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Posted by Matt | August 20th, 2010

Jeff VanderMeer, Finch. Underland Press, 2009 (US); Corvus, 2010 (UK).

There has always been an awareness of the sequence of history in Jeff VanderMeer’s fiction, an understanding that for any given place and time there will have been someone there before and will be someone there after. An early series of short stories dealt with this explicitly: “Ghost Dancing with Manco Tupac” (1989, expanded 2000), “The Emperor’s Reply” (1993), and “The Compass of His Bones” (2004) were tales of the end of the Inca empire at the hands of Spanish Conquistadors. Veniss Underground (2003), a novel, derived much of its pervasive low-level dread from the uplifted meerkats who saw themselves as the next evolutionary step up from humanity, the heirs of the world in waiting. And most notably, historicity is deeply ingrained in VanderMeer’s best-known fiction, his Ambergris cycle. “The Hoegbotton Guide to the Early History of Ambergris” in the City of Saints and Madmen mosaic novel (2001, expanded 2002, further expanded UK 2004, revised US 2006) established the basics: the seizure of the strange city of Cinsorium on the River Moth by a band of whaler-pirates fleeing from an empire’s collapse; the driving underground of the city’s mysterious inhabitants, the gray caps, by the new settlers; the razing of the old city and its reconstruction as Ambergris; the subsequent territorial battles with neighboring tribes and nation-states in its rise as a center of art and commerce. The cycle’s second volume, Shriek: An Afterword (2006), conveys more subtly by its very title that this is a tale that follows another story; the book’s narrative conceit is that one character, the historian Duncan Shriek, is making notes and commentary over a core text written by Duncan’s sister Janice as an {auto}biographical afterword to one of Duncan’s own historical works.

And so we come to Finch, the third and perhaps final book of the Ambergris cycle. We’re a hundred years after Shriek, and Ambergris is a blitzed mockery of its former decadence. The gray caps have risen, long preparation during their exile in the city’s cavernous underground resulting in a swift takeover of the surface. Most humans in the city now live a shell-shocked existence, ameliorated by hallucinogenic mushrooms provided by the gray caps that remind the inhabitants of better times. Rebels exist outside the city, but are under constant threat of discovery and banishment to work camps–or more mysterious forms of disappearance. And a few humans hover in-between, trying to find meaning in a world turned downside-up. Among them is the titular John Finch, one of the pool of human police that the largely-nocturnal gray caps rely on for daytime legwork in criminal investigations.

Finch-the-character is the first of several areas where Finch-the-novel shines. There’s the natural tendency to see Finch as a traitor to his species, a collaborator. The book as a whole serves as an irreducible response to this first impression, an answer to the question of why he is working for the gray caps. As Finch conducts his investigation into a dead human and a bisected gray cap who seem to have materialized together in a deserted apartment as though fallen from a great height, the case more and more requires Finch to revisit his past and the reasons for his present situation. What VanderMeer does effectively over the course of the novel is develop our understanding of Finch as someone trapped by both personal history and cultural zeitgeist, a decent enough man doing the best he can in a world without clear-cut answers. He’s somewhat akin, on the surface level at least, to a hardboiled version of Gene Wolfe’s Severian the Torturer, engaged in a quest to fight a future that he does not fully comprehend at the behest of those whose agenda he does not fully know.

Which is to say, while guns and blood (and other fluids) are involved–copiously–in the tale, Finch is no action hero, and Finch is no fantasy of political agency. While there is plenty of action, it’s generally taken at the behest of the either the gray caps or one or another group of rebels. Finch is a character, to suggest another unlikely but I think useful comparison, in the vein of Yeine Darr from N.K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms: someone in an environment of complex constraints, physical and cultural, whose actions must be parsed in light of these constraints. What does it mean to live in occupied territory, to have one’s life (and even body) colonized? It’s a question that runs through the novel. Finch, mind you, is by no means perfect in this regard–that is, he’s very human. But he’s someone VanderMeer invites us to consider on several different axes: what is his hierarchy of loyalties to family, loves, friends, and city; how sympathetic is Finch; how likable is he; how worthy is he of respect?

VanderMeer is among the most versatile contemporary shapers of narrative, combining a sense of the right story to tell for any given place and time, with a willingness to experiment–and borrow from the best–in determining the right narrative style for that story. So it’s no surprise that another highlight of Finch is the manner in which this shattered tale is told. We are deep in hardboiled crime territory here, echoes of the staccato, “telegraphic” neo-noir of James Ellroy:

[Finch] shouldn’t even have been on this case. [...] Never do police work anywhere near your own area. Never let the people where you lived know your job. And yet, 239 Manzikert Avenue was only a mile from the hotel [where he lived]. Why had Heretic put him in charge? Didn’t trust Wyte anymore? Or was there some other reason? Leaned forward in his chair. Had to make some progess.

This fragmented prose isn’t an affectation: the noir stylings carry with them a host of characteristics and connotations that perform important work for VanderMeer. The chopped up sentences continue to emphasize that idea of sequence: it’s almost always one distinct, singular action or perception following another. There’s an individualistic quality and an immediacy to this style, the sensation that we’re experiencing the story at street level through Finch’s eyes, with no narrative pauses to see what comes next and then report back later in more complex sentences. It emphasizes that Finch is on his own, and is quite different from the narratives of previous Ambergris novels that were layered in time and voice. At the same time, VanderMeer often uses Finch’s sentence fragments to break the narrative chain of causation, to separate the actions of characters from their results–which all conveys something of the dissociative mood and mindset of the citizenry of Ambergris. The Ambergrisians have experienced events they do not understand, whose cause and ultimate results are unknown to them. As in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, the rules of the world have been broken, and the broken grammar reflects the sense of uncanny dread that results. But this is also a textbook example of the dissociation of torture, which becomes clear when the story moves to a scene of torture and the style does not change.

Couldn’t feel his feet or hands. A kind of mercy. Because early on the Partial had cut off one of Finch’s toes. Had busted up his knee again. Cut a slit in his right cheek that bled into his mouth.

“Confess,” the Partial kept saying. “Confess.”

[...]

Finch laughed. An unhinged laugh that ended on too high a note. [...] The Partial crept behind him. Felt a soft sawing around his numb hand. A sudden flowing release. [...] The Partial placed Finch’s bloody pinkie finger on the table. It looked like a white worm.

Indeed, as we realize that the whole novel is interspersed with a recording of this interrogation and torture of Finch, the prose style becomes that much more appropriate. If the textbook definition of a sentence is a completed thought, VanderMeer’s noir-serrated writing conveys a populace–and a character–unwilling to complete a thought for fear of what that thought might be, what it might confess.

As I noted when discussing China Miéville’s The City & The City, however, VanderMeer’s noir takes a somewhat different shape and is put to a very different use than most of the other fantasy-crime hybrids published in recent years–Miéville’s novel, Jedediah Berry’s Manual of Detection, Zoran Živkovic’s The Last Book. These other works adopted noir as a retro-styling, a conception of the world-as-failure dating from the era between the World Wars that, the implicit message is, we’ve never quite been able to overcome. The classic noir they reference was an outgrowth of industrialization and urbanization, combined with subsequent economic downturn, combined with the lesson of Prohibition that trying to legislate morality only makes everyone a criminal. This original noir was an expression of dazed despair over the failure of our dreams, at a world we had created and then seemed to become stuck in. VanderMeer’s noir feels more modern, millennial. His achievement with Finch is to recreate urban noir based on contemporary concepts of post-colonial religious and ethnic conflict, drug culture, the panoptic state, and the post-9/11 (mis)understanding of the world not as something we helped bring about, but as something done to us. Common contemporary fears are more organic than technological–chemical and biological weaponry, disease like swine and bird flu, ecological issues like global warming–or more based in ideology: underground cells rising to unleash horrors, the intersection of terrorism and Lovecraft. Meanwhile, the questions of the day surround a Western world awakened to its colonialist past and now wondering how we would have reacted if what we did to others had been done to us, how then to co-exist with those whose worldview seems truly alien–and so the uncertain tenuousness of hope, of relying on unproven, unprovable narratives that communication, understanding, and living together might be possible; wondering how much miscommunication and conflict are inevitable. Finch reads as if VanderMeer took all these key components of contemporary politics, scrambled the subjects and actions and objects beyond allegorical recognition, laid them out in their new form as a series of fragments very much akin to the novel’s prose, and seeing that they still made sense in their scrambled form and still told a believable story, challenged the reader to decide for themselves what exactly this means.

Finch can nominally be read as a stand-alone story, but it seems important to me to read it as part of the whole Ambergris cycle for reasons not least that it is only in the previous volumes that the falsity of the impression of current circumstances as something done to the Ambergrisians is fully revealed. And a key reason to read the cycle in order–beyond an appreciation for how much groundwork was laid early on, and a greater understanding of various characters, historical events, and mysteries solved and unsolved–is to experience the visceral transformation of the city that VanderMeer has wrought. For as the prose style is different in Finch than in VanderMeer’s previous Ambergris novels, so too the city of Ambergris has been transformed.

Six years and I can’t recognize a goddamn thing from before.

Harsh blue sprawl of the bay, bled from the River Moth. Carved from nothing. The first thing the gray caps did when they Rose, flooding Ambergris and killing thousands. Now the city, riddled through with canals, is like a body that was once drowned. Parts bleached, parts bloated. Metal and stone for flesh. Places that stick out and places that barely touch the surface.

[...]

Beyond the Spit, the silhouette of the two living domes covering the detention camps. Broken by the smoke, hidden by debris. Built over a valley of homes. Built atop the remains of the military factories that had allowed the two great mercantile companies, House Hoegbotton and the invading House Frankwrithe & Lewden, to dream of empire, to destroy each other. And the city with them. Finch had fought for Hoegbotton. Once upon a time.

Between the domes, the fiery green glitter and minarets of the Religious Quarter, occupied by the remnants of native tribes. Adapting. Struggling. Destined to someday be wiped out. He can see the exposed crater at the top of the Truffidian Cathedral. Cracked. All the prayers let out.

We’re again seeing the march of history in VanderMeer’s work, transformation and change. What the quote above also illustrates is how Finch ramps up the intensity across a wide spectrum of urban life: political-economic, military-industrial, racial, spiritual, science fictional. Many horror-tinged works rely on keeping their horror concealed, letting the audience’s imagination fill in the blanks. When the horror is finally revealed, its very corporeality can render it trivial compared to what we imagined. But because Finch distributes its alienation across so many spheres of life, the changes the gray caps have wrought feel unrelenting and powerful.

Here it is also useful to stop talking about thematics and give appreciation for the breadth of visceral, sensorial imagination on display: fungal memory bulbs that extract the last memories of the deceased and replay them when consumed by the living; the gray cap’s pet skery, which seems like a small domesticated black hole; Partials, humans converted by gray caps into walking organic surveillance cameras; and innumerable other uses for mushrooms, spores, and mold. My favorite may be the method by which the underground gray caps communicate with their above-ground human assistants:

A soft, wet, sucking sound came from the memory hole beside his desk. Finch shuddered, put aside his notes.

[...]

Exhaled sharply. Peered around the left edge of the desk. Glanced down at the glistening hole. It was about twice the size of a man’s fist. Lamprey-like teeth. Gasping, pink-tinged maw. Foul. The green tendrils lining the gullet had pushed up the dirty black spherical pod until it lay atop the mouth.

[...]

Finch leaned over. Grabbed the pod. Slimy feel. Sticky.

Tossed the pod onto his desk. Pulled out a hammer from the same drawer where he kept his limited supply of dormant pods. Split Heretic’s pod wide open.

[...]

In amongst the fragments: a few copies of a photograph of the dead man, compliments of the Partial.

And a message.

In this vein, it is also worth mentioning VanderMeer’s rare accomplishment in giving us fully-realized iterations of a fantasy setting at such different times and in such different conditions. It speaks to the excellence of Ambergris as a venue for possibility, a setting open to story–as opposed to many fantasy worlds that seem to exist, as critic Gary K. Wolfe has noted, only to tell a single intended story. It’s one of the good aspects of Tolkien that the Tolkien clone factory always forgets (or like Peter Jackson, can’t bear) to steal. Among recent fantasy, Daniel Abraham takes this long view somewhat in his Long Price quartet; Martha Wells does it, too, in her Ile Rien novels, which begin in a fairly stock medieval setting, progress through the dwindling of magic and beginnings of an industrial age, and ends with her city under siege much like the London Blitz–which makes me wonder what it is about the WWII era that makes it so often a terminal point that fantasy cannot pass through; perhaps it’s the time when it becomes impossible for fantasy to progress any further and still be fantasy.

The few issues I had with Finch were when the imaginative and thematic thrusts seemed to get in each other’s way, where it feels like VanderMeer is trying too hard to enforce a certain reading of the text. “Everyone’s a collaborator. Everyone’s a rebel” is a hard-hitting line to hit readers with on the first page, but its somewhat random insertion on later consideration comes to feel forced; so too does a later line about Finch being a good man in impossible times.

Similarly: roles, the peril of becoming the roles we act out, and our tendency to be fooled by the appearances of roles are concerns throughout the Ambergris cycle. This is true in terms of jobs, in terms of the humanity or inhumanity of the gray caps, and it is true in terms of nearly all of the series’s female characters. From the short story “Dradin, in Love,” in which a newcomer to Ambergris falls in love with a woman seen only through a window, to the triangle in Shriek: An Afterword between Duncan Shriek, his sister Janice, and his lover Mary Sabon, the alientating quality of the male gaze, the difficulty men have of seeing women as individuals (and vice versa) is a recurring pattern. Finch’s lover Sintra is fully a piece with this pattern; what feels conflicted here is when the imagination displayed by the rest of the novel meets the fact that there’s not a word Sintra utters that she didn’t learn in Femme Fatale 101. While VanderMeer isn’t unaware of this and allows Sintra a biting last say, her character is too undeveloped for this to bite as much as it should–instead it is again rather over-blunt and forced, important thematically but dull on a sentence-by-sentence level in a way that the rest of the novel is not. It would be nice to give Sintra the benefit of the doubt as a complex character, to see her as someone who perhaps bought into her assigned role too much and started to become it in her own mind, or used it to justify her actions–I’m not sure her criticism of how Finch saw their relationship was warranted, for example–but she’s too thin a character, her interactions with Finch too limited, to make that reading supportable. This is all exacerbated because the novel’s other female character [edit, see comments: who Finch has any normal interactions with], Finch’s neighbor Rathven, is likewise potentially interesting but never becomes more than a device to keep the story moving.

Of course the inevitability of the story moving forward is, in a sense, what Finch is all about. We return again to VanderMeer’s use of noir. Classic noir tells a tale of entrapment in a cycle of behavior, a fly quixotically bumping against the cage of a screened door, yearning for the unreachable outdoors beyond. Finch suggests that sometimes the door can open–sometimes as the result of our actions, sometimes through the actions of those we choose to act for us, sometimes because of historical pressures we may not always fully understand, or be comfortable with. But openings happen, and they bring change. We cannot change the massive past accumulation of history, but we can choose who we are as individuals in the present: it’s perhaps the only way individuals can interact with the mass of history, ignoring it but at the same time shaping it. In this Finch reads like a plea for engagement with the world.

And it is with this understanding that the dual components of the novel’s conclusion form a perfect summation of all that has gone before, in Finch and in VanderMeer’s Ambergris cycle overall. As the text of Finch is framed by an interrogation, so the novel ends with, quite explicitly, a confession. Yet this has the quality of a religious, or at least spiritual, confession: a true and honest communication between two people that is freely offered and cleansing, rather than the forced result of torture. And this is interesting because the other half of the book’s conclusion is one that has been deployed frequently by more explicitly religious fantasies. There is a leave-taking by boat. There is a sense that, for better or worse, a choice has been made, that history has advanced and some measure of possibility removed from the world. And there is an awareness of the inevitability of this, of change; that history never ends–in the world of fiction at least–and so every ending is really just a new chance to take part in the always-contentious shared decision of what happens next.



Posted by Matt | April 15th, 2010

N.K. Jemisin, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Orbit, 2010 (US & UK): trade paperback.

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.