Archive for February 24th, 2010

February 24, 2010

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

I mentioned a couple of days ago that I’d been reading The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin.

The Arameri derive their power from a group of captive (and resentful) gods. Yeine is summoned from the north by the Arameri grandfather who she has never met, who is the most powerful man in the world, and has just named her one of his possible heirs – a situation that is most likely to end in Yeine’s death. The palace is raised above the city of Sky, and all sorts of strange things that Yeine does not understand take place there: Gods are chained, heretics killed, ordinary citizens tortured to death. No one (including her grandfather) seems to like her, and she must learn to negotiate the intensely political atmosphere of the palace while saving her country and finding out what she can about her mother’s death and her own mysterious birth.

And most importantly there are the gods, particularly Nahadoth and Sieh with whom she feels a strange connection. As the story progresses she (and we) learn more about the gods; particularly the big three: Itempas, who Yeine has been taught to worship, Enefa, and Nahadoth himself.

Yeine’s voice is fascinating. The story is told in the first person, but the “I must try to remember” on the first page immediately makes you wonder if Jemisin’s playing with the concept of an unreliable narrator. She isn’t, exactly: what she is doing is far more interesting and I don’t wish to spoil it. But it requires a lot of jumping around of styles – the frequent shifts from Yeine’s ordinary voice to the less human, more mythical tone of a fabulist could easily have been disorienting. I think it’s very impressive that they’re not.

I also loved that Yeine really is shaped by her back story. She has grown up in a matriarchal warrior tribe where men are held in contempt and she has a particularly interesting relationship with some of her tribe’s own customs. She’s as ruthless (though less perverse) in her own way as her Arameri cousins. For much of the book she is aware that her own death is almost inevitable, but she deals with this knowledge – there’s much less a sense that she’s struggling to stay alive than that she’s trying to sort stuff out while she can.

I’d read a couple of Jemisin’s short stories and am a fan of her blog, and expected this book to contain lots of politics. I was right, but it was all a lot more nuanced than I expected (and my expectations were high). Power and how it works, relationships between nations, class, race and gender; these are all things that materially affect life in Sky.

But what raised The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms above most good sff, I think, were Jemisin’s gods. She gets the gods pitch perfect. Huge and eternal and worldchanging. There’s a very real sense of the vast periods of time involved in their history. (This is particularly true of Nahadoth, the first god, who spends aeons alone before his brother appears). And their story is unutterably sad – these beings are doomed to carry out this pain-filled (and love-filled) story for all of eternity because it’s fundamental to who they are. But being human is an important part of them as well – at one point Yeine characterises the entire story as merely “one family squabble pitted against another”.

This wonderful tension between big, eternal archetypes and the very human characters who have to carry them out reminded me a bit (because it’s a book I love and think about a lot) of Alan Garner’s The Owl Service.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is not flawless. Things began to get blurry and rushed for me towards the end, and there are a couple of side plots where I felt I’d been promised more than was delivered – a case in point is the danger to Darr, which is never quite threatening enough for me. But this is still a fantastic book (even more amazing because it’s a debut) and I cannot recommend it enough.

February 24, 2010

YfL1: Gaudiloquence

Here is some news.

I have a new column. Every Monday (starting with the Monday just passed, the 22nd) I will be in the New Indian Express’ educational supplement, EdEx, talking about things related to the English language – such as dictionaries and swearing and the like. I’m (clearly) not an expert on any of this, but I love it anyway. The column will be called Yell for Language (see what I did there?) The Practically Marzipan column will hopefully continue uninterrupted.

(An edited version of the piece below appeared in EdEx on the 22nd of February)

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Gaudiloquent: Speaking joyfully or on joyful matters

A few years ago I was wandering around a natural history museum and was accosted in front of a display about bees by a man who was clearly a bee expert of some kind. I know nothing about bees, and don’t particularly care to learn, but it was the best thing that had happened to me all week. This man was utterly convinced as he spoke that bees were the most fascinating, joyful topic he could imagine, and I was convinced that other people’s enthusiasm was one of the nicest things in the world. We could all do with a little more gaudiloquence in our lives.

The subject upon which I am inclined to be gaudiloquent is the English language. There is such capacity for happiness in English – a language which contains words like “gaudiloquent” clearly expects the people who speak it to feel joy, or they’d have no occasion to use it.

Just leafing through dictionaries or coming across English words that have fallen into disuse can make me happy. A few months ago I “adopted” a few words of my own, vowing to use them in my day to day speech and bring them back into use. I’m particularly fond of “sinapistic”, an adjective that is used for something that consists of mustard, and that is just nasal enough to remind you of that feeling you get, when eating strong mustard, that something has shot up your nose. Then there’s “redamancy”, meaning an act of loving in return. It’s a gentle word, and one that could not simply be replaced with “love”; that the love is reciprocated is what gives redamancy its air of quiet confidence.

Then there are words that are easy to slip into conversation, like “roomthily” (pertaining to space), or “woundikins” (mild profanity), or “murklins” (in the dark). We don’t use these words much, and we could quite well get along without them, but why would we want to? I can well imagine myself describing someone as “vultuous” (having a sad or solemn expression), partaking of a “prandicle” (small meal) before bed, or complaining of the “austerulous” (somewhat or slightly brutal) nature of my gym instructor, all these commonplace statements somehow elevated by these wonderful words.

But perhaps the best of all the the words you can never imagine having reason to use. Like “ficulnean” (worthless information regarding fig-tree wood). Or “frutescent”, whose definition (having or approaching the appearance of a shrub) is singularly pointless, since surely if something looks like a shrub it probably is one. Then is there any real reason to fight to keep these words in the language? None, except perhaps that they contribute to the sum total of joy in the world. Which is really the best reason that there could possibly be.

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