Character Study: Sieh

Been holding off on this one for quite awhile, because I couldn’t think of a way to discuss it and avoid spoilers for The Kingdom of Gods. But now that KoG is finally out everywhere (!!!) I can tackle my favorite character in the whole Inheritance Trilogy.

Spoilers, tho’. Seriously. If you haven’t read KoG, might want to skip this one ’til later.

I mean it!

OK, then. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

So, Sieh. I didn’t know his full history back when I wrote The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, if you’re wondering. I did know that he was secretly the most powerful of the Enefadeh, and in many ways the most “evil” of them, inasmuch as any of them were actively malicious. Nahadoth can’t always control himself, but Sieh knows exactly what he’s doing. And I knew from the beginning that I wanted Sieh to be a trickster god, because I’ve always been fascinated by tricksters. They’re never considered the most powerful gods of their respective traditions — but actually, they kinda are. They’re the “protagonists” of their pantheons, the ones around whom all the stories seem to revolve. The ones to whom all the other gods are forced to react. They’re also usually the most complete characters of their mythic tapestries; other gods stay more or less the same over time, but tricksters grow and change over time, and often change everyone around them. They’re the most influential and well-remembered gods; their stories get told forever.

But tricksters aren’t usually funny, see, which is what most people mean when they use the term “trickster.” It’s possible that their thoughts on tricksters are based on more modern incarnations, like Bre’r Rabbit or Puck; new-school tricksters seem to be a little gentler and more amusing than the classical ones. But Loki, Anansi, Coyote, Kitsune, Set (who was regarded more neutrally in ancient Egypt; later foreign scholars and rival religions demonized him over time) — when you really look at the tricksters of ancient lore, you realize they’re all capricious, vicious sons of bitches. Or daughters of bitches, or gender-swappers of bitches. They’re flexible, adaptable, and often deliberately unnerving. They’re clever, admirable, but amoral. They may play tricks to teach others a lesson, but most often they do it simply to amuse themselves, or to serve their own privately-constructed senses of morality. Kinda like psychopaths. The tricks they play are, more often than not, mean.

So all of this went into Sieh’s character. But Sieh is also atypical for a trickster. I knew from the beginning that he would be an ancient being in a child’s body. I think I’ve talked before (here and in the interview at the back of 100K) about the dream that inspired the Inheritance Trilogy, in which I saw a child playing with tiny floating planets, treating them as toys and talking to them as if they were pets. I also knew that his mortal appearance would resemble that of Southeast Asians; he just popped into my head that way, same as Yeine popped in as (South) American Indian. (In Yeine’s case race matters, but in Sieh’s case it matters less because it’s a superficial identity for him — his primary identity is “god”, and anyway he’s spent more time as a cat than he has as a human. And since the Arameri took over, the Temans [Sieh’s race in the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms] have been a favored group, so he wouldn’t have to deal with much prejudice.) I knew that his age would fluctuate, and that as a young man he would be unbelievably hot, although that’s not really something he cares about. He doesn’t like being older, see. Sieh is unusual for a trickster in that he’s bound, like all the gods of the Inheritance Trilogy, by his nature: he must be childlike. Really, he wants to be a child, though he knows that will never really be possible so long as he has memories of the past few bajillion years. He wants it anyway. He’s tried adult life and found it… painful. Difficult. Childhood is more fun.

But having endured two thousand years trapped in human flesh at the mercy of every mortal who could order him around, staying childlike has been a struggle. He’s not just a god of childhood; he’s a god of childhood who’s had to constantly defend his own childish nature against the encroachment of the world’s ugliness and his own cynicism.

It was tough to capture this seething mass of often-contradictory motivations, back when I first started writing Sieh. I focused on depicting the quintessential creepiness of him — the ancient soul that is always visible through his child’s eyes, the calculating adult mind which uses the wiles of a child to conceal its true complexity. But it’s hard to keep “creepy” from edging into “repulsive”. Sieh exists in a perpetual Uncanny Valley state; he looks and acts like something that he isn’t. Something we’re supposed to feel affection toward, not fear. But I needed the fear to be there too.

So I tried to imply, though I don’t think I got this across clearly, is that Sieh is the chessmaster of the Enefadeh. Kurue was their leader, but it was Sieh’s strategies which drove much of the plot. He’s the one who conceived the plan to hide Enefa’s soul in Yeine’s body. When that plan went horribly awry, he’s the one who chose to befriend her, and in his own unique way seduce her, in hopes of convincing her to die for them. If she had never come to Sky, Sieh probably would’ve been the one to eventually kill her, in order to harvest Enefa’s soul. Quite frankly, he’s a ruthless little bastard whom no one — no one sane — should want in their life. And he knows it. So that’s how I tried to write him.

But something happened while I was working on the story — the second time around, that is, since as you may recall I wrote The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms twice. The first time, the book’s protagonist was male, and Sieh treated him like a big brother and acted as a mentor. The second time, with Yeine, I suddenly realized there were new depths to explore in Sieh’s personality. After all, what do children really want? To be raised in love and safety, IMO. And given that Sieh, as a slave, wasn’t safe, perhaps he had a greater need for those things than most mortal children. A female character could represent a surrogate mother for Sieh — and Yeine, who had her own generous helping of amorality and ruthlessness, was the perfect mother figure for a trickster god. Sieh’s initial response to Yeine, when he first meets her in 100K, is an act. It’s entirely possible that he’s the one who put the idea to have Nahadoth chase Yeine down into Scimina’s head; that was a pretty mean trick. Regardless, Sieh intended to find her in a moment of distress, and use that moment to charm her. What he didn’t count on was Yeine killing Nahadoth (for a minute) to protect him. In that moment, Sieh’s planned seduction of Yeine became a two-way thing.

I’m using the word “seduction” deliberately, note. I also tried hard in the first book to hint at the sexual undercurrent of Yeine and Sieh’s relationship. Yeah, that’s squicky — or it would be, if Sieh was really a child. But he’s not. Their relationship is incredibly unequal, but not in the way that it appears to be — it’s Yeine who’s the child, relatively speaking, and Sieh who’s the dirty old man. So at several points in the story, I tried to nudge readers into remembering this. Couldn’t hit it too hard; I didn’t want to end up on the Banned Books list. (Though who knows? Might’ve helped my sales.) But I wanted it to be clear that Sieh, at least, understands that over the course of immortal lifetimes, age differences eventually cease to have meaning. Sieh is roughly ten billion years old. Yeine, by the time of The Kingdom of Gods, is a mere 100, give or take a decade or two. In a trillion years, their respective ages will be 1,010,000,000,000 and 1,000,000,000,100. Scandalous! …Not.

Still, I worried about this like you wouldn’t believe, ya’ll. Honestly, I was shocked by one aspect of the reaction to The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms: I’ve seen several critics remark that they disliked the unequal relationship between Nahadoth and Yeine, but I’ve never seen anyone complain about Yeine and Sieh (or Madding and Oree, or Itempas and Oree from The Broken Kingdoms, for that matter). I really thought the Sieh/Yeine thing would be the main point of contention for readers. I tried to understand this awhile back, while I was working on KoG, and came to no real conclusions. I think it has to do with what baggage the reader is bringing into the story. Anyone who’s been whacked in the face enough with brooding supernatural much-older boyfriend-types — which, in this post-Twilight era, is probably most of us — is understandably a little sensitive to that subject matter. But apparently not many people are carrying “apparently older woman/younger man who are actually younger woman/older man” baggage. Go figure.

And yes, I knew back when I wrote 100K that Sieh had been Enefa’s lover. I mean, come on — all that juicy Freudian symbolism was just sitting there, waiting to be picked up. I even flirted for awhile with making Sieh’s relationship with Nahadoth adversarial, but ultimately I decided against it. Freud in fantasy is fun (say that three times fast), but I don’t agree with him on a lot of things, and besides — my gods are not jealous gods. Well, not very.

With The Kingdom of Gods, I faced a new challenge: depicting the mind-set of a god. It helped a bit that Sieh would be confined to mortality for most of the story, but I still needed to find a way to get across that he’s not us. He’s nothing like us. So I decided to make Sieh’s story a little more, hmm, metafictional? than the first two books. Sieh breaks the fourth wall in ways that Yeine and Oree didn’t (though they may have appeared to at first), because he knows we’re there, reading about him. And Sieh being Sieh, he’s mugging for the camera, rifling through your pockets for subcultural symbols to steal — and yeah, even doodling all over your brand-new copy of his book. It’s completely intentional that Sieh periodically references things that no one in the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms should know, like “cross your heart/hope to die/stick a needle/in your eye”. Although about half of the schoolyard chants and children’s rhymes in the chapter headers are originals that I made up, half are deliberately chosen from this world, mostly from old public-domain British and American nursery rhymes.* And in the final “coda” chapter of the book, it’s us he’s talking to. He has become the creative principle of our universe — and we, the readers, are the butt of his final trick.

I spent a lot of time, while writing the Inheritance Trilogy, trying to figure out how to depict the complexity of awareness that a god must necessarily possess. They know there are other worlds. They are in contact with them, engaged with them; the dramas taking place in the world of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms are taking place simultaneously on every world in that universe that has sentient life. A god can be here, there, and everywhere at once — so how do I capture that? With the first two books it was easy, because gods say random mysterious crap to mortals all the time. But when writing from within a god’s perspective, I had to try something a little different. Hope it comes across okay.

So I’m off, now, to the World Fantasy Convention, where I’ll find out soon whether I won one of the biggest awards in the genre. Wish me luck. But whether I win or not — and I know and like so many of my fellow nominees that I honestly will be happy no matter who wins — I’m also going to be hosting the “SLEEPOVER OF THE GODS” party to celebrate The Kingdom of Gods‘ launch. I have the most hilarious pajamas, ya’ll — and toys! Such toys. Celebrate with us, will you? Wherever you are, if you can’t make it to WFC. Spend a moment getting back in touch with your inner child, this weekend. If you’re in a place that celebrates Halloween, play a trick or two, along with your treating. Play a game you haven’t played in years. Remember your favorite schoolyard chants. If you have a copy of The Kingdom of Gods, doodle in it — it’s OK. (Though not if you got yours from the library.) If you have children, or can borrow some, take them outside to play.

Your laughter shall be as the sweetest of prayers.

* No clue how that’s going to come across in the translated versions, now that I think about it… hmm. Maybe I can suggest that the translators select a few rhymes that would have the same relative meaning to people in their home countries.

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9 Responses »

  1. Sieh has been my favorite character from the beginning. I just have a soft spot for ancient trickster gods.

    On a side note, have you read “Anasi Boys” by Neil Gaiman? How do you feel about the trickster god and his child(ren) in the book?

  2. I opened the ‘unbelievably hot’ link in a background tab and then read the rest of the entry. So when I was flipping tabs, I got pleasantly surprised by the picture. :D

    So when are they making the movie? :>

    Seriously, this one was my favorite of the trilogy.

  3. Oh, I’ve been looking forward to this essay. I love Sieh, and having Kingdom be from his point of view was a treat.

    I’m also a sucker for equally unequal relationships (where both characters have a power imbalance over the other, but in different ways) – as well as ones like you described, where there’s an imbalance, but it’s not the one you think. It helps that you did a fantastic job of portraying inequity without erasing either character’s agency.

  4. I see what you mean when you said that you had to tread a fine line between pitiful and bastard with Sieh. He’s so dangerously adorable and so like a cat.

    I’m torn between being really mad at Enefa for making him forget about Kahl and accepting it as being a part of who she was as a scientist.

    I can’t wait to read about Naha/Hado/Ahad/Beloved/Glee’s Boo. I always liked him for some reason and book three just sealed it.

  5. OMG you picture Rain when you think about young adult Sieh?!?!? Wow! I unconsciously did the same although for some reason whenever I think of Sieh, he keeps shifting in my mind’s eye. Even when I was reading one of your detailed description, he never stayed the same. Sort of like Naha’s features that blur and change? I don’t know why that keeps happening when I think of him.

    Have fun at the con and good luck with the awards. Fingers crossed for you!

    PS: I LOVE Deka! I wish I could keep reading about him and Sieh and everyone forever and ever.

  6. Sieh is my favorite also (how do you pronounce his name?). I grew up on a lot of mythology, which may be why I like these books so much. I did not have a problem with his relationship with Yeine – again that is common in mythology. I was surprised (in a good way) at the end. I rarely am surprised by a book anymore!

  7. Belated mass reply, after the madness of Launch Week:

    Tara, I haven’t read American Gods or Anansi Boys. It’s a completely irrational and childish thing, but so many people have rec’d those books to me because “the Inheritance Trilogy is similar” that I’ve actively avoided reading them. Don’t want to be accused of biting off Gaiman. Maybe, now that the trilogy is done and I’m moving on to other things, I can overcome this concern; got a free copy of AG in my WFC bag. So soon, hopefully.

    J. Andrews, Serena, yeah, I figure what the hell, if I’m going to envision any live-action referent for one of my characters (I don’t, usually), let’s go for a hot one. :)

    Tiffany, keep in mind that Enefa didn’t just isolate Kahl/mind-wipe everyone for Science!, but because if she hadn’t, Sieh would’ve died. In her own way, Enefa did grow to care about most of her children. Rather like an absent/detached father; she did give a damn, just didn’t show it much.

    And now I have “Glee’s Boo” stuck in my head. :)

  8. I just finished reading Kingdom of Gods. Thank you! for not leaving Sieh as the immortal version of The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up. That’s one of my least favorite types of human being, and I was dreading seeing it in Sieh.

    Of course, after the “I’m not going to trick you” introduction, I was waiting for the trick. It was very, very satisfying seeing it pulled off. But so much mayhem to get there! Tricksters don’t care, but as a human reader I’m a little distressed. Which, I guess, enriches my understanding of the roles trickster gods play in human cultures. But, ouch.

  9. nm,

    Yeah, tricksters bring the mayhem, not always controllably. And given that Sieh is relegated to mortal form in this tale full of gods, I wanted him to have the experience of being at mayhem’s mercy, not being able to do much about it. The way mortals usually are, during godfights. He does all right, despite this. As mortals usually do. :)