Roundtable: N. K. Jemisin

Maureen Kincaid Speller

RS >> So far I like both installments of the trilogy, but I find the second book, TBK, the more remarkable of the two.

Couldn’t agree more. I’m glad I went to the trouble of hunting down TBK to read for this discussion because I think it is by far the more interesting novel.

JF >> The balance of clarity of writing and complexity of plot and ideas was really something. […] So much is simultaneously at play here, and yet you never feel the gears turning.  The threads effortlessly weave together.

It’s also a good point about not feeling the gears turning. I could appreciate that HTK was a well-crafted novel but for me there was always a little too much much of a sense of … not quite sure how to put this but a sense of someone – the author, the narrator, someone else? – observing the process of writing. I grant you I always read at a slight distance anyway, almost as though I’m reading over my own shoulder, but there was an extra space in there somewhere that I couldn’t quite account for, perhaps Jemisin watching over her own shoulder as she wrote. But I didn’t have that same sense with TBK. Much more absorbed in story-telling rather than being conscious of story-telling.

JF >> Above all it is an urban novel and an urban fantasy.

Absolutely, and in the old-fashioned pre-paranormal romance sense. I’d not thought about that until you suggested it but yes.

JF >> 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.

Also, more practically, and most noticeably in TBK, everyone is coming into the city. Oree seems to be suggesting that those who come to the city are attracted because it’s a place where they don’t stand out so easily, particularly those with concealed magical skills, but there is suggestion too of the colonial impulse, the move from the land to the city (again, this is part of why I’m interested to see what happens in Vol. 3).

JF >> This makes for a more modern fantasy for me.  […] There are no easy, pat readings for this work if you try to entertain all of its various subjects simultaneoulsy.

Another thing that commends the novels, TBK especially. They are very chewy reads. I had certain reservations about HTK the first time I read it, in that I didn’t think it was pulling hard enough against the fantasy template but TBK certainly does.

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

I think it would have been hard to take a reading like that, given the cataclysmic nature of the ending. To my mind, there was no sense of restitution at all, but rather a shift in the balance of power, a change of ruler, an implication that the decadence of Dekarta’s rule would be a thing of the past (though I would as a matter of principle doubt that) and a radical shift in the pantheon.

RS >> Of course, that’s part of the issue with looking at colonialism with a frank eye. […] 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.

I’ve been thinking a lot in the last week about literature as ideology (mostly to do with Native American writing, as it happens, and critical perceptions of that writing) and I am wondering if part of the difficulty some readers have in addressing HTK as anything other than epic fantasy (and this may link to the minority preference for TBK, a preference I note that most if not all of us in this small group appear to hold) is a sense of discomfort with the twin ideas of epic fantasy espousing a particular ideology (restoration, maintaining the (good) hegemony, and so on) and novels like HTK challenging that form of ideology. TBK is surely the richer novel in part because it looks at aftermath and, as we so often see in real life, it’s the aftermath that doesn’t fit neatly into the rhetorical structure.

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

This, and it is clearly in part what TBK is about.

Slightly tangentially (and has anyone else noticed how when talking about these books, little bits of them suddenly come sharply into focus), it has just occurred to me that Yeine’s first formal encounter with the Arameri is not actually the meeting with the family but in the council chamber, with all that entails in terms of representing power, but a power that is presided over watchfully by a member of the ruling family, so it is in effect a sham, political theatre, unless someone really is sufficiently strong-minded to challenge the status quo. It is actually quite clearly signalled from the outset what is going on, and that’s another chalkmark in the ‘not epic fantasy’ column, to my mind.

RS >> Oree’s story had much more room to grow. […] I don’t think the plot itself was as good as the plot 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.

I think you have put your finger on some of the reasons why I prefer TBK, even though HTK might be more technically assured. It is a messier book but if one takes its messiness as some sort of performative representation of the city, I’m happy with that. Plot-wise, I agree, but in terms of setting, peoples, stuff, far more vibrant.

RS >> 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…

Ah, now this is really interesting. I felt bothered about Oree’s blindness because it seemed to me that there were times when she didn’t represent things in the way I had anticipated a blind person might. Or rather, I wondered how much the visual imagery at times could be justified by her ‘magical vision’ or whether some of it was careless writing/editing, or a perverse attempt on Oree’s part to narratve for a sighted person. This answers my reservations, I think, in part.

Actually, while I am about it, there is another thing which bothers me a little in the two novels so far, and if it turns up a third time, I may start to wonder what is going on, and that’s a … well, I suppose it is an extension of a ‘woman in jeopardy’ trope, but there is a moment in both novels when the women are effectively confined to a room, more explicitly in TBK, and I began to feel we were heading off into Gilman/Yellow Wallpaper territory. I have not really had time to sit down and tease out what is going on in those sections but I was surprised to see it surface in again in TBK.

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