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The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms - N.K. Jemisin

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Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms - N.K. Jemisin

A few weeks ago Ken over at Nethspace reviewed The Malazan Book of the Fallen series by Steven Erikson.  He called Erikson's series "something of a post-modern, meta-fiction" that responds to epic fantasy as much as it's a part of it.  But to have a modernist, or post-modernist movement for that matter, it must reference something less modern.  What is modernist fantasy?  What came before that?  I hope to discuss these questions in this post and maybe begin a conversation in the blogosphere about what fantasy is offering to readers that is unique among the different genres.  I believe Ken's discussion of Malazan is ground breaking in regards to how fantasy will be viewed in the years to come and I hope what I write here will begin to build on it.

To begin a discussion of the literary classifications in fantasy I think it's important to note that modernist, post-modernist, and what I call the romanticist fantasy have nothing to do with chronology.  All three of these types of fantasy are being written today and while romanticist is what I consider "classic" fantasy, it is by no means a defunct form.  In my mind, romanticist fantasy started with Tolkein, but authors like Brooks, Eddings, and Feist have reinforced it throughout the last quarter of the 20th century to today.  It is thematically focused on a notion that "humanity" is in a constant struggle against forces that are inherently evil and moreover have a mythology that reflects it.  It emphasizes the awe and terror of these forces that are by their very nature unknowable.  Heroes are often portrayed as introspective and lonely in their imperative to restore things to the way they "ought" to be.  These novels also tend to follow a subjective third person, linear narrative.

Modernist literature, as it's come to be recognized in mainstream fiction, focuses on themes of individualism.  It emphasizes mistrust of institutions and the disbelief in absolute truths while straying from conventional literary structures.  I think modernist fantasy is these things, but it's also a lot more.  When Ken called Malazan post-modernist he didn't mean it was comparable to Don DeLillo's White Noise or Douglas Coupeland's Hey Nostradamus!.  I think he meant it was post-modernist in reference to its own genre.

Unlike modernist fiction, modernist fantasy references not only the works of mainstream authors, but also what I described above as romanticist fantasy.  It is ambivalent and raw.  It doesn't disseminate or place judgement on a characters actions.  It denies the notion that a hero must be heroic, or that someone who acts heroic is a hero.  Modernist fantasy just is in a way that modern readers recognize themselves.  N.K Jemisin in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is a perfect example of modernist fantasy and joins the ranks of work from the likes of Joe Abercrombie and R. Scott Bakker.

Written in the first person, Kingdoms is Yeine Darre's recounting of her life.  She is both a participant and an observer in her story which leads to a unique narrative structure where she both describes what's going on, but often takes an aside to put it into context as an omniscient storyteller.  Using this methodology, Jemisin presents a style that is uniquely intimate.  I often felt like a voyeur lurking on the outskirts of something I shouldn't be seeing.  It is beautifully written and brims with emotion.

Throughout the story, Yeine finds herself pitted against two of her cousins in a contest for the Arameri throne.  The Arameri, by divine right, hold the leash of Nightlord Nahadoth (god of darkness, chaos, etc.) and his three children who have been imprisoned in human form by the Brightlord Itempas (god of order, light, etc.).  So powerful are these captive gods that the Arameri rule the hundred thousand kingdoms without opposition.  Yeine, rebels against this world where gods are at her beck and call.  She expresses disenfranchisement with the excess and corruption of the Arameri who use Itempas' judgement to extend their dominion.

While the plot is pretty similar to many that fall into the romanticist fantasy category it is the use of narrative and the portrayal of her characters that demonstrate a modernist approach.  In Kingdoms, Jemisin writes a story that is fundamentally ambivalent.  There is no morality in her story other than what her character, Yeine, perceives as right.  The gods, even the Nightlord (a moniker traditionally reserved for the darkest fiend), exhibit qualities that make them representative of both good and evil.  She supports the notion that order does not always mean right and chaos is not always evil instead perspective is the ultimate arbiter of judgement.

She takes it further by taking her gods off the pedestal and imbuing them with humanity.  One of the tenets of romanticist fantasy is the unknowing forces of nature (read gods).  In Kingdoms the forces of nature are not only knowable, they have faces, and weaknesses of character that are authentic not just constructs of veracity.  Yeine interacts with and confronts these forces trying to recognize not only her place in the world, but the justification for their place as well.

Totally feel like one after this review.
Ultimately, I think Jemisin ask her readers to consider their relationship to spirituality and morality.  Is our existence significant?  Is what we do and how we do it important?  Religious or not (I'm not), these questions are the reason people are attracted to the fantasy genre.  I've most often heard escapism as the primary driver of fantasy readers - not me.  For me, it's because I ask these questions of myself.  For someone who doesn't necessarily believe in God, great fantasy makes me try to rationalize my place in things in a way no other genre does.  It frees me to come to grips with my own relationship to the fantastic.

In his Malazan post Ken described post modernist better than I can.  Suffice to say it is modernist in form but aware of itself.  If Erikson wrote the first post-modernist fantasy, then he is the first person to open a dialog with Jemisin and her contemporaries.  Why are we asking these questions?  Does it matter?  To hell with our relationship to the fantastic if we don't have one with the man next to us.

Where it goes is up to us and an army of post-modernists following in Erikson's footsteps (I hope).  Oh, and The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is really good.

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At May 25, 2011 at 10:54 AM , Blogger Neth said...


Interesting thoughts, and I'm far from an expert on any literature trends, much less post-modernism. I think you get it just right that fantasy as a genre has only really entered a modernist period (though some writers were there a decade or two ago) while much of it still remains in a romatic period. And yes, I was definately calling Malazan post-modern as it relates within the fantasy genre rather than to literature and society as a whole.

I'm curious, have you read the likes of Jeff VanderMeer and his ilk? I think there are some definate post-modern ideas reflected in his ideas and many others that write in areas of the 'new weird' and 'literary fantasy' (though those labels are generally discouraged).

I also think that much of what is called magical realism and ubsurdist fiction (which is very often fantasy at its core) falls into a post-modern style, though I think in general that is not really a goal of it. Haruki Murakami comes to mind.

Also, Steven Erikson spells his name differently than you have it in the article.

Excellent and interesting post!

At May 25, 2011 at 11:03 AM , Blogger Justin said...

Thanks for the reply.

I'm just as far from expert as you and to be honest I've been totally removed from the post-modern genre since the early 2000's when I was cutting my teeth on DeLillo, Amis, etc. I'm sure my concepts are woefully outdated.

That said, I'm not sure it's relevant to compare what Erikson (good catch, thanks - stupid autocorrect) is doing to what has been done outside the genre. I only mentioned the mainstream movement to get some context for the comparison we're attempting to make.

Interestingly, and I haven't read him, but I wonder if Donaldson's Thomas Convenant series published as far back as the 70's could be considered modernist?

VanderMeer has been on my list for a while. I've sort of assumed he's in the Mieville category for weirdfic. I'll definitely check him out.

At May 25, 2011 at 11:09 AM , Blogger Neth said...

VanderMeer is really a different animal than Mieville though they often fall into the same label of 'weird fic'. You should definately check out his stuff.

I've not read any Donaldson and not much of Glen Cook. But I imagine they do fall into more of a modernist category. (for that matter, Michael Moorcock probably does as well). As much of Erikson says he admires the work of Cook and Donaldson, I would bet that a large part of the 'post-modern' in his work is a response to the 'modern' in Cook and Donaldson.


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