Review: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

This review was originally posted on Buried Under Books.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms
N.K. Jemisin
Orbit, February 2010
9780316043915
ARC from Creatures ‘n Crooks.

I knew that once my people had been heretics. That was why the Amn called races like mine darkling: we had accepted the Bright only to save ourselves when the Arameri threatened us with annihilation. But what Nahadoth implied–that some of my people had known the real reason for the Gods’ War all along and had hidden it from me–no. That I could not, did not want to, believe.

There had always been whispers about me. Doubts. My Amn hair, my Amn eyes. My Amn mother, who might have inculcated me with her Arameri ways. I had fought so hard to win my people’s respect. I thought I had succeeded.

When Yeine Darr is summoned to her ailing maternal grandfather’s royal court, she is shocked to hear herself named one of three potential heirs to the Arameri throne. She is a half-caste, the product of her mother’s rebellious marriage to a tribesman from the barbarian north, her dark skin and hair clearly marking her as an outsider in the capital city of Sky. Court intrigue abounds, however, and Yeine quickly learns nothing in Sky is what it seems – not even Yeine herself. With only days left until the king announces his final choice as heir, Yeine finds herself at the center of a power struggle between her world’s gods that stretches millennia into the past, far beyond the range of mortal reckoning. As she marshalls all of her resources to keep up with the ever-changing scenario, Yeine is forced to decide whether she can make a very personal sacrifice that could alter all life on her world forever.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is N.K. Jemisin‘s first novel, first in a trilogy. It is an imaginative story that draws on several mythologies in its presentation of an ancient conflict between deities and how that conflict shapes, and is shaped by, human interests and activities. I have a long-standing fascination with mythology, particularly those stories about gods and their interactions with each other, and so I was particularly intrigued by the relationships of the three major gods in Jemisin’s pantheon – Nahadoth, Itempas, and Enefa – and the natural forces each manifests and represents. The ancient conflict between Nahadoth and Itempas and Enefa’s actions that led to Nahadoth’s enslavement is the driving force behind the central narrative of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. I am under the impression the later installments in The Inheritance Trilogy, of which The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is the first installment, will be more human-centered, though the interactions between mortal and divine will remain a unifying thread.

Yeine makes an interesting and well-drawn protagonist. Her prickliness – well-deserved, granted – is occasionally off-putting, but it gives her autonomy in a situation in which free will is her only bargaining chip. She’s given a choice, but it’s a hell of a choice, so it’s refreshing to see she doesn’t happily embrace one option or the other, or go cheerfully to her martyrdom. On the other hand, beneath her thorny exterior Yeine is a young woman of deep compassion and empathy, which in itself proves to be a powerful weapon of both offense and defense.

Regrettably, the Arameri, both as individuals and as a race, are less interesting and multi-dimensional. The same might also be said about Bright Itempas, Skyfather, the deity the Arameri proclaim as sole and supreme. Itempas’ divine brother and lover, Nahadoth, the Nightlord, in contrast, is a marvellous and fascinating anti-hero, if he can be described as such. In fact, his presence and character often overshadows Yeine’s.

I have kind of a love-hate relationship with speculative fiction. On the one hand, I love it for the creativity and imagination that goes into the worldbuilding that sets speculative fiction apart from other genres. In this regard, I have to applaud Jemisin for the work she has put into creating the world of The Inheritance Trilogy. It is a rich, multifaceted ‘verse with an intriguing and complex history, inhabited by a variety of interesting people.

On the other hand, my personal reading preferences tend towards the conventional, the linear, the straightforward. If I find myself confronted with too many novel concepts, many of them identified by terms I’m unfamiliar with, I lose sight of the central narrative and get bogged down in the details, trying to keep up. While I appreciate the glossary that was included at the back of this book, the fact that one was necessary in the first place (and yes, it was, as I frequently had to check to remind myself of the difference between the Amn and the Arameri, or between Enefa and Enefadeh) was, in my opinion, a point against this book.

In conclusion, I have mixed feelings about The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. I was impressed by its inventiveness and the effort put into creating this ‘verse. I was also fascinated with its portrayal of the relationships between the various deities in the pantheon and their interactions with humans, Nahadoth and Yeine in particular. Thirdly, Yeine is an appealing protagonist. In contrast, my general difficulties with speculative fiction made it hard to truly get into the story and appreciate the central narrative objectively. I was also disappointed with the heavy-handed treatment of the story’s “villains,” the Arameri and Bright Itempas. On the whole, however, I do recommend The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms to readers looking for imaginative speculative fiction and those who share my interest in mythology and tales about human-divine relations.

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