Saturday, 2 November 2013

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

I'm not really sure what to make of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin, but then, I've not been sure of what to make of a lot of my reading of late.

I've been going through something of a fantasy period in anticipation of writing that flipping fantasy novel which has been kicking around in the back of my mind for the better part of the last decade. This has proven problematic; fantasy isn't my favourite genre. In fact, I'd say it's been relegated out of the top flight of my preferred reading material, replaced by factual history. Although the occasional novel or series - The Kingkiller Chronicles, A Song of Ice and Fire, The Liveship Traders - transcends my expectations of fantasy, the genre still feels too safe, too conservative, too rooted in looking back at what made it great in the first place and failing, therefore, to push on with fresh ideas and innovations.

In the past week I also completed Kraken by perennial favourite China Miéville. By his usual standards I found it to be below par. His ideas were, as ever, boundary-pushing and packed with life, but they found themselves struggling to stay afloat in the book's uneven flow of pacing. It was doubly disappointing because the opening hundred pages or so set up the book so well.

So it was against a disappointed background and limited expectations that I came to The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, the first book in N.K. Jemisin's Inheritance Trilogy.

I'll confess to knowing nothing of Jemisin's work before picking up The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, and until I looked the book up I hadn't even been aware it had been shortlisted for the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2011 (a fact I really should have been aware of, given my habitual reading of the shortlists on a year-on-year basis). All I knew of her came from my peripheral awareness of a controversy with the SFWA over the summer. In some ways, going into something without expectations is the best way to approach a new writer and a new series.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms sees the first-person narrator, Yeine, summoned to the city of Sky following the mysterious death of her mother. Once there, she finds herself named as a potential heir to the throne. So far, so clichéd, and nothing to shake me from my usual fantasy 'seen it all before' attitude.

But after a while, I started to pick up on a few things. Sky is an interesting place in and of itself - 'a palace above the clouds where the lives of gods and mortals intertwine', according to the blurb, an assessment which is difficult to disagree with on a purely factual level - but Jemisin's treatment of it renders it an excellent setting. It takes a page or two, but a sense of wonder feel starts to set in in relation to Sky, all down to Jemisin's subtle handling of the place.

More interesting, though, is her treatment of characters. Yeine is no damsel in distress, and nor is she a classic Amazon. She's vulnerable, but strong. She has her failings, gives in to temptations she shouldn't allow to overcome her, makes reckless decisions, makes mistakes. In short, she's beautifully human, as are the surrounding cast of characters. The interactions are fascinating and compelling.

And really, that's what lies at the heart of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms: the characters and their interactions. They form the driving force behind everything that goes on. The pseudo-realpolitik which underpins the mortal element of the plot pales in comparison. Far too many other writers get so caught up in events that they forget about the characters. In keeping the scale relatively small - there's no grand cast of characters, no sub-plots to get distracted by - Jemisin succeeds where so many others fail. I'll confess to being in love with how she treated this side of the book.

I'm much less in love with another side of the novel, though: the writing itself.

This is where my confusion comes in, and why I'm not sure how I feel about the book as a whole. Although Jemisin has created a superb, believable world full of incredibly human characters, she doesn't seem to have quite worked out where she's pitching the writing. For much of the book it feels like a young adult novel, albeit one that's well written. In a book so full of complex adult storylines, the writing feels almost at odds with the story. Then there are the occasional moments where the writing does get adult, and these feel out of place whilst being completely fitting. To top it all off, the language of the book is almost virtually clean and then out of nowhere someone says 'c**t'. It's jarring and offputting - I can deal with strong language (goodness knows my own writing's hardly clean) but it has its place and this wasn't it, not in an otherwise clean context.

So there we have it. I'm not sure what to make of a book packed with brilliance because it feels like its writing lets it down. Whether I'll pick up the second in the series - bearing in mind how complete volume one feels - is touch and go. If I do, it'll be for the ideas that subvert so many fantasy clichés and do just what other pieces of work determinedly won't.