Interview with Katharine Duckett

Interview with Katharine Duckett

As part of the ongoing, but soon to be over, Book of Apex Vol. 4 Blog Tour, we’re very happy to present a short interview with Katharine Duckett. If any readers haven’t yet read Ms. Duckett’s guest post from earlier in the month, please check it out here. More details, posts, interviews, giveaways and whatnot can be found at the above link. Now, on to the interview.

Please introduce yourself to your fans. What should we know about you, your writing, your favorite soccer team, etc.? Where can we find your work?

Hi, fans! (By which I pretty much just mean my fiancée.) I’m the publicity coordinator for Tor.com by day, and a writer, performer, and Central Asian food enthusiast by night. I grew up in Tennessee, spent part of high school in Izmir, Turkey, went to Hampshire College in Massachusetts, and spent a couple of years in Kazakhstan before winding up in New York City. You can find my work next in the May issue of Interzone: they’ll be publishing my novelette, “The Mortuaries,” which, I’m betting you can tell from the title, is just about as cheery as “Sexagesimal.” I’ll write something that doesn’t revolve around dead people and the futility of existence someday, I promise! Maybe. Possibly.

How has working at Tor.com changed the way you approach writing and the genre as a whole? Does being an insider alter your relationship with SFF or give you any special insights about success?

Well, I started out working at Small Beer Press as an intern in college, which gave me some insight into the world of publishing and the diversity of the SF/F genre. At Tor.com, my position involves keeping an eye on what’s new and interesting in the field, and keeps me tuned into what writers across science fiction, fantasy, and speculative fiction are producing. So I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily altered my relationship with writing or the genre, but it’s expanded my knowledge of what’s out there and what’s possible as a writer just breaking into the field.

You wrote about the sense of dislocation you felt after two years abroad with the Peace Corps. How else has this experience informed your writing? In what ways, if any, does the exposure to new lifestyles and world views influence your creative process?

I find that spending time in totally different contexts always helps me gain perspective on whatever I’m writing, and I’ve definitely always been prone to wanderlust. Writing’s a lot like travel, in the sense that you need to suspend your own judgments and turn off your own filter in order to engage with someone else’s mindset and experiences. I’ve benefitted immensely from traveling and living abroad, and it’s been central to my development as a writer. It’s helped me learn to experiment and branch out in my work, to take a step back and consider how a story looks in the light of all different sorts of perspectives, to stretch my skills and take on new challenges without remaining locked into my comfort zone.

*****

Thanks, Katharine, for taking time out of your busy schedule eating Central Asian food, publicizing Tor.com, and writing depressing stories about dead people, to talk with Two Dudes. I got a sneak peak at “The Mortuaries” and can assure everyone that it is every bit as mind-bending as “Sexagesimal.” Definitely worth picking up Interzone in May.

The Future is Japanese

The Future is Japanese
Ed.: Nick Mamatas and Masumi Washington

I have been frustrated trying to find reviews of The Future is Japanese. Google turns up very little beyond a couple of paragraphs in Locus that clearly missed the point. Goodreads has a small selection that ranges from a butt-hurt “I LOVE JAPAN AND THIS ISN’T JAPAN” to “I just don’t get this at all.” Is the target audience here really limited to only me? I hope for the publisher’s sake that people can enjoy this set of short stories without a specialized knowledge of Japan and a taste for wry cliché deconstruction, but if the reviews I’ve seen are any indication, this may not be the case.

I enjoyed this collection a great deal. Not every story worked for me, as is often the case with anthologies, and they are thematically scattered. The stories themselves are not guaranteed to be about Japan, per se, just to have some connection to the country. Several have no connection whatsoever, beyond the nationality of the writer. All told, five of the thirteen stories are by Japanese authors. As far as I know, only one, Tobi Hirotaka, doesn’t have a book out in English, but these stories are all first available here. The remaining eight are by Western authors who either have extensive Japan experience, or are at least smart enough to not say something woefully inaccurate. Many of the stories use one or another Japanese stereotype as a launching point, though none are predictable. I don’t have deep thoughts about all of them, but here are select, spoiler-free reactions.

Ken Liu’s “Mono no Aware” starts things off with a Hugo-winning bang. A cynical part of me wants to hate this story as an embodiment of the smug superiority that I beat my head against so often in Japan. I can’t though, because the Japanese really are that well-behaved in the face of catastrophe, as the aftermath of the 2011 tsunami demonstrated. Further, while I don’t know the details of the author’s ethnicity, Liu is not a Japanese name. In fact, I assume it to be Chinese, which would mean the story is rather like a Frenchman singing the praises of his German neighbors. If “Mono no Aware” was written by a Japanese man, I would despise it. Instead, it is a heroic and thoughtful reminder of why my second home remains so in the face of so much buffoonery.

My big discovery in the book is one Tobi Hirotaka. I am still rooting around for information about him, but his story, “Autogenic Dreaming: Interview with the Columns of Clouds,” is arguably the most mind-bending of the bunch. He manages to combine Silence of the Lambs, literary criticism, the Singularity, and information theory into one dense, knotty short story. I definitely need to read it again before saying much more about it. From what I can piece together of various Japanese language sources, Tobi has only this story available in English and is not terribly prolific anyway. I am hoping to get my hands on another title or two, though I may have to be in Japan before that happens.

I was not surprised to find Toh Enjoe’s story well-nigh incomprehensible. Much of his work appears to be as much about philosophy and metaphysics as SF. I’m going to read the recently translated Self-Reference Engine, but I’m only going to read it in English. Life is too short to punish myself with this sort of thing in Japanese unless I am well paid for it. As a sidenote, I absolutely loath incorrect romanization of Japanese names. This should be Enjo To. No extra letters, last name first. Aargh. However, the author himself seems to have chosen this style, so I have to roll with it. (After all, my name converted to Japanese is an abomination too, leading me to adopt an entirely different identity when there.)

Project Itoh is one angry dude. (There’s that extra “h” again. I hate it.) Of course, if I was a Gen X guy born in Japan, I would probably be angry too. Every generation of Japanese has been beaten down, it’s part of the middle-class social contract, but at least most post-war Japanese had some rewards at the end: job security, a functional social safety net, tacit agreement from the rich to not rub it in everyone’s faces, etc. Not Gen X. The Baby Boomers blew up Japan’s bubble, then kept all the remaining jobs, basically screwing over my contemporaries. If that weren’t all, Itoh was diagnosed with cancer while still in his 30s. He earned his wrath. “The Indifference Engine” lacks the wit and context of Harmony, but is brutal and compelling just the same.

The tour de force of the collection is Ogawa Issui’s “The Golden Bread.” It’s easy to look at this tale of a young fighter pilot from Yamato, who has crash landed in the agrarian expanse of Kalifornia, and say, “I see what you did there! Yamato are carnivorous Westerners and Kalifornia are Asian vegetarians! Very clever!” That’s barely the half of it though. Ogawa isn’t speaking to us here, he’s writing very specifically to his countrymen. Remove the meat from Yamato, and what we basically have are the two halves of the Japanese experience. Any of us that have spent time in Japan will recognize that Yamato speaks with the language of militant Japanese nationalism. On the other hand, the Kalifornians are clearly the pastoralists that some Japanese aspire to be. The former are strident with their faux scientific superiority, their “right” to expand unchecked, and the divine glory of their conquests. The latter are tied closely to the land and maintain a careful balance between their needs and the ecology surrounding them. This being Japan, food is the main showcase and symbol. It’s not particularly subtle, but no other story gave me the same pleasure of seeing modern Japan neatly dissected. One could go further with the oblique takedown of voracious capitalism and recommendation of a static economy, but I think Ogawa was really going after the Japanese right wing. This is probably the number one example of a story that people misunderstand because they’re not Japanophile enough; I wish there was some graceful way to explain it inline.

As a final word, let’s talk a little bit about Bruce Sterling’s contribution. Sterling is completely mad, so is “Goddess of Mercy.” Disaster has left Japan in tatters, split into two countries. The small island of Tsushima has become a lawless home for pirates and criminals. The lunacy that follows is noticeable less for an organized plot than for the hyperactive mess of ideology, technology, and personality that develops on the island. My only real issue with the story is Sterling’s choice of Nagoya as South Japan’s capital. In reality, there is no way that Kyoto or Osaka would relinquish this, unless both were smoking craters. (Maybe they are, in that future.) Other than that, the hilarity of a place so unremarkable as Tsushima becoming the next Somali is far too entertaining to pass up. I hope he writes a full novel about it.

So that’s a look at some of the stories in The Future is Japanese. There are more, of course, covering giant fighting robots, whale consumption, monsters, and more, but these are the ones I felt strongest about. I can’t see any way around the fact that some of this book will fall flat to those not in the know. Still, many of the stories have enough power on their own to pull a reader in; hopefully they will encourage people to find out more. Or better yet, to buy some of the Japanese authors so that Haikasoru and others can bring more over!

The Barrow

The Barrow
Mark Smylie

Roughly two months prior to the time of writing, I found a pair of emails in the Two Dudes inbox from Pyr inviting me request copies of upcoming books. Somewhat boggled, I logged on to the indicated ARC service, Edelweiss, and asked for The Barrow. A few days later, approval came through and I downloaded the first ever unsolicited review copy for Two Dudes. It would be grossly dishonest of me to claim that I didn’t giggle like a school girl. (I only asked for one of the two books on offer knowing how busy my reading schedule would be. I am also glad that I opted for an ebook, since the trade paperback is 600+ pages and probably very heavy.) All of this is a roundabout way of saying that I got me a free copy of this here book, but by golly my review is nothing but my heartfelt opinion. Said opinion is literally dripping with integrity. (I mean that – I just wiped a bit of integrity off the keyboard.)

I believe The Barrow is what kids these days call “grimdark.” In the prologue, we meet a motley assortment of thieves and temple defilers, read several bad words that may or may not start with the letter “f,” witness multiple grisly deaths at the hands of diabolical cultists, and catch a passing reference to the Goddess of Perversion. Somewhere in these first pages we also learn that the hero is often called “Blackheart.” It is very grim. And, er, dark. Things don’t necessarily get any cheerier, though some individuals in the story are occasionally quite cheery. For example, the point of view soon jumps to a brothel owner who is particularly jaunty because he has just corrupted the equivalent of a young, earnest Templar in horrid ways. Fortunately, we don’t spend too much time in his head, instead staying primarily with the aforementioned Blackheart, actually named Stjepan, and his sidekick Erim. Both are actually sympathetic and complex; the former a cartographer and warrior (try rolling that with a d20!) and the latter a woman pretending to be a male soldier.

Before digging further into the world and story, I should briefly address the grimdark aspects. Oddly enough, the book wasn’t nearly as graphically violent as I expected. Lots of people die in a variety of painful ways, but somehow none of it seemed especially shocking or brutal. (Too much Vietnam-flavored Military SF for me perhaps?) In contrast, there was a healthy dose of grunting, sweaty, bathhouse trysts, incestuous molestation, the plotting of a ritual involving a bull and a nubile maiden, and several more pedestrian events. I present no value judgments here, but will confess to occasionally wondering, “Why, Mr. Smylie, of all the possible details in this scene to highlight, did you focus on THAT one?” Or, in other words: Mom, if you’re reading, probably stay away from this one. After the beginning though, things aren’t really as nihilistic as one might expect. In fact, several of the characters are, if not likable, than at least understandable. (Most are quite reprehensible of course, and this includes members of the party that we are ostensibly cheering for.)

What The Barrow really is, once it gets going, is a gonzo, turbo-charged epic fantasy played with full distortion on an amp turned up to 11. Most of the conventions are here: a quest for a lost artifact of power, a map, a party of adventurers, lost empires, a mage who lives in a cursed tower, a European-style kingdom with a Christianity-esque religion, even a last stay at a sprawling inn complex on the border. The world building is extensive, but conventional, and while there are twists and surprises in the plot, they are all happening within the constraints of a familiar setting. Within these clichés however, Smylie acts like a head-banging dungeon master fueled by Red Bull and hallucinogenic toad secretions. The artifact is, wait for it, a magic sword, but that’s where most of the usual stuff ends. The party is mostly loathsome, the mage is a self-aware bit of hilarity, certain characters are devoured by cannibals, and the map spends much of its time appearing on a naked woman.

Smylie’s world is vast, with a deep history. I should have expected this, since it is the same world as his long running Artesia comic series and already has an RPG built around it. (I am familiar with neither.) What I have seen is fairly typical of European-based, second world fantasy, though it has more of a modern feel to it than some. Not technologically of course, but the societies and language lend a certain punk-gothic sensibility to the whole thing. Stepjan, for example, has important nipple rings. I have no idea what this means, but it must be significant as it is pointed out several times. No churlish knaves here, just transvestite gang bosses. Something tells me that no matter how much I delve into Tolkien’s obscure writing, I won’t see any of that.

The Barrow is mostly about fun, grimdark or no. Fantasy is one of those genres that rewards the author for going over the top, so Smylie swings for the fences. He’s not going to score any points for subtlety or grace, nor will literature lovers return again and again for insights into the human condition. Instead, he invites us to enjoy sword hunting capers, metastasized college frat pranks, airborne severed heads, audacious and nefarious characters, and of course that Goddess of Perversion. The Barrow is brainier than I expected, but mostly it was a good yarn. I spent more time than is healthy laughing and shaking my head. Will I tune in for part two? Probably. Will I check out the comics? I am intrigued, though I am not much of a comic reader. Would I recommend this to my friends? Yes, though only if they’re already on the grimdark train. This isn’t really something I’d give to fans of prancing elves or doughty hobbits.

 

The Book of Apex Vol. 4

The Book of Apex Vol. 4
Ed.: Lynne Thomas

And my turn has arrived in the Book of Apex Blog Tour. I’ve had a few weeks to mull over this post, wondering how best to approach a broad, challenging collection of stories. In some ways, this is all the more difficult for me. Why? If all genre readers were forced to swear blood oaths and give fealty to a single magazine, I would probably owe my allegiance to Analog. In fact, of everyone in the blogging circle I consider myself a part of, I am probably the most committed to traditional, science-y science fiction. Characterization is nice, but what I really want is a rigorously constructed FTL drive and some sort of stellar empire. (Preferably one with a realistic and logical economy.) I can only imagine that our benevolent Tour Despot, Little Red, was chuckling evilly to herself when asking me to join the party, possibly with a mental picture of me holding the book (and it’s a very nice book) muttering, “What on earth am I supposed to do with all of these goths, faeries, and weirdos? And the FEELINGS! I hate feelings!”

So, yes. There are emotions, characters, themes, man’s inhumanity to man, tattoos, fae, and all sorts of things I am not normally comfortable with. This is a good thing though, because it forces me to push my own boundaries, read things I wouldn’t normally read, and think things I wouldn’t normally think. These personal challenges sit at the very heart of genre fiction and are some of the very reasons we read it to begin with. I can’t honestly call myself a student of the genre if I willfully ignore whatever stories lie just beyond that next mountain, or at the back of this unexplored cave.

With that, we have established that, like broccoli and Brussels sprouts, The Book of Apex is Good for You. Thankfully, like well-prepared broccoli and Brussels sprouts, it is also very good. The sheer breadth of the collection astounds me. There are failed marriages and beauty pageants. There are gods and devils of several varieties, traditionally Christian and non-; at one point Hell’s baker makes an appearance in Puritan New England. Zombie redemption happens. Faery and All Quiet on the Western Front produce a disturbed offspring. All the stupid people get killed, twice, while armless maidens roam the American West. The world ends with instantaneous horror. Abusive lesbian relationships are resolved and real fairies hang out in Renaissance fairs. Have I left anything out? (Quite a bit, actually.) There is something here for everyone! Well, everyone that needs more twisted craziness in their lives.

Awkward segue alert. Every couple of months, I read an article somewhere proclaiming that jazz is dead. It has failed the masses, lost its relevance, given up its commercially viable ghost, gotten too abstract, dumbed itself down, is wedded tragically to convention, has brutally evicted tradition, or committed some other fatal sin. I have yet to figure out what metric defines the death of an art, but I do know that these kind of articles have been appearing regularly since at least the late 1940s, when Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie started blowing bebop. I am guessing that within days of the very first jazz performance, whenever that may have been, someone was already heralding its demise.

The above may seem completely unrelated, but swap out “jazz” with “science fiction,” change a few dates and names, and light bulbs may go on. Have we had this conversation before? Perhaps within the last year or so? I often find it instructive to compare jazz and SF because I think them strikingly similar on many levels. In this case, both are subject to constant doom-mongering, while the real question is, for now at least, an issue of medium transition rather than genre death. (Silicon discs replaced by megabytes and dead trees giving way to ebooks and webpages, respectively.) I am a long time consumer and creator of both, and I cannot think of a time in recent memory when the number of people involved has been greater, or the levels at which they create has been higher. There are commercial worries to be sure, but any serious listener/reader/creator of either cannot fail to be excited when surveying the innovations and offerings appearing weekly, even daily.

This is a winding scenic route to take when talking about Apex, but there is a connection! I won’t say that every story in the collection spoke to me. I will even confess to not being the target audience for this sort of weirdness. (It may be telling that the first book I picked up after Apex was a Jack McDevitt novel.) But all 33 of the stories show a writer, many of them very young, pushing at a different boundary of genre fiction. Not just innovating inside established territory, they are actively seeking new ground to explore. In some it is thematic, in others with advanced conceptualization or world building. It appears with a wider variety than ever of source materials, drawn from mythology and society the world over. In many, the stories directly engage with issues right now, not just fake European landscapes or far-future engineering. It is proof of the vitality within speculative fiction/fantastika/whatever it is we call the whole crazy thing, and of the bright future that awaits. I can’t think of any better answer to someone bemoaning the current state of the genre than to force feed him Apex publications.

To wrap things up, I will just mention my favorites of the bunch. (Please see other reviews for more detailed descriptions.) Valente’s “The Bread We Eat in Dreams” is amazing, as all Valente is. (The aforementioned Hell’s baker let loose among Puritans.) Genevieve Valentine delivers a story the equal of the title in “Armless Maidens of the American West.” Katharine Duckett’s “Sexagesimal” is the most mind-bending of the bunch. (Memory as post-death currency – please read her amazing guest post from earlier in the week.) “During the Pause” is Adam Troy-Castro’s take on the end of the world and is pretty much the worst thing that could ever happen. Finally, Eugie Foster’s “Trixie and the Pandas of Dread” drops the mic for everything. (Angry, but cute, gods smiting jerks and losers.) At least four or five more deserve mention, but this should give a good idea of what is on offer.

To sum up: The Book of Apex Vol. 4 is stuffed to the gills with high-quality, twisted, prickly, deranged, hallucinogenic glimpses into the future of speculative fiction. Guaranteed to set portions of every reader’s brain on fire while raising the ire of the stodgy old guard, it’s a great way to start the year.

Trading Time

Trading Time: Memory as Currency in “Sexagesimal”

[Ed. note: As part of The Book of Apex Blog Tour we are very excited to present this guest post from author Katharine Duckett. She graciously agreed to unlock all of the secrets of her story “Sexagesimal,” explain the concepts behind her unique post-death economy of memories, reveal the mystical rituals of Kazakhstan that helped her become a world-famous writer, and share a word about sheep head soup. This is probably the smartest 1300 words that will ever be published at Two Dudes. Thank you, Katherine, and everyone else please enjoy!]

**********

You can see summer from here,” said Zoya. “On a clear day, anyway. And September’s a ten-minute walk.”

When I write stories, the opening line usually remains the same, from first draft to the last. Everything else gets reworked, thrown out, mixed up, and reconfigured, but the nugget of a concept contained in that first line endures.

“You can see summer from here” was the first line of “Sexagesimal” I wrote, long before I understood the world of the story. From there, I began experimenting with the idea of a place where time worked differently than in our reality, where seasons could co-exist and characters could wander from year to year. I wanted space for that scenario to unfold, for the idea to follow its own logic, while still feeling solid and plausible to readers. The Afterlife presented itself as a natural setting: it’s hard to argue with any certainty about the mechanics of what happens after death, and it allows room for all kinds of imaginative scenarios, like the many explored in David Eagleman’s excellent Sum, a collection of “forty tales from the afterlives.” I started sketching out the trajectories of a few different characters who were making their way through the Afterlife’s murky landscape, and realized that, without money, materials, or other obvious assets, their memories would be the most valuable resource they possessed. What would survival look like, in such a world? What sort of value would people assign to different experiences, and how would they barter for them?

The development of Teskia, the story’s main character, came from pieces of my own experience with memory and its loss. In the time before I began writing “Sexagesimal,” my great-aunt, and then my grandmother, were both diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, which brought home to me the fragility of personal memories and narratives. The way they experienced the disease differed greatly: my great-aunt, who eventually died from its complications, seemed to lose great swaths of herself suddenly, fading quickly and succumbing fully to dementia. My grandmother, on the other hand, misplaces names, or times, or the functions of objects, but remains herself, at the core of things, cracking jokes and singing old Irish songs, retaining small, valuable bits of her life even as her perception clouds and warps. With Alzheimer’s, of course, you have no choice about which memories you surrender: but what, I imagined, if you did? What if, like Teskia, who also suffers from Alzheimer’s before she dies, you had experienced the leaking of your memories, the indiscriminate loss of portions of yourself, and then had the chance to curate those experiences, to regain them all and pick and choose what you kept? Who would you become, if you gave up your eighth year, or your wedding day, or your guiltiest secret?

I was doing a lot of thinking about the subjective nature of personal experience around the time I finished writing “Sexagesimal.” I’d just moved back to the United States after two years of living in Kazakhstan, teaching English with the Peace Corps in a remote village in the Kyzyl Kym desert. I carried around all kinds of particular memories I couldn’t transfer to anyone else: the memory of stargazing from the window of a train on a 30-hour trip across the steppe; of eating countless communal meals of beshbarmak, a national dish of noodles, onions, and sheep’s head; of dodging a group of frogs who had taken up residence in my family’s banya while trying not to scald myself with boiling water or fall through the gaps in the wood-slatted floor. My English had suffered from two years without a trip to the States (to the point where a new volunteer who arrived during my second year, thinking I was a native Russian co-teacher, told me, “Wow! You speak English really well!”), so the disjointed format of “Sexagesimal” worked well for me, creating the sense of dislocation and isolation I sought to express. As I readjusted to life in the States, those two years became less and less tangible, existing only, in some ways, in my head. I could recall what it felt like to live on the steppe, but I was not that person any longer: my context changed how I related to those experiences, and without anyone else around who shared them intimately and lived them daily, they fell into the realm of story.

We tell stories to share experiences, but I think all writers are aware of the limits of the form, of the fact that full immersion in someone else’s mind is impossible, though art strives to bridge that gap. I’m always curious to see how other writers approach the thorny problem of memory and experience, and am currently reading a novel that explores the idea of memory of currency, in deep, literal detail. Trading Rosemary by Octavia Cade presents a future world where memories can be cast as coins, traded, and collected. It’s a fascinating take on the same concept I started from in “Sexagesimal,” and I’ve been struck by the similarities and differences of Cade’s exploration of the theme. One feature our stories share is that characters retain some vague sense of the memory they’ve lost, even after it has passed into someone else’s hands. In my story, I described this sense as being like “a story you heard somewhere, once. Like something you read in a book, but you couldn’t remember which one, or when, or why you cared.” In the moment of reading, we can connect so intensely to a character’s experience that we lose ourselves, completely; but we always come back to our own realities, and that sense of communion becomes distant, simultaneously real and unreal.

So it is with love, like the love Teskia and Julio, her partner, experience in their lives and deaths. They share the same bond, in a sense, that an author and reader share: a sense of inherent trust, of assured divulgence of necessary facts and secrets. Teskia and Julio grow up together and share nearly every moment of their lives together, but they can never share exactly the same experiences, or fully know each other’s minds. The name of the story, “Sexagesimal,” means a system that uses sixty as its base, like our measurement of time, but I also sometimes thought of it as “sex/age/simul,” which seemed like a description of Teskia and Julio’s connection. They’d shared bodies, years, and simultaneous lives, but this closeness made them blind to the cracks forming between them. The most valuable memories turned out to be the ones they’d kept from one another: the ones Teskia struggles to work out as Julio lies helpless in the Afterlife.

A short story can only contain so much, and even a novel cannot encompass the full scope of any life. Writers must always pick and choose, deciding which experiences are the most important, which details make the cut. I’m interested in the conversation around assessing that value, as well as the pitfalls of trying to do so: after all, who can say what makes one memory more valuable than another, especially with regard to someone else’s experience? “Sexagesimal” represents an attempt to engage with those issues by turning memory into currency, while recognizing that perception and experience are not straightforward things, and that neither minutes nor stories can be traded with total clarity; though as writers, of course, we will always try to do just that.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms
N.K. Jemisin

I am hopelessly behind with this post. I initially picked up The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms in an unwise bid to join this read-along, knowing full well that I had busy schedule leading into the holidays. I started reading one day after the hosts provided the last round of questions, hoping that I would finish in time and somehow write a coherent reaction. Then Christmas hit, then the break with the kids, then New Year’s, then family travel, then a bunch of other stuff, and here I am two months later, finally getting this off the ground. Is it too late to wish for continued relevance? I don’t regret joining up with the read, since I don’t know when else I would have started reading Jemisin, but I probably should have found a different way to handle my many demands.

I’m late enough that following along with the posted questions seems a bit silly, so this will be more of a spoiler-free look at the parts of Jemisin’s novel that I found most interesting. The above read-along should hopefully provide enough in terms of plot summary and reaction to excuse my laziness, as there are several other things I’d much rather dive into.

Most interesting to me is the way that Jemisin avoids fantasy cliché. Hundred Thousand takes place in an utterly fantastical world, with gods and magic, impossible cities and savage tribesmen, swords and prophecies. It is not science fantasy, with that variety’s carefully constructed and logical systems of magic, or rigorous economies and societies. On the other hand, there are no prancing elves or gruff dwarves, for which we can all be grateful. The world reminds me most of what I have read of Elric, with its decadent rulers in a magical city perpetrating horrors on the underclasses. Similarities break down beyond this crucial point, but the setup at least feels familiar.

More than anything else, I value the author’s attitude towards the past. I find myself returning over and over to David Brin’s assessment of the crucial difference between science fiction and fantasy: SF points ahead to the future, while fantasy looks backward to a lost Golden Age. I don’t know why authors do this, unless it is something that must be ritually sacrificed at midnight to the gods of Middle Earth, but almost without fail, some character will break into a paean to past empires of glory and their requisite vanished secrets. Bonus points if magic is failing and/or the empires belonged to elves. This is not a fail-safe way to separate the two – Brin himself uses it to call Star Wars fantasy – but it is one more tool with which to pick apart convention.

Jemisin has this chance in Hundred Thousand and, to my great joy, declines it. No nostalgia for a better age, no lost technology, magic, or wisdom, no effort to re-establish the ancien regime. Thank you, N.K.! For once, the present is sufficient. The future is likely to be better, not a further degradation of past brilliance. This means a great deal to a devotee of science and human progress like me. To be clear, there is a bid to restore a past situation, but it is not nostalgia driving the bus, nor does the final resolution show much reverence for the past. People who were once in power wish to return, not because of Kids These Days, but because they want power. Very practical. No lost civilization, no slavish, Confucian devotion to days of yore.

Hundred Thousand also chips away at other fantasy conventions. Not surprisingly for a black, female author who also crusades for social justice, Jemisin launches assaults on racial, gender, and sexual orientation tropes. The main character comes from a darker skinned tribe, is judged harshly for it, and fights back against the paler ruling class. Not only are strong, active female characters found on all sides of the conflict, but societies with gender roles wholly unlike our own have major roles. People have relationships among all possible gender combinations without comment from the characters; in this at least the author has created a world free of discrimination. In all cases though, I never found the book to be preachy. Each choice is part of the story and logically connected, not just a stone upon which to grind an ax. Maybe others will feel differently, especially those who are uncomfortable with anything but straight, white, male leads, but I actually had to think consciously about this before I noticed it.

Related to these are Jemisin’s rejections of both noble savage and virtuous princess tropes. Yeine, our erstwhile heroine, comes to the cosmopolitan, debauched capital from the hinterlands. The option is there to make her naïve and pure, with the possibility of a final triumph that both preserves these traits and perhaps even uses them to vanquish her unrighteous oppressors. I don’t want to spoil anything, but those who have read this will probably agree that the details of Yeine’s coming of age ceremony are some of the best in the book. Yeine is fully formed, a mature woman with strengths and flaws; her society has its own ups and downs. If she wins at the end, it is not necessarily through some virtue imparted by her morally superior life on the frontier. If she suffers, it is not because she is a woman leading an independent and willful existence. Refreshing stuff here! None of this “first woman to lose her shirt gets offed” or “reliable, rural horse sense toppling soft and morally suspect urbanites” nonsense.

Dragging myself back towards the action and away from philosophizing, I have to compare the book to Karin Lowachee’s Warchild. Not that they share a plot or theme, but something about the narrative voice, the barely restrained intensity of the writing in Hundred Thousand recalled the other. Both are first novels and, I assume, had a lengthy gestation. Both have the feel of a world long in the planning and fervent ideas raging behind a composed, first-person perspective. It is almost as though the authors fear that this is the only chance they will have to say everything they possibly can; fortunately both have the skill required to keep everything under control. The smoldering momentum drives the plot from the very first; when the action slows, Jemisin’s attitude carries the story without losing any pace.

Hundred Thousand was hugely compelling. If the next volume is even half as electric as the first, I won’t be able to put it down. Part of me wanted to forge ahead with the read-along, which is now pushing into the third book in the series, but I had to relent. Other duties called. Rest assured, however, that I will be returning to Yeine’s world very soon. It ranks among the best fantasy consumed last year.