Let us dive into the intricate worldbuilding and variety of themes in the best works of N.K. Jemisin, and understand why you must pick them up as your next read!
Speculative fiction – an umbrella term encompassing the genres of horror, science fiction and fantasy – takes us to a place outside the rules of reality, igniting our imagination and encouraging us to think differently than we do. Built around the age-old question of “what if?”, speculative fiction looks to address this question through various means.
Science Fiction, for example, deeply explores the impact of technology, rapid advancement, outer space, the depths of the oceans, and alternate realities on society. Fantasy, on the other hand, aims to entice us with fictional worlds, epic quests, magic and the never-ending struggle between good and evil. Lastly, the genre of horror delves into the depths of our fears as human beings, intending to frighten us in a variety of ways. All these genres can serve as vessels for social commentary, prompting us to examine our reality and the place in it and how we think.
It is through this lens that N.K. Jemisin enters the conversation. N.K. Jemisin, an African – American author living in Brooklyn, often explores themes of resistance against oppression and the interconnectedness of the liminal in her works. As an author, she is also known for being a staunch advocate for the rich tradition of science fiction and fantasy as a means of political resistance. Jemisin’s passion for the two genres was evident during her tenure as a New York Times Book reviewer, where she championed its importance and impact.
Major Works of N.K. Jemisin
Starting her literary career with The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms of the Inheritance Trilogy in 2010, Jemisin has written several novels and short stories in the years since. She has also won several accolades, such as the prestigious Hugo Award for three years in a row for each of her critically acclaimed novels in the Broken Earth Trilogy. As for her short fiction, her most famous collection is How Long ‘til Black Future Month? (2018). Jemisin has even expanded into comic books and novels set in the universe of the popular gaming series Mass Andromeda.
Exploring a variety of themes through her writings, Jemisin is known for compelling plots, multidimensional characters and intricate worldbuilding, the latter of which, in particular, often reflects and critiques the real world as well. Her books are a genuine attempt towards greater diversity, representation and equality rather than a token effort. So far, they have been a great success!
Let us now explore three of Jemisin’s series in greater detail.
Also Read: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
The Inheritance Trilogy
Not to be confused with the incredibly popular Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini, The Inheritance Trilogy begins by following Yeine Darr as she is summoned to the city of Sky and named one of the heirs to the ruler, her grandfather. Sky is the figurative centre of the world. Akin to its capital – where the Arameri family rules the entire world – they have four imprisoned gods as their power source. The first book follows Yeine as she tries to solve her mother’s murder while trying to deal with the machinations and manipulations of her family and the gods while trying to survive and ensure her homeland’s survival.
Featuring characters with layer upon layer of motivations, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (book one of the series) is a strong opening chapter to the series where everyone is after one thing or another, including freedom, revenge, answers, romance, and much more. Yeine is a relatable protagonist and, in many ways, the projection of the reader as she is genuinely kind and compassionate; she doesn’t stand any nonsense.
Packed with dense worldbuilding, in particular, and a fascinating backstory involving multiple gods and their origin stories, the first book also ends on a surprising note that shakes things up in the best way possible. If you’ve read The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson, or even A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin, you are bound to find the plot twist at the end satisfying. If it leaves you clueless about what to expect in the second and third books, you will gorge on this trilogy with eagerness!
The Broken Earth Trilogy
Arguably Jemisin’s best-known and most acclaimed work, The Broken Earth Trilogy begins with The Fifth Season, where we follow three different women: a child coping with new surroundings called Damaya, an ambitious young woman named Syenite, and Essun, a heartbroken mother of two. Then, there’s the matter of this world’s version of the apocalypse that has just begun, the titular Fifth Season, and how that impacts the world. Essun, in particular, is focused on trying to search for her kidnapped daughter.
This is a world where certain humans called Orogenes can harness the energy of the earth to use magic, with which they can quell – or cause – earthquakes, amongst other things. They are hated and discriminated against, and it isn’t uncommon for them to be slaughtered by an angry mob when first discovered. It is one of these Orogenes that causes a new Fifth Season and the book, and by extension the entire series, deals with its consequences.
Each of the three women’s stories is emotional in contrasting ways and showcases how brutal life can be for people in a world that hates and fears but needs them. The series deals with themes such as oppression and the prejudice that comes with it, the cost of survival and freedom, etc. How it explores the topic of climate change is of particular note as well; it also focuses on the analysis of how humans understand history, storytelling and knowledge. This is a multifaceted series, with many plots at play and many new ideas to brainstorm, but once you get the hang of it, it is a masterpiece! I easily recommend this as the ideal starting point for those looking to begin reading N.K. Jemisin.
The City We Became
Different from the other books (because it is an urban fantasy), The City We Became is set in modern-day New York City. In this world, cities come alive – literally – through human avatars, and New York has five new avatars. This is because the main avatar of New York City has gone into a supernatural coma and mysteriously gone missing. There are suddenly five new avatars, representing each of the five boroughs of the city. They have to come together and learn about their powers and each other while also facing their common enemy.
Since cities that develop a unique enough culture come to life, the novel is a deep, symbolical exploration of what exactly constitutes a city and how gentrification can change the character of one for the worse. We get to simultaneously see how important it is for people to have an ethnically and culturally diverse community and how the same community can destroy one’s individuality. With a very diverse and representative cast that has become the hallmark of N.K. Jemisin’s writing, The City We Became is an urban fantasy novel that is, in many ways, a love letter to New York City.
Queer Characters in N.K. Jemisin’s Writings (no spoilers!)
Portraying her queer characters in multidimensional, nuanced and complex shades, Jemisin has made them seem like real individuals rather than just words of token representation on a page. She weaves their queerness into the plot effortlessly, thus allowing their sexuality to be just one part of the layers of their character and personality.
Through these characters and their journeys, she often challenges conventional portrayals of queer people; for example, she questions the idea of them being defined solely by their sexual orientation in most of her works.
Making genuine efforts to break the barriers that divide people and bring them together by embracing diversity and differences, her commitment to authentic representation can be seen in each of her series. The fact that she explores a range of queer identities in speculative fiction sets her apart, contesting the traditional understanding of gender as a binary than a spectrum.
Overall, N.K. Jemisin’s portrayal of queer characters is proof of her skill as a writer and her commitment to inclusivity and representation in her works. Through her authentic, well-rounded and nuanced characters, she allows her readers to experience queer lives through her stories, whether they are novels or short stories. She also brings out the diversity of humanity, encouraging readers to be empathetic, conscious of and supportive towards queer identities. Her works serve as a powerful reminder of the importance of representation, especially in today’s world.
Why You Should Read N.K. Jemisin’s Works
Jemisin fearlessly experiments with narrative structures, writing techniques, perspective, voice, and worldbuilding in her works, making them a must-read for those who are always eager to read works that push the boundary of literature. In many ways, her books explore uncharted territories while feeling familiar enough, striking the perfect balance between the two. She offers stories that are simultaneously epic and personal in scale, allowing the reader to resonate with the characters emotionally while keeping them more than invested in the overarching plot.
Jemisin doesn’t hesitate to look at social and political themes in her writing, tackling heavy themes such as power, oppression, identity, and systematic racism and injustice, to name a few. These issues are all prominently displayed and explored in her works through the lens of speculative fiction, providing us with a revised view of these problems plaguing the real world today.
As has been discussed extensively above, Jemisin is deeply committed to the authentic representation of characters in her books, which doesn’t take away from the quality of her work – if anything, it adds to it. All the different gears move seamlessly together, allowing for something far greater than the sum of its already impressive parts. She delves into gender identities, sexual orientation, diverse racial backgrounds, and different ethnicities.
Lastly, her prose is simply delightful to read, both lyrical and profound. It easily captivates readers and leaves the reader wanting more. It is difficult to put her books down owing to all of this, and her skills as a masterful storyteller enthrall readers from around the world. In short, N.K. Jemisin offers us a reading experience that stays with us long after we’ve finished reading her books!