There’s a narrative that I think of as “the country mouse narrative,” after the Aesop fable. There’s probably a better critical term for it, and it is at any rate simply a particular form of portal fantasy. In a country mouse narrative, a person from a backwater land goes to the sophisticated city, discovers that its “sophistications” are immoral, maintains their own morality, in doing so attracts the support of the few others in the city with a working moral compass but not enough power/courage to act on their own, often gains a life partner, and together they clean up the joint.
The classic film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is a country mouse narrative; so is The Secret of My Success. And it is a narrative that figures large in the fantasy genre proper, not least because one of the projects of popular fantasy (particularly epic fantasy) has long been the moral rehabilitation of the city. In Brandon Sanderson’s Elantris, to pick a recent example, the princess Sarene travels from a small but just kingdom to the ruling city of a large but corrupt kingdom, stands by her principles, makes allies, comes to love and be loved by a living god, and together they avert disaster, mete out justice, and live happily ever after: yay.
This is also a fairly close synopsis of N.K. Jemisin’s debut novel The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, the first volume of her Inheritance Trilogy. What makes Jemisin’s novel worth considering in depth is its attempt to infuse the standard country mouse narrative–whose rote movements and innate conservatism tend towards mindless amusement, at least for those who can identify with the protagonist–with a contemporary awareness of gender, sex, race, religion, and empire.
Consider the initial setup of the novel. In most modern formulations of the country mouse narrative, the country mouse is eager to go to the city in order to do good, either directly or through exercising some skill that they seem put on the world to exercise (another country mouse example: Roy Hobbs in the film adaptation of Malamud’s The Natural). In The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, however, when Yeine Darr is summoned to Sky, the seat of the world-spanning Arameri religio-political empire, she is reluctant to go; she is compelled to make the journey only out of fear for herself and the Darre people she is chieftain of. The dark-skinned Darre were brought into the empire of the pale-skinned Arameri and converted to the Arameri’s religion centuries ago on threat of obliteration; they’re still considered barbarians. So from the start Jemisin is adding a new layer to the stock narrative: the archetypal city is not immoral because it is full of immoral people and amusements, the archetypal city is immoral because it is the seat of empire. And empire, as a function of the way it exercises power, is immoral.
Here is what the priests taught me:
Once upon a time there were three great gods. Bright Itempas, Lord of Day, was the one destined by fate or the Maelstrom or some unfathomable design to rule. All was well until Enefa, His upstart sister, decided that she wanted to rule in Bright Itempas’s place. She convinced their brother Nahadoth to assist her, and together with some of their godling children they attempted a coup. Itempas, mightier than both His siblings combined, defeated them soundly. He slew Enefa, punished Nahadoth and the rebels, and established an even greater peace–for without His dark brother and wild sister to appease, He was free to bring true light and order to all creation.
At the same time, the narrative underpainting Jemisin is working with isn’t fully amenable to her insights. In terms of drama, while the initial sections of the book turn on Yeine’s gradual realization that the Arameri religion she had learned contains numerous lies and omissions, the narrative structure of the novel tips this hand well in advance. (It’s noteworthy, for example, how quickly the members of a Barnes & Noble reading group guessed several of the novel’s key plot revelations well before they occurred.) Of course the Arameri religion is made up of lies: that’s dictated by the country mouse narrative structure. So while the secrets of the backstory are interesting, the foreground story of Yeine’s discovery of these secrets is less so.
The other early problem area is the role of objective truth in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. The Arameri empire has suppressed religious beliefs which are factually, objectively correct in the world Jemisin has created. That’s a qualitative simplification of one of the much-discussed contemporary problems of empire, the suppression of one culture by another when neither have any objective claims to correctness. It is easy to root for one side when it has an objective claim on the truth; the belief in this, after all, has sustained all sorts of imperialism throughout history. It is odd, then, that this moral calculus is what Jemisin asks of us in her novel. The more relevant and interesting challenge for humanity, after all, is how to deal with cultural conflicts in the absence of objective absolutes. To what degree do people have a right to their own culture regardless of being able to prove that their beliefs are correct; to what degree should others defend that right, even if they do not themselves share the culture’s beliefs? But instead of grappling with these questions, Jemisin falls back on the conservative absolutes of the country mouse narrative: the correctness of the rural as opposed to the urban; the correctness of the old as opposed to the new.
There is more of this as Yeine becomes situated in the city of Sky and resigned to her legacy as granddaughter of Dekarta, the dying Arameri emperor. After rather too much plot thrashing, it is revealed that Yeine has been summoned to Sky in order to choose a successor to Dekarta, herself becoming a sacrifice to the Arameri god Itempas in the succession ritual. Dekarta (file under “incompetent”) has selected two possible heirs to the empire: one, Relad, is a womanizing emo drunkard; the other, Scimina, goes out of her way to terrorize Yeine, knowing full well Yeine will be the judge of her candidacy (file under “incompetent” and “wicked”). Dekarta also shows himself to be the least suspicious person in the world (see above parenthetical), giving as he does no thought to the timing of the assassination of Yeine’s mother–Dekarta’s beloved daughter, who forsook the Arameri to marry a rare male Darre chieftan–shortly before the events of the novel begin.
Two objections need to be raised here. The first is that this rendering of the antagonists of the country mouse as caricatures of wickedness and incompetence is uncomfortably close to the demonization of the adversary that is often used to justify imperialism. The easy equation of they are wrong with they are less than human (or in this case, less than characters) is too hypocritical a tactic for Jemisin to rely on in this narrative. The second objection is that while these characteristics aren’t necessarily unrealistic–history has shown us how empires often rot from within due to wickedness and incompetence–this cast of adversaries in a story simply doesn’t make for interesting drama. These types of characters are common enough in shorter forms of the country mouse narrative, like film, particularly morally simple productions that rely on humor or melodrama (the film examples I’ve used here were chosen for a reason). In a novel they work less well. Incompetence in a character is not intellectually interesting; pure wickedness in a character is not morally interesting. That Dekarta and Scimina are dictates of the narrative rather than characters is an issue for the story thematically; that they are dictates that don’t force Yeine, as the protagonist, to think, say, or do anything interesting is an issue for the story, full stop.
This is a shame, as Yeine is an otherwise engaging storyteller–and indeed, amongst the nuts and bolts of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms’s writing, what I think Jemisin does best is convey Yeine’s character through the right mix of thoughts, words, and actions. When Yeine is angry, she doesn’t dwell on her anger: rather, she speaks angry words. When Yeine is frantic, or fatalistic (or both), we can tell from her actions. When Yeine is feeling alone, we can tell because she seeks company, or thinks of the loneliness of others. There’s much less redundancy to Yeine’s characterization than many epic fantasy protagonists, and a greater range and fluidity to her reactions. This is important because Jemisin is dealing very directly with pillars of fantasy–bondage, masks, recognition, and metamorphosis are just a few terms whose entries in Clute & Grant’s The Encyclopedia of Fantasy read like plot outlines of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms–and there is, in parallel, a very Le Guin-like mapping of the outward fantastic to the psychological interior (in Jemisin’s case Freudian more than Le Guin’s Jungian). Yeine thus always risked being buried beneath symbolism, risked (ironically) having her personhood denied. That Yeine always feels like a person keeps the story readable, even when she isn’t allowed to be actively interesting.
And in truth, Yeine does a great deal for the story even while relatively passive. One of the key potential narrative pitfalls that Jemisin manages via Yeine is the tendency of portal fantasies towards what Farah Mendlesohn has called infantilization (in her Rhetorics of Fantasy), the need for protagonists in strange new lands to have everything explained to them in a mediated interpretation of the world that they–and thus the reader–cannot challenge. Yeine enters Sky with greater than average knowledge of its customs, however, due to her mother’s teachings; further, she’s intelligent enough to wonder at the agendas of (most of) those who do provide her with information, and to seek out alternate sources. [Edit 25 April 2010: I've just discovered that Mendlesohn herself has made this same argument.] But most importantly, Yeine is essentially telling the novel’s story to herself, after the fact. It’s a style reminiscent of J.M. McDermott’s Last Dragon, although less consistently poetic and without the same shifting ambiguities.
I am not as I once was. They have done this to me, broken me open and torn out my heart. I do not know who I am anymore.
I must try to remember.
I must remember everything, remember and remember and remember, to keep a tight grip on it. So many bits of myself have escaped already.
Yeine is thus able to explain and interpret a lot of the backstory to herself, as it were, rather than having it explained to her. There is a limit to this self-exposition, based on the absolutes that underpin the story. But Jemisin helps make what infantilization does result bearable by giving Yeine strong senses of pride and dignity. Yeine simultaneously doesn’t enjoy knowing that information is being doled out only on a need-to-know basis, refuses to conform if the rules she is told violate her own morals, tries to learn as much as she can on her own, and when justice requires sacrifice on her part, she does not complain about her lack of agency. And in a sense, learning–or rediscovering–one’s own story is a gaining of agency, and can be deeply resonant with those touched by real-world imperialism, making Jemisin’s narrative choice thoroughly in keeping with her novel’s themes.
All of these elements come to the fore in the final sections of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. The conflicts that dragged through the book’s middle chapters are revealed here to be largely elevator music on the climb to the true conflict of the story, that between the gods of the world. There are the expected issues with this. To the extent that the gods of Sky are bound, their availability as engines of agency for others forces the story into some odd contortions. For example Yeine, who grew up in a largely matriarchal society where “only weak women allowed men to protect them,” is confronted with an intricate political challenge in Sky and a military situation back home in Darre. Goddesses of both wisdom and war have pledged to help her. Instead of consulting with them, she keeps her council with, acts with, and is indeed protected by the two enslaved male gods. It feels out of character. On the other hand, to the extent that the gods do have agency, there enters the question of what poor humans are to do–of how responsible and accountable the Arameri can be for their empire. Jemisin muddles the question of responsibility further by introducing the notion of the Maelstrom, which has apparently spat out the three primary gods stamped with their designated aspects and roles. And so with the gods themselves dancing to some unknown tune, the language of inevitability enters the story.
Amazing. How convenient that [he] turned on me.
I prefer to think of it as fate.
Perhaps she was always meant to die at some point.
This brings the consolation that all acts committed were necessary as part of some extra-divine plan that required them, which runs rather against the ideas of personal responsibility present in the story.
With such strong enforcement of the narrative shape, and with Yeine so constrained as an actor, drama in the story must come from more quotidian character interactions and insights. Fortunately, once we move past the obvious antagonists, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms isn’t entirely lacking in this regard. Sieh, the child god, is a fine evocation of the trickster spirit that seems to grace so many divine pantheons: in him Jemisin captures something true about childishness, the combination of innocence, neediness, curiosity, and unthinkingly-selfish, mischievous cruelty of the child (if there’s a flaw to this characterization, it’s that Jemisin shows us the good but only tells us about the negative). Several of the secondary denizens of Sky–T’vril the steward, Viraine the Scrivener–are also presented intriguingly, with enough disparate details to avoid status as mere plot coupon holders.
But the make-or-break character dynamic in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is the relationship between Yeine and Nahadoth, the enslaved night god. On the surface, this relationship has the contours of stock paranormal romance, of the kick-ass human woman inexorably drawn to the pale, broodingly masculine creature of darkness. Jemisin doesn’t exactly discourage this impression: “Love” is the title of the chapter, barely a quarter of the way into the book, featuring the first private conversation between Yeine and Nahadoth. Yet I think the surface reading is too shallow: here is a narrative that Jemisin does interrogate, at least somewhat. Yeine’s story, and Jemisin’s writing, is often in the language of wish-fulfillment, of ugly duckling specialness, but I’m not sure Yeine’s fate is one meant to be envied. Yeine has none of the typical relationship angst regarding Nahadoth; for the two, god and human sacrifice, can seemingly have no future together. Instead, Yeine’s desire for Nahadoth increases in proportion to the immanence of her sacrifice. In her behavior there is a very Freudian intermingling of the drives for sex and death, pleasure as a respite from troubles. Yeine maintains her concern for moral dignity even here; the sexual relationship between herself and Nahadoth charts her perception of the power relationship between the two, with sex occurring only when she can perceive them both as, if not equals, then at least equally bound. (In contrast, one primary way evil characters show their evil is that they use love or betray love–sexual, familial, patriotic. Scimina’s “favorite weapon is love. If you love anyone, anything, beware. That’s where she’ll attack.”) So there’s a sense that The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms can be read as rationalizing some of the problematic aspects of paranormal romance through tropes of epic fantasy such as dynasty, divinity, and destiny. And in doing so, it brings a welcome awareness of female sexuality to epic fantasy, where women who initiate sex are still only rarely depicted in a positive light.
Beyond their role in characterization, the intermingling of sex and love seem to exist at the roots of Jemisin’s created world. The ruling castle of Sky is magically held above the world by a single pillar, a metaphor of both the Arameri attitude and the source of their power. Jemisin then goes out of her way to add a further simile to this metaphor, equating Sky to a flower–and flowers are sex organs. In parallel, the great death and rebirth of the novel occurs when a seed travels up and out of a large column (killing a man in the process, his actions a sacrifice for love): la petite mort, indeed. This deeply sexualized construction of the world is reminiscent of such fantasists as Jacqueline Carey, Tanith Lee, and Storm Constantine (with whom Jemisin shares several motifs, including love as catalyst for healing, redemption, and rebirth), although not as edgy: no sooner do we learn that Itempas the day god and Nahadoth the night god (both always shown as male in this story) had been lovers, than Jemisin is quick to tell us that Nahadoth could assume a female form as well. Which feels like another over-adherence to the conservative norms of the country mouse narrative.
It does however add an intriguing messiness to the world. Itempas and Nahadoth are positioned as opposites: day and night, light and darkness, order and chaos. Between them, and responsible for the balance between them, was Enefa, the goddess of dusk and dawn. It would be easy to assume that the divinity responsible for balance and transition would be the one most mutable, and an element of interest as the trilogy continues will be seeing Jemisin work through her vision of a balance of power, especially vis-a-vis qualities like gender and sexuality. Similarly, if the gods can say both “We were made to be Three, not two” and “We made you [mortals] in our image,” what does this mean for human relationships in Jemisin’s world? Are marriage dyads an unnatural situation, another of Itempas’s distortions? Conversely, are same-sex relationships possible; are they in some sense ungodly? Are there divinely established gender roles in this world? What has it meant for the world to have the divine feminine so long absent? How much of what is divinely established is changeable for Jemisin’s divinely-created humanity? And can the world become a place where a woman like Yeine–biracial, capable, dignified, sexually demanding–can live?
Jemisin seems committed to working through at least some of these messy elements: one of the book’s significant points of departure from the country mouse narrative is her acknowledgment that cleaning up the mess left at the story’s resolution will be a long process. It is a beginning as much as an ending, and it seems that the process will figure large in at least the next volume of the trilogy. Towards the end of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, Jemisin, via Yeine, lays out for us that the narrative of the next book will be a story of redemption–and further, I suspect we’re given signals of the endgame of the trilogy overall in Yeine’s repeated questioning of whether humanity wouldn’t be better off without these gods. It’s likely, then, that the next books will again rely not on questions of what will happen but on details of how events happen, and against what backdrop. So there’s the possibility of interest, and Jemisin has certainly shown she can sustain narrative drive even with a less-than-ideal narrative. But my sense, after reading this first volume, is that if the series is to reach its potential, it must begin to interrogate the values of its narrative underpinnings with the same vigor as it does the elements of story closer to the surface.