Several years ago I become very bored with epic fantasy as a genre, and I actually stopped reading for a while. There are a few select writers who have slowly been luring me back to the genre, but my favourite of all them by far is N. K. Jemisin. After I reviewed The Killing Moon and The Shadowed Sun, I promptly devoured her Inheritance Trilogy. I read The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms in three days; The Kingdom of Gods in one. It has been years since I read a book in a single sitting and The Kingdom of Gods was the first time I wanted to in a long time.
While we’ve wrtitten about Jemisin before, in a 2012 AMA on Reddit Jemisin described her work as being for those who are bored with epic fantasy and who find the genre as a whole formulaic and I heartily agree. The single most accurate word I can use to describe her work is complex. Her worlds seamlessly weave together the many aspects of existence — political, religious, economic, social, spiritual, cultural, sexual — and each and every culture feels not just thought out, but human in that they are both coherent, and flawed. She also describes the cosmos of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms as being shaped like a space hoagie, which is just plain awesome.
But her writing isn’t the only reason I love N.K. Jemisin—the more I read about and from her the more I admire her. A multi-racial writer who lives in New York, she’s an active poilitical/feminist/anti-racist blogger, the passion in her posts is visible and contagious. She derides all stereotypes, hates the library’s African-American section, and threatened to quit the SFWA unless Ted Beale was expelled after he made several extremely racist remarks. She is so willing to live by what she values, yet she also openly acknowledges that she is still learning, and that her views change. There is nothing exclusionary about this woman; there is the distinct sense that you could sit down and have a conversation with her about any of these issues, which is all she is asking for.
The best thing, though, is that while these issues shape and inform her work, they never drive it. She never falters and slips into that annoying didactic space that instantly turns me off as a reader. Racism, sexism, colonialism, these are all issues that shape and inform the space her characters navigate through, and which take a tangible form in the relationships between her characters, but these issues are not the focus of her work. Her characters feel like people, and her worlds feel like worlds; they are diverse and alive and teeming with history, where people are complex, strong, individual beings, shaped by prejudice and circumstance and a complex world.
And I think that this drive, to write about people as people, is what has earned her so much recognition, as well as a Locus award, a World Fantasy Award nomination, and multiple Hugo and Nebula nominations. That, and the fact that her books are always interesting. Her next book, The Fifth Season, centres on a planet prone to repeated extinction level seismic events and examines what’s been left behind and how people and magic have adapted to this state.
I’ve never found a writer before who pushes all of my buttons so perfectly. The topics Jemisin tackles and the stories she weaves never fail to capture my imagination or my curiosity, and I always walk away from her work feeling both awed, and like I’ve had a rare chance to see a glimpse of humanity.
She also has the most awesome writing advice I’ve ever seen: