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Different Worlds: NK Jemisin’s Books

My people tell stories of the night I was born. They say my mother crossed her legs in the middle of labor and fought with all her strength not to release me into the world. I was born anyhow, of course; nature cannot be denied. Yet it does not surprise me that she tried. — From the beginning of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, by NK Jemisin

It’s always a good feeling when you find an author whose books you can pluck off the shelf as a basically guaranteed personal hit. I’ve collected a few of those authors over the last few years — Guy Gavriel Kay was my most recent, before that it was Octavia Butler; Mira Grant‘s also a contender — and it is with great pleasure that I’m officially adding NK Jemisin to the list. Her books are dense, they’re immersive, and they’re beautifully written. She’s written five novels so far, a trilogy and a duology, and I’ve devoured all of it.

Part of what I like about her books is the worldbuilding. Jemisin makes something of a point of the fact that her books aren’t set in the alt-medieval Europe where so much fantasy literature takes place. The Inheritance Trilogy, her first series, is in a wholly invented setting; major characters you meet in the first few pages include gods, demigods, and mortals from a whole range of social classes. Each book in the trilogy has a different first-person narrator, and the three books are spread over a pretty wide time frame, so you get to see the setting develop and change as you go along, and see characters through different sets of eyes. And in each book, the narrator is simultaneously changing events and being swept along by them. I know protagonists are supposed to take action kind of by definition, but I get frustrated when every book I read is about The Special Hero Who Creates Every Major Plot Event Him- or Herself. Jemisin’s characters are certainly heroic, but they’re not the only ones who change things.

The second series, The Dreamblood, is set in a world based loosely on ancient Egypt. The setting’s major city centers its seasons around the flooding of a great river; everyone wears a lot of linen, and there’s a king who’s believed to be of divine blood. But the religious system takes a sharp turn from the Egyptian pantheon, wandering instead into the Jungian collective unconscious and the healing power of dreams (did I mention Jemisin’s day job and professional training is as a psychologist?) These two books, told in third person from the perspective of several different narrators, are close enough in time that there’s overlap in their casts, but they also do a good job of presenting different angles on the world.

Since I wrote my post last week about the difficulties of stepping outside yourself when worldbuilding, there’s been a small explosion in the genre-fiction blogosphere about a problematic panel at the Nebula Awards last weekend (Sunil Patel’s take on it here; Juliette Wade’s here). Disclaimer: I wasn’t present, so I’m only going off other people’s accounts, but my summary understanding of what happened was that a panel of white writers attempted a discussion of how to put diversity into genre fiction, and things spiraled downhill from there. The issue of diversity in genre fiction is something I’ve talked about before, so I won’t go into it in great detail here, but it’s something else I want to give Jemisin due kudos for. Her characters come in all shades; in the Dreamblood setting, dark-skinned people are recognized as the highest caste. Given that Jemisin herself is a woman of color, some might say “of course she’ll include black people in her books,” but race isn’t the only area where she steps outside the stereotypes of genre fiction. The narrator of the second Inheritance Trilogy book, we find out on the second page, is blind. In the second Dreamblood book, there’s a nomadic, largely non-industrial, warrior people whose culture is portrayed as more complex than a Dothraki/Klingon/Luxan clone.

These are good books; well-characterized, well-plotted, well-written. According to her blog, Jemisin’s next book is coming out early next year; I will definitely be in line to pick it up when it does.

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