Roundtable: N. K. Jemisin

Karen Burnham

I’m with Maureen in having heard the buzz about HTK before I knew much about Nora or had met her in person. When I picked it up, I was very impressed by the first person voice and the character of Yeine–she seemed strong, practical, and sometimes vulnerable in a strikingly realistic way. Since then I’ve also read TBK (second book in the planned trilogy, with The Kingdom of Gods due out later this year). Oree Shoth, the protagonist/narrator of the second volume, had a similar strength of character–which I liked even more since she is an older woman with more life experience. I thought both characters had pretty good senses of humor that helped see them through the high/epic fantasy narratives they get thrown into.

I also noticed the colonial/post-colonial angle that Maureen brings up. In these books the Arameri are the ruling family that has wielded the most political power for the longest time. Yeine and Oree both come from cultures that are more marginal, and the original homeland of Oree’s people had in fact been completed destroyed by one of the gods’ spats. I felt that the narrative of the outsider navigating the halls of more dominant powers–both the Arameri and the pantheon of gods–was done here in a way that felt more convincing and contemporary than the farm-boy-goes-questing-and-gains-political-power narrative that is so common in epic fantasy.

Jeffrey Ford

Rachel:  I went and just read “On the Banks of the River Lex” and it reminded me somewhat of the characters of the fallen gods in HTK — characters both mythological and possessing idiosyncratic personalities as well.  An interesting story.  Thanks for the suggestion.

Yes, both Yeine and Oree were very strong.  What I thought was a nice touch of irony was that although Yeine lives in Sky and has the advantage of being part of the court, her world is full of guile and deception.  Sky appears beautiful and glowing, but in many ways is actually dangerous and run down.  Oree, who lives in the area beneath the monolithic city, has a somewhat freer life on the street selling her art, and although she is “blind” has a life more filled with beauty.  This isn’t something that, as the reader, you get hit over the head with, but just something I perceived later after putting the books away.  Did anyone else come away with this impression?

Another aspect of the book that really made it for me was that the time it took place in was not the usual pseudo-medieval era you get so often.  What’s represented in the novels is an age that borrows from both the distant past and the modern, not mechanically shoved together, but intricately blended to create an original time in an original world.  This as much comes out in the style of storytelling as in the technology and cultural trappings — in the narrator’s humor Karen alluded to and in the direct address concerning the narrator’s discussion at times as to how the story is being told.  These techniques are blended with styles of story telling that harken back to oral culture and the retelling of history and myths from earlier generations.  A very cool effect that the author pulls off without stumbling.  It kept me always curious about the world of both books, always on the lookout for what else I might learn about it.  These revelations are meted out at a steady, natural pace throughout.

Karen Burnham

Let’s talk about the setting of the Inheritance Trilogy a bit. We’ve already mentioned that it is not a typical pseudo-medieval European setting as you see in a lot of ‘high’ or ‘epic’ fantasy, even though HTK deals primarily with court politics. Even though we didn’t see a lot of the other cultures directly, this world feels less homogenous than those that only have one or two important kingdoms and maybe some barbarians. I’m also interested in the way Jemisin’s work tackles colonialism in a way that a lot of fantasy does not. Anyone want to elaborate on that at all?

Jeffrey Ford

For me, one of the most interesting aspects of colonialism in the books is the supression of the old gods.  One of the first steps of colonization for European states as they spread their oppression around the world was to send missionaries.  Missionaries were some of the first to arrive in North America, Africa and Asia.  Their job was to suppress native spiritualism (the old gods) by supplanting them with the hierarchical (top down), male dominated, monotheism of Catholicism or Christianity.  For the invading political entity it is as important to erase native culture as it is to win military victories.  The old gods, though enslaved, are not so easy to erase.  There are those in the native culture who secretly keep the memory of their power alive through stories and clandestine ritual practices.  As we see in Jemisin’s books, the old gods are hobbled but they are ever ready and yearning to again break free and lend power to the original culture.  The true nature of the old gods is not understood by the colonizing culture, it’s frightening, appears “irrational” and must be subdued.  I’m reminded of the scene in Frederick Douglass’s Autobiography where, due to his intelligence and “attitude,” Douglass is sent by his master to be “broken,” as one would a wild horse, to this guy Covey’s farm.  Covey had a reputation as a “negro breaker.”  Basically, what Covey does is just beat the shit out of slaves until they are subdued.  He beats Douglass badly once and Douglass runs away to his owner, but the owner sends him back.  Douglass has no choice but to return to Covey, where he knows he will be beaten again.  On the way, he meets another slave, Sandy Jenkins who tells Douglass about a root that is both native to Africa and the American South.  He says that if Douglass were to find this root and put it in his pocket, no man would ever beat him again.  Sandy helps him find the root.  Douglass goes back to Covey’s, Covey attacks him, Douglass stands up for himself and beats Covey, who from then on leaves him alone.  In the 1881 edition of the Autobiography, Douglass says of Sandy, he was a “true African.”  I take this to mean that he was in touch with one of the traditions of native spiritualism of Africa.  To a European mind, this doesn’t make sense. It seems a superstition. Whether there was actual magic in the root or its presence helped Douglass tap into the power of the “old gods” and merely gave him a kind of courage, it worked.

Maureen Kincaid Speller

SC >> 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’d certainly agree with this. I must admit my heart often sinks when a ‘debut novel’ features a first-person viewpoint as I think it is a lot harder to write than many people realise, but I was equally impressed with Yeine. One of the things I particularly liked was Yeine’s sense of confusion, the need to observe and work out what was happening from the various small clues. This may of course be because it corresponds to my preferred modus operandi, but I welcome anything in which the viewpoint figure doesn’t know what’s going on and doesn’t have a raft of people to explain everything impartially.

However, I do wonder if Yeine’s voice doesn’t sound rather like Oree’s in TBK. But as the circumstances are very different, I may be being unreasonably picky over that one. It might perhaps be some sort of nod at their parallel experience as outsiders in the city.

JF >> 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.

Without getting embroiled in a taxonomic discussion (of which no good will ever come), I’m fascinated that these novels have been described as being ‘high’ or ‘epic’ fantasy, as they seem to be about as far as that as one can get, to the point where she seems to me almost to be deconstructing something like Dunsany’s Gods of Pegana, but not in an ironic way or by self-consciously drawing attention to the fact, which I like.

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

I enjoyed the two stories mentioned by Jeffrey, but this story really hits the spot for me. Has a certain flavour of Beagle’s “Come, Lady Death” and A Fine and Private Place about it but is very much its own thing as well.

Thanks for all three recommendations.

Actually, I’ve just realised this picks up on another thing I find really, really interesting about both novels, and that is the manifest nature of the gods, and in the second book, the godlings. Particularly in the second book, in fact, in the wake of the fall of Itempas and the opening up of greater opportunities for expression of faith and belief.

Jeffrey Ford

Maureen:  I agree.  The books really do transcend the usual categories.  I was expecting something more along the “traditional” lines as I’d described, but the actuality of them is much more original.

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