling.  The power and level of imagination and invention are visionary.  More to say on all this, but I was very taken by the book.  I’ve also since read TBK and two of the stories the author has online — “The You Train” at Strange Horizons and “Non-Zero Probabilities” at Clarkesworld.

Rachel Swirsky

I really recommend “On the Banks of the River Lex.”

Maureen Kincaid Speller

I was actually asked by Niall Harrison to review HTK for Strange Horizons. Jemisin’s name was unfamiliar to me at that point but I quickly became aware of a lot of internet buzz about the book, mostly because, as is my usual habit, I was trying to avoid reading it until I’d formed my own opinion. I found it very interesting on my first read through, though I think at the time I was initially drawn  to it more for its presentation of issues than for technical accomplishment.

I was particularly interested in what I suppose we could call the political angle, as Yeine, as an outsider, navigates her way through the complex situation within the council chamber, but there was also the colonial/postcolonial angle.

And then the ending caught me completely unawares which I like, given so many novels seem to be so easy to second-guess.

I haven’t read TBK as yet but I ordered a copy as soon as I knew I’d be taking part in this, and it’s arrived today, so guess what I’m doing this evening.

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