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The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms – NK Jemisin

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Yeah, I know – every blogger worth their salt has already reviewed this much praised debut by NK Nemisin, but, better late than never…

And of course, the beauty of great fantasy is that it rarely dates, so, assuming the remaining books in The Inheritance Trilogy match the quality of this first novel, it seems very likely The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms will have a long shelf life.

In this opening instalment, Jemisin has meticulously created a world of complex politics and religion that is not only epic, but also remarkably original.

Yeine Darr is an outcast from the barbarian north. After her mother dies under suspicious circumstances, Yeine is summoned to the majestic city of Sky – a palace above the clouds where the lives of gods and mortals intertwine.

There, to her shock, she is named one of the potential heirs to the throne of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, forcing her into vicious power struggle with two estranged cousins and a tyrannical system she barely understands.

As she tries to unravel the elaborate schemes of those around her, Yeine draws closer to the secrets of her mother’s death, her family’s bloody history and the role she must play in the future of the world.

The religious complexity of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is one of Jemisin’s most impressive feats. In this world, the move from polytheism to monotheism has been shrouded in lies and half-truths, where the vanquished gods are now enslaved to the ruling family of Sky, and play a pivotal role in its politics.

There’s been a growing trend (particularly in urban fantasy) for young women to find themselves attracted to someone (vampire/werewolf/fallen angel) much stronger than themselves, and who may or may not want to kill them.

Jemisin creates the ultimate dangerous liaison by putting Yeine in the path of Nahadoth, the brooding Nightlord, who is among the enslaved gods. The instability, volatility and omnipresent danger of their unorthodox relationship certainly help drive the story.

Jemisin is a strong and confident writer. She brings together themes of bigotry, religious oppression, destiny and forgiveness in an intelligent, original page-turning novel.

She has a strong narrative style, a gift for characterisation and dialogue, and has created a world that – by the end of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms – is ripe with possibilities.

The extras at the end of this novel hint at a new an interesting direction for the second instalment, and the reaction from blogging world attests to the fact I’m not alone in looking forward to it.

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Would you like politics with that?

There’s been an interesting discussion over at Fantasy & SciFi Lovin’ News & Reviews this week about religion and politics in fiction (Hey! Your politics got into my science fiction).

The general consensus among those who commented is that they don’t necessarily mind if the author is making a statement about religion or politics, as long as they’re not using a sledgehammer to drive home the point.

I have to agree. Blatant manipulation is annoying. It also reflects a lack of imagination on an author’s part.

While narrative is undeniably a powerful tool to shift mindsets (more so, than say, a lecture or sermon), the true test of an effective thought-provoking story should be how it encourages the reader/viewer to think about a particular topic. As opposed to being told what to think.

Fantasy and sci fi are ripe for analogy and metaphor, which is why the best stories in those genres often tackle big issues (racism, slavery, climate change, deforestation… even before Avatar…). First and foremost, though, these stories have to be entertaining and engaging, with strong story arcs, solid mythologies and believable characters.  Nobody’s going to argue with that.

But it’s easy to rail against heavy-handed narratives when the themes grate against our own religious, political or philosophical views. I’ve wondered if my objection to stories with agendas is as strong if I happen to agree with a writer’s leanings.

I’d like to think I’d still demand an open-minded approach, but I suspect I’m probably more forgiving if I think it’s a message the world needs to hear.

Anyway, it’s a worthwhile discussion…

Kim Wilkins takes a swing at literary snobbery

Ever feel the need to hide the cover of the fantasy novel you’re reading, to avoid someone making a snap judgement about you?

Not because you’re embarrassed by what you’re reading, but because the rest of the literary world frequently snubs its nose at speculative fiction and we’re made to feel our reading choices show some sort of lack of taste (or, ironically, imagination)?

No? Great!

But if you answered yes, take heart. You’re not alone. In Australia, particularly, spec fic is considered a poor cousin to literary fiction (even though bookshops across the country are expanding fantasy sections to accommodate buyer demand).

Eclectic Australian novelist Kim Wilkins recently went to town on the notion that genre fiction (be it fantasy, sci fi or romance) is somehow inferior to literary fiction, and that its fans are somehow less intelligent because of their reading choices.

Those of us who read both – and we’re more the rule than the exception – know that’s not true, and yet the non genre-reading world tends to dismiss us with, at best, pity, and, at worst, derision.

Kim’s strongly worded comment piece in WQ (produced by the Queensland Writers Centre) lamented the bias in Australia against genre fiction. That genre fiction is all but ignored by funding bodies, literary awards, critics, and the media in general (the latter is generally only interested in international fantasy writers whose names end in Meyer or Rowling, and only then once film adaptations are under way.)

(I should point out there is one glaring exception: The Australian Review publishes reviews by George Williams on new fantasy releases on a semi-regular basis.)

Kim points out that in Australia, genre fiction – particularly speculative fiction – is considered beyond the definition of “Australian fiction”, even though a large number of published Australian novelists write fantasy.

One of the reasons so many Australian fantasy fans turn to blogs is that there’s very limited coverage of any form of spec fic in mainstream media here. Kim points out that literary works dominate reviews in major newspapers and magazines, providing figures to back up her assertion that coverage is heavily skewed towards literary fiction.

She says: “In real terms, these figures suggest readers are going to have a much harder time finding articles about their favourite genre authors, than about their favourite lit fic authors. Number one: that’s not fair. Number two: is there a chance that the low regard for these books might actually make readers feel ashamed or stupid for reading them?”

There will always be debate about the differences between literary fiction and genre fiction (and Kim even argues that literary fiction is a genre in itself, with its own rules and style).

Genre fiction can be well written, and literary fiction can have a page-turning story. Style and story-telling don’t have to be mutually exclusive. (And yes, I realise there’s plenty of crap fantasy around – but there’s crap lit fic too.)

I read lit fic and spec fic, but I know I definitely feel different about reading each in public, and that’s wrong.

I love good spec fic. As Kim says in WQ, it’s the pleasure of familiarity. Not predictability, but the familiarity of well constructed stories, imaginative mythologies and multi-dimensional characters that offer escapism and – when done particularly well – give me a fresh perspective on my own world.

I’d love to hear people’s thoughts on this issue.

Do you read what you want and couldn’t care less what people think? Or do you – once in a while – feel the need to explain your reading choices? (That, you know, you know vampires aren’t real…?)

It’s all about other worlds

I’ve been blogging now for about two years over at Great stories, and in that time I’ve posted on everything from Life of Pi and White Tiger to Twilight and Alice in Wonderland.

My aim with that blog has always been to chat about great stories, and I’ve tried to write posts that are not simply reviews, but also starting points for discussions about the nature of language and the power of narrative.

In the last 12 months, two very distinct themes have emerged: fantasy stories and everything else.

So … I’ve decided to keep blogging on the books that fall into the “everything else” category at Great stories, and have set this blog up to write exclusively about stories featuring “other worlds”, whether they be urban fantasy, paranormal thrillers, other world fantasy, paranormal romance etc.

To kick things off,  I’ve brought across posts from Great stories that fit this category and put them on this site as well (so apologies to readers who have already them). Yes, there’s a lot about the Twilight saga phenomenon, and while I can’t promise there won’t be more on that topic, it certainly won’t be the dominate theme of future posts.

My posts will now alternate between the two blogs, depending on the book I’m writing about and which site it will fit best on. Next up for this blog will be Lili St Crow’s Strange Angels series.

As  with Great stories, please feel free to leave comments on new and past posts!