Review: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms
Yes, I know, this review comes a little late. After its being nominated for a Hugo. After it being out for over a year. Despite this, I’m still glad I’m the one who gets to review it. Yay me!
It’s probably a good thing that it is me, because while it’s impossible to deny the EBR Overlords’ discriminating tastes in the Speculative Fiction literary world–because, well, they are always right–even they will pass on a perfectly good book because it simply doesn’t appeal to them, or they just don’t have time. They can be quite benevolent that way. Again, yay me!
I’m speaking, of course, of last year’s phenomenon THE HUNDRED THOUSAND KINGDOMS (Amazon) by newcomer N.K. Jemisin, a novel with a clichéd and dull-sounding jacket summary, which likely caused many a bookstore browser to pass it by for one that sounded more unique. At least until their friends read it–this book’s initial popularity was via word of mouth.
The reason why is Yeine, the PoV narrator. Young woman. Barbarian foreigner. Potential heir to the throne. She tells a compelling story that begins with her arrival at Sky, the palace of the court, where demigods walk the halls, she vies with two cousins for the throne, suspects her grandfather of murdering her mother, and unravels everyone’s hidden agendas… even her own.
It’s true, this book is not what it first seems. It is much more.
But that doesn’t mean it’s an easy book to swallow. The court at Sky is a hedonistic den of murderers. Their god Itempas killed his own sister and enslaves his brother and children. Yeine wants desperately to believe in the good intentions of the people she loves and trusts, but even their motivations become suspect. It very nearly makes the reader despair at the folly of men and the destructive flaws of their gods. None of these problems appear to be fixable in any way. So what’s Yeine to do?
While Yeine is a layered and fascinating character, the prose is formal and as a result the PoV narration can feel distanced. It takes some time to draw out the kind of person she is and her motives; at first all she can do is observe and that can be dull. But then things happen and she slowly gets more interesting. Other key players are her grandfather and heir-cousins, the palace steward and magician, but they’re all rather one-dimensional.
The characters that Jemisin threw all her writing talents at are the gods. A millennia or more ago, Itempas punished all the other gods, and either killed or enslaved them. He gave a portion of his murdered sister’s soul to the Arameri people, which enables their highborns to command the god and demigods who live in the palace, and who are bound into corporeal form. They can go free if Nahadoth promises Itempas to serve him completely; but Nahadoth refuses to bow to the man who killed his sister-lover, even if it means suffering in a semi-mortal state, with the pain and humiliation that involves.
THE HUNDRED THOUSAND KINGDOMS is not what it first seems. It is much more.
Nahadoth and the demigods notice Yeine as soon as she arrives, and attempt to solicit her assistance in their bid for freedom. This is the main storyline, but don’t forget Yeine’s mother—she may be dead but she remains a key player in this big mess. The plot starts out cliché enough, but then Jemisin throws in a twist. Then another as Yeine uncovers more secrets about her grandfather, mother, and the gods themselves. The plotline is a convoluted one as it weaves between characters living and dead, so be sure to give the story your full attention, because you won’t want to get lost.
The majority of the novel takes place in the palace called Sky, a luxurious and magically maintained city unto itself, from where the Arameri control the rest of the world with an iron fist. They have the blessing of Itempas, the god of daytime and order, and as a result are able to use magic to enforce their control. Magic is learned by scriveners, because it’s the language of the gods and their sigils from which the source of magical power is tapped. In KINGDOMS we don’t see it in action much, so I would have liked more, but perhaps there will be more to see in the next novel. Beyond Sky, we get only a taste of the rest of the world, including Yeine’s home country of Darr, and their customs and history. There isn’t time for more detail, but it’s still interesting.
By the end, Jemisin has built up so much tension, interwoven plotlines, exposed characters’ secrets, and explained so much back story that she promises a big climax. Fortunately, she delivers—and it’s above and beyond what’s required, becoming a mind-blowing and satisfying conclusion.
Is THE HUNDRED THOUSAND KINGDOMS perfect? Well, no. The storytelling has some inconsistencies, and a couple of the secondary plotlines lose steam and peter out; I mentioned other issues earlier. Overall these are minor, the biggest factor being less about the quality of the book than the potential audience—this novel won’t appeal to everyone.
- Recommended Age: 17+
- Language: None
- Violence: Some on-screen torture and deaths that involve blood, but otherwise infrequent
- Sex: Frequent references, including deity incest; a handful of detailed scenes