Although I’ve never thought about writing epic, god-infused, politcal/family intrigues, I love reading them when well done. Part drama, part soap opera, part mystery, and part commentary on society, all with a fantasy sheen. What’s not to love?
N.K. Jemisin’s debut novels The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and The Broken Kingdoms offer it all. And what’s more, they’re accessible because the main character is a (relatively) normal person thrust into something they neither understand nor particularly want to be involved in, but not in the prophesized “Chosen one” manner of cliché. Jemisin takes what could be considered trite ideas and twists them into something entirely new.
And, even better, unlike so many of the new YA heroines I’ve seen recently, neither of Jemisin’s protagonists is a reactive, passive woman. In the first book The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, the heir to a small throne, Yeine, finds herself in the middle of the biggest political mess in the world – the main world court where even gods are servants. Too often, to make the the hero or heroine accessible, an author creates a total nobody who couldn’t possibly know enough of court life to succeed. In this case, however, Jemisin gives us someone who is royalty (and therefore qualified to be where the story needs her), but at such a low level that we can still identify with her and put ourselves in her place (and thereby pulling us into the story).
In the second novel, the blind artist Oree finds herself in the middle of a war on the gods. Many of the gods around her are streetlevel godlings and there’s no court for Oree to eventually rule. She’s an ordinary citizen and that works best for this story because she’s not privy to things that people at court, any court, would know. So, again, as readers we can put ourselves in her shoes and wonder, rage, hurt, and love along with her.
But let’s go back to the idea of active heroines. What makes these two books particularly captivating is that these women choose, act and plan. While they make mistakes, they’re dragged around by forces stronger than they are, and they react to other people’s actions, that’s not ALL they do. When thrust into worlds and plots that they do not want to be a part of, they do what’s required to get out. They don’t wait for anyone to save them. Yes, they are both saved at various points by men (or male gods), but at no point does either of them come across as a helpless female. They’re real women, not some image of passivity that so many cultures (including our own) hold up as a paragon of feminity.
As I read more YA fiction (although these books aren’t really YA even if Yeine is only 19 and Oree mid-20s), I see a distressing pattern. The big blockbuster sellers (aside from Rowling) mostly give us whiny girls who do nothing but complain about how unfair life is. It’s become normal for me to be surprised and wowed when I come across a strong, balanced female character.
When I do I grab onto her and dive into her story with fervor because there’s nothing better than seeing a strong, real woman finding her way in a vivid unreal world.
Of course, it also helps that Jemisin is a kick-ass storyteller.
P.S. I could also go on for a while about the diversity in these books – and not diversity for the sake of it or to promote a specific theme or message – there are different types of people in the book because there are different types of people in the world. The diversity advances the story without being the reason for the story. In other words, in her fantasy realm, Jemisin delivers us the real world.