I’ve been thinking about excellence lately…how to promote it, how it’s constructed. There’s an ongoing conversation around making black-authored books “universal,” a term generally reserved for the culture and experiences of the dominant group (whites). Author Carleen Brice has a great round-up on her blog, White Readers Meet Black Authors. Even though I know it’s wrong, I sometimes find myself worrying about the black-authored books recommended to white readers. A book that gets a lot of hype isn’t necessarily an outstanding piece of fiction—not in my opinion, anyway. And even though I know it’s wrong, I worry that the “wrong” book in the “wrong” hands could turn a reader off African American literature forever. It’s not right, it’s not fair, but I can just see a well-meaning white reader convincing herself to step outside her comfort zone; she picks up a book by a black author whose name has been bandied about online, and…the book disappoints. Now, ordinarily, one bad book wouldn’t turn a reader off all authors of a particular race. But I feel like that isn’t how it works for black authors and non-black readers. So I’m careful about the books I pass on to my white friends. And when I share a book that my white friends or family members don’t like, I encourage them to talk about their opinion of the book so that they can tell whether their critique is valid—and NOT racist. I want white readers to be open-minded, but I also want them to be rigorous readers. I don’t want black-authored books to be held to a higher standard than books by white authors, but I also don’t want poorly-written books to be given a pass simply because the author’s black. When that happens, mediocrity prevails…and what I want is excellence.
That’s exactly what I got when I picked up The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin. WOW! Sometimes you read a book that’s SO good, it actually makes you despair as a writer. But this novel filled me with such hope, with a sense of my own potential as a writer—I didn’t want it to end. Initially I was a little worried because I’d read a positive review of the book that nonetheless called it “convoluted.” I hadn’t read any fantasy fiction since The Lord of the Rings back in college, and wasn’t sure I could keep all the people and places and species straight. And I won’t lie—there were aspects of the narrative that I didn’t fully understand. But I kept on reading because the plot was so compelling and the characters were so richly drawn…Yeine Darr is the most fascinating “mixed-race” character I’ve read in ages; her hybridity is a curse in some ways, but this young woman is FAR from tragic. What do you do when the very blood within your veins shapes your destiny? Yeine doesn’t back down; at every turn, she asserts her humanity and her right to self-determination. As the appointed heir to her grandfather’s throne, Yeine must leave behind all that she holds dear; still mourning the mysterious death of her mother, Yeine answers her grandfather’s summons and goes to Sky, a world unto itself ruled by scheming, heartless, decadent “highbloods.” Within hours of her arrival, Yeine starts to understand why her mother abdicated the throne and fled to Darr, a matriarchal country in the High North peopled by brown-skinned “barbarians.” Among her tall, pale-skinned relatives, Yeine feels her difference keenly (she is short, dark, green-eyed, curly-haired, and built like a boy)—but she refuses to be shamed by their false sense of superiority. She finds comfort in the company of gods—!!!—enslaved in their immortality by Bright Itempas. Can Yeine free them when she’s likely to die rather than rule? Will she be seduced by the deadly (and sexy) Nightlord, or will she make the ultimate sacrifice and redeem humanity in the gods’ eyes? If you come from a dysfunctional family, this narrative will resonate with everything you know about sibling rivalry, loyalty, and love. Jemisin’s utterly original narrative is laid out in prose that’s so gorgeous you’ll keep reading whether or not you fully understand what transpired in a particular scene. I *know* I’ll be revisiting this book, but right now I’m just eager for the second book in the trilogy to arrive! The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms raises the bar—THIS is what literary excellence looks like.