I started looking at this year’s nominees for the Best Novel Nebula through a romance reader’s perspective with M.K. Hobson’s The Native Star, which turned out to be a classic “opposites attract” story in an fantasy alternate history setting. The next book on my list, N. K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, isn’t strictly speaking a romance, although it is about a heroine who achieves a personal awakening that allows her to come into her full identity, and that awakening is provoked by an emotionally and physically intimate relationship. Additionally, there are aspects of the story that come close to erotic suspense—though for relatively tame values of “erotic”—with a high fantasy twist. Yeine, the novel’s narrator, addresses those themes early on:
Consider: An immensely powerful being is yours to command. He must obey your every whim. Wouldn’t the temptation to diminish him, to humble him and make yourself feel powerful by doing so, be almost irresistible?
“I think it would be.”
“Yes, it definitely would be.”
Yeine is just shy of twenty years old when she is summoned from her homeland of Darr to Sky, the city-state where the Arameri family rules over the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. The Arameri derive their authority from their loyalty to the god Itempas, who has also given them dominion over all the other gods of this world. (The Skyfather prizes order, and the Arameri maintain it ruthlessly.)
Yeine’s mother, Kinneth, was an Arameri—the daughter of Dekarta, the head of the clan, “the uncrowned king of the world”—but she was expunged from the family after marrying an unsuitable foreigner. Now, shortly after Kinneth’s death, Dekarta informs Yeine that he’s chosen her to be one of three Arameri who might become his heir. Yes, it’s a complete set up, but Yeine is no lamb headed meekly to the slaughter. Let’s circle back to that “dominion over all the other gods of this world” thing for a moment, though, because that’s where the erotic suspense elements come into play.
You see, the vanquished gods live in the immense palace of Sky along with the Arameri, always on hand to do their bidding—and Jemisin wastes little time explaining that pretty much everybody in the clan’s mind has long since gone exactly where yours did just now. The most powerful of the god-slaves is Nahadoth, the god of darkness; in one flashback, an Arameri chieftain sets Nahadoth loose in battle and winds up with a nearly-destroyed continent as the outcome. By day, in his mortal form, “Naha” is little more than a sex slave for one of Yeine’s scheming cousins; by night, he is much more powerful, more alluring, more dangerous. As Naha warns Yeine concerning his divine self,
“Your weak mortal mind and flesh would shatter like eggshells under the onslaught of his power.”
Still, Yeine is drawn to him; she reflects at one point that there is a specific word in her native language for the attraction that one feels to danger,
what draws women to lovers who are bad for them,
and that word must be extremely useful to her during her stay at Sky.
“When unseen ropes lifted me and pinned me to the wall,” she says of one encounter with Nahadoth,
and fingers slipped between my thighs to play a subtle music, thinking became impossible . . . There was nothing but pleasure, and it seemed to go on for an eternity.
And that’s before they fully consummate their attraction; that sex scene literally shatters the bed and blows out the rest of the bedroom furniture. (By contrast, here’s a full 20 percent of Yeine’s one present-day moment of intimacy with a fellow mortal: “He felt normal enough against me, lean and strong, and I liked the sounds that he made.”)
I won’t spoil any of the story by telling you how Yeine works to maneuver herself out of the trap Dekarta has set for her—I’ll just say that everybody has their own agenda, and leave it at that. But I can tell you two things. First, Yeine is in many ways like a protagonist in a classic private eye novel—think Philip Marlowe or Lew Archer—an outsider who keeps poking around the edges of a dubious situation until she uncovers the profoundly corrupt family drama at the core . . . with the distinction that she’s also part of the family.
Second, when Yeine assures us, late in the novel, that “there is a legendary romance in this,” the key word is legendary; the dynamic between Itempas and Nahadoth (and their absent, younger sister, Enefa) goes back to the dawn of time, when they were the only two (three) beings in existence, and Jemisin leaves no doubt that their relationship was as sensually turbulent as anything in our own ancient mythologies.
Like the drama that unfolds in real time, it’s a story about (among other things) love, but I’d argue that it’s not a “romance,” not exactly—although if anyone wants to make a case for the ending being a “Happily Ever After,” let’s use the comments section to its fullest, right? By folding certain romantic sub-genre elements into her story, however, Jemisin adds a layer of complexity that contributes to that much more of a richly compelling environment for readers to explore along with Yeine.
This article and its ensuing discussion originally appeared on romance site Heroes & Heartbreakers.
Ron Hogan is the founding curator of Beatrice.com, one of the first websites to focus on books and authors, and the master of ceremonies for Lady Jane’s Salon, a monthly reading series in New York City for romance authors and their fans. (Disclosure: N.K. Jemisin read from The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms at Lady Jane’s Salon.)