If Tolkien Were Black by Laura Miller (full article here)
N.K. Jemisin (left) and David Anthony Durham
Looking at the most visible exemplars of epic fantasy — from J.R.R. Tolkien to such bestselling authors as George R.R. Martin and Robert Jordan — a casual observer might assume that big, continent-spanning sagas with magic in them are always set in some imaginary variation on Medieval Britain. There may be swords and talismans of power and wizards and the occasional dragon, but there often aren’t any black- or brown-skinned people, and those who do appear are decidedly peripheral; in “The Lord of the Rings,” they all seem to work for the bad guys.
Our hypothetical casual observer might therefore also conclude that epic fantasy — one of today’s most popular genres — would hold little interest for African-American readers and even less for African-American writers. But that observer would be dead wrong. One of the most celebrated new voices in epic fantasy is N.K. Jemisin, whose debut novel, “The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms,” won the Locus Award for best first novel and nominations for seemingly every other speculative fiction prize under the sun. Another is David Anthony Durham, whose Acacia Trilogy has landed on countless best-of lists. Both authors recently published the concluding books in their trilogies.
Although they came to the genre from different paths, both Jemisin and Durham have used it to wrench historical and cultural themes out of their familiar settings and hold them up in a different light. “I never felt that fantasy needed to be an escape from reality,” Durham told me. “I wanted it to be a different sort of engagement with reality, and one that benefits from having magic and mayhem in it as well.”
In Durham’s trilogy, four royal siblings are deposed and then fight their way back to the throne in an empire presided over by the island city of Acacia. Their dynasty’s power resides in a Faustian bargain made with a league of maritime merchants: the League supplies a rabble-soothing drug in exchange for a quota of the empire’s children, who are sent off across the sea to meet an unknown fate. As promised, “Acacia” is a sweeping yarn filled with adventure, intrigue, sorcery and battles.
Jemisin’s series, too, is set in the capital of an empire that has been run by an aristocratic clan for generations. The power of the Arameri family, however, resides in the gods — specifically a pantheon of deities whom they have imprisoned and enslaved. The narrator of “The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms” is the daughter of a renegade member of the clan who ran off with a foreigner. Raised in a remote kingdom with its own fiercely independent customs, she returns to the capital seeking information about her mother and, once there, becomes embroiled in vicious palace intrigues.
She made the main character a woman and, in an even more marked departure from the norm, she decided to have that character narrate the book in the first person. “I knew that what I was writing was inherently defiant of the tropes of epic fantasy,” Jemisin said, “and I wasn’t sure it would be accepted.”
When Durham decided to write an epic fantasy, he set out to recapture the enchantment he felt as a 12-year-old, discovering Tolkien at his father’s house in Trinidad, while “brushfires and buzzards” ranged over the neighboring hills. Jemisin, on the other hand, based her trilogy on “the old-school epics: not Tolkien, but Gilgamesh.” The gods in her imaginary world evoke the squabbling divine families of the world’s great myths: “The ancient tales of mortals putting up with gods and trying to outsmart gods, of trickster gods outsmarting other gods: That’s the basis of my work.”
“The genre can go many, many more places than it has gone,” said Jemisin. “Fantasy’s job is kind of to look back, just as science fiction’s job is to look forward. But fantasy doesn’t always just have to look back to one spot, or to one time. There’s so much rich, fascinating, interesting, really cool history that we haven’t touched in the genre: countries whose mythology is elaborate and fascinating, cultures whose stories we just haven’t even tried to retell.”