Assembling My Atheneum: N.K. Jemisin
It’s time for Aarti’s A More Diverse Universe event celebrating fantasy authors of colour. As any regular reader knows, reading diversely is dear to my heart, as is the fantasy genre, so I have to post about it today! And as I just finished rereading Jemisin’s inheritance trilogy, I thought it’d be fun to spotlight her as a twist on my AMA series.
If I had unlimited funds, which authors would I want to see filling my bookshelves? That question originally arose from my musings about my home library, and I decided to start a new series to answer it. In Assembling My Atheneum, I’ll discuss the authors whose entire works I’d love to possess, as well as which books of theirs I’ve read, which I already own, and which I’d recommend to those wanting to give them a try. If you’re curious, you can see everyone I’ve featured so far.
I first discovered Jemisin in late 2011 thanks to a Laura Miller article. I picked up The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and loved it. Shortly thereafter I finished the other two in the Inheritance Trilogy (The Broken Kingdoms and The Kingdom of Gods), got my mom to read them so we could talk about them together (she loved them too), and generally revelled in the knowledge that I had found a new favourite author. Both books in her second series, The Killing Moon and The Shadowed Sun, were published in 2012, but for some reason my library only bought the second one. This led me to exercising the supreme self control of waiting for the library to agree to my purchase request for The Killing Moon while not just jumping into The Shadowed Sun so that I could read them in order. I’m glad I did! When I finally got to read them I loved them too. As I’ve now read all five of her books once and four of those twice (next up for rereading is The Shadowed Sun) and still can’t get enough of her. I really hope her next novel gets published soon, and that there’s a short story collection in the works so I don’t have to start tracking down her published stories in random magazines, that’s how much of a Jemisin fangirl I am. I don’t actually own any of her books yet, because I can’t decide if I want physical or electronic copies, but as soon as I do decide I’ll be ordering them.
Sadly I’m in the middle of a flare up (writing this in real time rather than publishing a draft I wrote ages ago!) so my brain is not functioning well enough to do her justice. I’ll just have to gush stream-of-consciousness style instead. I adore Jemisin because every single character she writes I connect to, even the minor ones. Because her settings are incredibly well thought out and detailed, down to slang names for neighbourhoods. Because her gods are complicated, weird, awe inspiring, and loveable, just as gods should be, and the mythologies of both her series have that inexplicable ring of truth. Because her plots are page-turning, rollicking, but wonderful twists at the end. Because she somehow manages to incorporate all of my favourite elements of mythology and fantasy and culture (I literally squealed out loud when I began The Kingdom of the Gods and realised it would be focused on Sieh, a trickster child god! And then I squealed again upon discovering the Dreamblood books were inspired by ancient Egypt!) while keeping her books entirely fresh. Because at the same time that she writes roller coaster, devour-in-one-sitting books, she’s incorporating so much commentary on social norms, be their political or racial or gender or sexual orientation related, and all of her commentary is progressive and smart without being preachy or inorganic to the story. It’s the details of her worlds and the glee with which she fills them with kickass, gender busting characters of both genders while exposing and challenging all kinds of structural prejudices that make rereading her books such a delight.
I went into all of her books ‘blind,’ which as usual I think made my reading experience better. So hopefully I’ve convinced you to read her books despite not telling you what they’re about! Assuming I have, you’ve got two choices: you can begin with the Inheritance books or Dreamblood ones. They’re both wonderful and set in different worlds, but Inheritance (first book: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms) is entirely high/epic fantasy with a lot more active god characters running about while Dreamblood’s world (first book: The Killing Moon) bears similarities with ancient Egypt and feels like high fantasy and historical fantasy mixed together. If one of those ideas appeals to you more, start there. Otherwise you can either read them in published order (Inheritance, then Dreamblood) or the order Jemisin wrote them (Dreamblood, then Inheritance). Or just go by whichever you can get from your library/bookstore/etc. fastest! ;) Oh, another thing I love about Jemisin is that while she writes multiple books set in the same world, that chronologically follow upon each other, each works completely as a stand alone ending, including having a complete plot line. They’re not Lord of the Rings style trilogies, where it’s really just one giant book cut up so readers won’t get scared. There are no cliffhanger endings, and the main characters of one book aren’t the main characters of the following one (although they do put in cameos!). I would still highly recommend reading them in order so that you don’t spoil the endings of the first books for yourself, but it’s not necessary to have the next one on hand to begin right after you finish the first.
I hope my semicoherent ramblings have gotten some of you to give Jemisin a go. Even if you’re not a confirmed fantasy lover like myself, as long you enjoy masterfully written, smart literature, I think you’ll get along with Jemisin perfectly. As for me? I just ran over and borrowed the ebook version of The Shadowed Sun from my library so that I can reread it sooner rather than later. Happy Diverse Universe everyone; I can’t wait to expand my TBR list.