Roundtable: N. K. Jemisin

Maureen Kincaid Speller

As I think I said elsewhere earlier, in both cases I’m struck by how far they are from the standard model in which, as Karen says, ‘farm boy goes questing’, accompanied by the sense that the narrative is already stacked in his favour and it’s unlikely that he won’t succeed. In both novels, the uncertainty seems palpable, in terms of what’s going on and, indeed, whether they’ll succeed at whatever it is they’re supposed to succeed at, if they can work that out. There is no prophecy to fulfil and no simplistic wrong to be righted, either.

I find it interesting too that they are both positioned as women from if not actual matriarchal societies – I’m not entirely clear about Oree’s home region/country – then from cultures where women enjoy considerably more power and privilege than they do in Sky. And yes, I know there are powerful Arameri women but it feels, perhaps because of Bright Itempas, masculine.

I am wondering if we will see, with vol. 3, more of what goes on beyond the city, as we’ve now moved down the tree, to its roots, and vaguely beyond. I found myself noting all sorts of little colonial markers, such as the insistence of Semnite being taught before the home language, the White Halls in every town and village (colonial administration), Sky positioned as the city (almost literally the fatherland), and so on. I might want too to tease out something about the way in which the brightest and best of the ‘half-breeds’ and those from other cultures are assimilated into the Arameri.

In two minds as to whether the issue could have been brought out more strongly, but I suspect that if it had been it would become an overbearng ‘theme’ whereas I like the way it’s just one more part of the confusing mix.

Siobhan Carroll

I wanted to briefly return to the colonial/post-colonial issues raised in the Inheritance Trilogy. High fantasy (yes, I would call HTK that) has certainly engaged with imperial themes before. However, HTK does so with more nuance than most.

Yeine is from a marginal culture but she’s also a member of the ruling family. Much of the plot hinges on her need to reconcile these two identities – ruler and ruled, exploiter and exploited. She needs to learn to negotiate the metropole’s corridors of power while still acting in the interests of her homeland. This essential conflict is mirrored in the present-tense portions of the novel, where Yeine tries to heal herself by reconciling two very different parts of her identity. For me, this is the strongest marker of the novel’s postcolonialism: the fact that both the protagonist’s and her nation’s future depends on her forging a new identity, one that acknowledges the crimes of the past while also admitting that the past can’t be undone. Or, to quote the novel, “I was what mortal life had made me, what Enefa had made me, but that was all in the past. From henceforth I could be whomever I wanted” (385).

Also interesting in the novel is its representation of slavery. In many fantasy stories, liberating slaves is obviously a Good Thing To Do. In HTK, this is not so obvious. Jemisin’s slaves have immense power — they’re gods, after all — and they’re genuinely dangerous. Yeine’s first encounter with the unleashed Nahadoth drives this point home: she has to run for her life, and only survives because she’s aided by another god. She’s continually being reminded of the frightening Otherness of the gods, and the dangers they pose: “Had I thought him merely an embittered slave, a pitiable creature burdened by grief? I was a fool” (199). As much as she comes to want the gods’ liberation, Yeine also knows that freeing them could have some pretty severe consequences. I think this makes her choice to aid them more meaningful.

MKS >> In both novels, the uncertainty seems palpable, in terms of what’s going on and, indeed, whether they’ll succeed at whatever it is they’re supposed to succeed at, if they can work that out. There is no prophecy to fulfill and no simplistic wrong to be righted, either.

And instead of being helped/protected by Providence (usually the source of those prophecies), Yeine is working in direct opposition to the all-powerful masculine God, while Oree serves as God’s protector.

Maureen Kincaid Speller

Good point, and it links to what you said in an earlier post about nuance. With both these novels, the devil really is in the detail. While one could take a fairly superficial ‘feminist’ reading of them, i.e. subversive female protagonist inserted into place usually occupied by ‘stable boy prince’, both novels are so much richer than that.

KB >>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 have to admit to a sense of low-grade disquiet about the setting/cultures, something that I find quite difficult to fully articulate.

I agree that this world does seem to be less homogenous than the standard fantasy world (and no maps, at least not in my editions). Places are mentioned, and exist in conversation, background, etc. without immediately having to signify as metaphoric characters, which I find pleasing. (I do hate the way that in so many fantasy novels countries only exist at the moment they have plot significance or in such broadly generic terms as to be offensive.)

I think my problem is more with HTK than TBK in some respects, in that although Yeine comes as the outsider, the barbarian princess, and so on, she is also the insider and as such, despite the responses of some, such as Scimanna and Relad, she nonetheless still has that position of comparative privilege, as a … halfbreed, crossbreed … I like Vizenor’s term, mixedbreed.

I understand that we need that, in order to see how the Arameri and the Sky Palace work from the inside, and indeed that, given the very tight structure that the Arameri have established, drawing their family around them, to the nth degree, there is no other way to see what is going on. And, of course, it is a comment in itself, an incredibly extreme version of Macaulay’s Minute but I think there is an uneasiness in the text that is never quite resolved for me. I’m not entirely sure whether it is Yeine’s uneasiness or something that arises from the fact that her position of comparative privilege, however strongly she is aware of it, can never quite be addressed. There are certain undertones around blood relationships and what blood means (the clear delineation between Yeine’s general physical and mental robustness and the effeteness of Relad and Scimanna; I suddenly find myself thinking momentarily of Wells and the Morlocks and Eloi, which disturbs me).

This is perhaps why I feel more comfortable with TBK which, although it is mostly set in Sky, does exhibit a greater sense of cultural diversity and of everyday lives. Granted, everyone is coming into Sky, there is the metropole/periphery dynamic, and there is still that flavour of the Stars Wars cantina with the parade of peoples (and I wonder too if we should consider the significance of Oree for the most part not being able to see them, removing a particularly significant cultural marker). As I said, I am curious to see if Jemisin is consciously moving from the metropole to the periphery, to provide a greater sense of the world.

Jeffrey Ford

So far I like both installments of the trilogy, but I find TBK the more remarkable of the two.  The balance of clarity of writing and complexity of plot and ideas was really something. TBK is both a stand alone novel and a shrewd continuation of the previous novel’s story.  It’s at once a murder mystery, a search for Oree’s origins, a book about art, where every chapter is a type of painting, the story of someone learning to live with an affliction which they turn to their advantage, a love story, etc.  So much is simultaneously at play here, and yet you never feel the gears turning.  The threads effortlessly weave together.  Above all it is an urban novel and an urban fantasy. I think Maureen does a good job of showing that these books do not fit the classic mold of the epic fantasy.  One of the things missing from them is the outward journey, the quest.  There’s not great travel to stand as a metaphor for the lengths to which one is searching for the truth.  Here the journey is arduous, but it is circumscribed by the city and the self. What’s gained is every bit as fulfilling and important as the result of Parcival’s quest.  This makes for a more modern fantasy for me.  I also noticed in some of the online-interviews with Jemisin that she is a psychologist, and, oh, man, the temptation to play the pop-psychology game here with gods and godlings and characters is impossible to ignore.  I’ll not reveal my own crackpot theroies about how this all fits together, for it shifts every time I think about it, but this, in and of itself, is a bit of idiosyncratic fun each reader can have with the text when it is recollected in tranquility.  There are no easy, pat readings for this work if you try to entertain all of its various subjects simultaneoulsy.

Rachel Swirsky

So, I ended up in a fairly long debate last year about whether or not these novels were really post-colonial. The contention (of the people arguing that these novels were traditional epic fantasy, not writing opposite such narratives) was, I think, that HTK is like other fantasy novels in that it puts everything “to rights” the way it should have been at the end of the novel. Rather than restoring the rightful king to the throne, I suppose, it frees the slaves and puts the rightful God in the heavens.

Of course, to me, these are two very different conceptions of “normal.” One is a restored political hierarchy. The other is a setting to order of the moral universe that involves breaking the human political hierarchy. If we look at these novels from the perspective of a member of society, the experience, for say, the average Arameri, would be very different than the experience of person X from a restore-the-king fantasy–rather than beginning the novel in a state they consider abnormal, they begin the novel in a state that strikes them as perfectly normal, a state that has in fact endured for many centuries. The restoration of the celestial triad doesn’t return them to a comforting past, it throws them into an uncertain and tumultuous future, one without easy resolutions about the human balance of power, and in which even the gods are forced to adapt.

At the time we were debating, HTK was out, but TBK wasn’t–I wonder whether the other reader read the ending of HTK as somehow indicating a return to a past idyllic precolonial period.

Of course, that’s part of the issue with looking at colonialism with a frank eye. Imperialism is not like a malfunctioning monarchy which can be restored after a blip (although I am not convinced that monarchies are as much like that outside novels as in them). Colonialism is something that cannot be easily removed or reversed. It leaves enormous disturbances in its wake. It changes cultures; it changes relationships between cultures; it changes identity and power. Some things are just destroyed and you can’t bring them back. In the real world, there is of course the enormous loss of Native American life to guns, germs, and relentless campaigns to hunt them down like animals. Even where people survived, cultures often didn’t survive intact. Many African and Native American cultures (and probably others, as well, those are just the colonial situations I’ve got a little more familiarity with) were changed so deeply by the colonial imprint–and by the slave trade–that there is no living memory, and no written record, of what the precolonial societies looked like. Groups uprooted themselves, assimilated into other groups, suffered heavy losses and dispersed. I think we’re used to languages dying off–but the shock of colonialism was pernicious from the beginning. Even before colonialism itself reached a culture, its effect might already have been felt–the shock waves of violence and death from the slave trade and from the introduction of disease carried far beyond the initial points of contact. Cultures don’t live in isolation.

In the books, some of the destruction is more directly carried out–Nahadoth destroys Oree’s continent, leaving the diasporic survivors as the only remnants of her people. The cultures not represented in the diaspora are gone. They are disconnected from their physical history.

Colonialism destroys. There is no normal to return to. Only a new normal to be created.

I actually liked TBK better as a book than HTK. (This seems to be a minority position among people I’ve talked to.)

There was a closer-in focus in BK that I appreciated, which gave me a more rounded feel for Oree and her setting. I think Maureen said that Sky is supposed to be grand, but feels cold, while the city around it has a warmth and artistic vivacity. I think it also felt, to me, more real and more populated. I enjoyed the ground level view. HTK was busy building the abstractions of an entire empire; I preferred the concrete detail of a small part of it.

I also felt that HTK was very strongly structured as a mystery. It was an effective one. I page-turned like there was no tomorrow so I could finish it–and I had the swine flu at the time. (BTW, don’t get the swine flu, if you can avoid it; it sucks.) The world and the gorgeous gorgeous imagery had me immersed, and the mystery was just an amazing question, woven, through the text, that daaaamn, I wanted to answer.

But once it was answered, there was a bit of a let-down. First of all because I felt that the answer wasn’t as cool as the build up (not that it wasn’t cool at all, just not as cool as the buildup; I often feel that way about big reveals.) Because so much of my energy in reading the book was focused on getting-to-the-end, it sort of condensed the book in my mind as a sort of focused direction arrow. Or rather, a bunch of arrows, all winnowing down to a single point. And it’s not like the arrows weren’t cool; and it’s not like the point wasn’t cool; but instead of making the book lush and growing in my mind, it made it sort of a directed, finished object.

Oree’s story had much more room to grow. It had a closer point of view on a more emotionally accessible character and a city that was still imagistically gorgeous (although not as majestically so as the first book). For me, it was also a story that grew and diverged and had many different points of access and interest. I don’t think the plot itself was as good as the ploit in the other book, or at any rate, while the god-eating villain had his neat moments, I was more interested in the setting and the character than the plot. The book grows in my mind, post-reading, rather than becoming fixed.

There has been some discussion about how well BK handles disability. No one (that I’ve seen) seems to be arguing that Oree isn’t well-rendered as a blind character, but rather, the book evokes the ableist stereotype of a magical disability. Jemisin has written very smartly about it and other issues relating to Oree’s blindness. That whole essay is fabulous and extremely worth reading, but I’ll pull a bit relevant to what I was just saying:

…here’s the problem: I had effectively made demon-ness — that is, the inheritance of magic — a kind of code for disability. Which ran smack into another big stereotype: the magical disabled person. I’m not gonna lie here; this was a fuckup on my part. If I’d thought things through, I wouldn’t have made her sighted, or unmagical, because like I said, that’s what she needed to be to fit the character in my head. But… I would’ve severed the association between her magic and her inability to see, so that one did not cause the other. Like I said, I wanted her blindness to be part of her identity, as unremarkable as her gender or race… but by constructing her blindness as the result of her magic, I not only made it remarkable, I emphasized its abnormality. Imagine if I’d said she was only female because the magic made her that way. Or if I’d said she was only black because one of her ancestors was something inhuman that happened to have black skin. (We’ll discuss Laurell K. Hamilton’s Meredith Gentry books some other time.)


I figured this out, by the way, six months after I turned in the book to my editor. Specifically after I attended a great workshop at Readercon, called What Good Writers Still Get Wrong About Blind People, presented by Kestrell Alicia Verlager. (Note part 2 and part 3.) Too late to change the book, but not too late to learn from the
mistake. I am determined to do better next time — and there will be a next time.

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