The process of creating an inhabitable world with diverse cultures, intricate languages, and exotic religions inspires me as a writer and as a gamer. As a result, I’m always impressed by authors that build such immersive settings for their characters to play in. As a gamemaster I once created a pseudo-Roman setting for our adventures…and then read Jim Butcher‘s The Codex Alera series and saw how to do it properly. I continue to be inspired by Tolkien‘s ability to create a language that infuses his settings with life and have tried, with much less success, to do the same with my settings.
One aspect of world building that many fantasy writers fail to capture adequately is the interplay of culture and religion. Religion and culture have this symbiotic relationship that drives the creation of fantasy worlds; or at least, should if you’re doing it right. This is one of the reasons that Frank Herbert’s Dune is such a phenomenal novel. The depth at which he explores the effects of religion on the shaping of individuals, their cultural, and the known universe, is staggering. As much as religion has shaped our real, non-magical world, too often fantasy novels have their living, breathing gods still stand aloof from the world.
This if far from the case in N. K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms.
Here the titular kingdoms of the world are ruled with an iron fist by the Arameri, a ruthless dynasty who has been gifted with enslaved gods by Bright Itempas, victor of the apocalyptic Gods’ War. With the primordial power of night, chaos, war, wisdom, and childhood at their whim, the Arameri rule unquestioned. But the enslaved deities are far from chastened by their lowly state and have a plan to break free and avenge their fallen mother/sister. Yeine Darr, half-Arameri and “barbarian” chieftain, is thrust into this world when her grandfather, the ancient head of the dynasty, names her as an heir to his power.
Jemisin does a brilliant job of describing both the extreme gulf of perception between the mortal and the divine and the similarities of feeling that bind the two together. Her depictions of the fallen gods represent an intense balancing act of presenting both their cosmic significance and “otherness” alongside the aspects that they have imbued in humankind–and have had instilled in them by their creations. Particularly in the character of Nahadoth, lord of night and change, Jemisin creates a character of extremes that is both terrifying and sympathetic…often in the same breath.
Yeine, a strong young woman from a matriarchal warrior society, must learn to traverse the dangerous paths of the treacherous Arameri, sparring with her cousins and fellow heirs in desperate political maneuverings and intrigues. Along the way she becomes further entwined in both the plots, and the hearts, of the divine slaves, who are nothing to her clan but weapons to be used. Yeine’s discoveries change both her perception of the world and of herself. Jemisin manages to balance the two perfectly to craft a story both large and small, epic and deeply personal.
I was introduced to Jemisin by the recent kerfuffle in the blogosphere over the feminization of epic fantasy. There can be no question that The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is an example of that fine genre. The plot is epically global in scope. Her character takes on the hero’s journey and emerges from the ultimate darkness changed, and the world changed with it. Further, its deceptively effortless world-building describes the both establishment of the world’s dominant culture and its mythic implications. If its accessibility and readability are the only quibbles with such a designation, then perhaps the genre needs just such a revolution of style to keep it relevant.