Thursday, February 18, 2010

Review: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin

It looks like The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound) is shaping up to be THE debut of 2010. The buzz has been building for some time, reviews are stacking up, and the absolutely beautiful cover art (design by Lauren Panepinto and illustration by Cliff Nielsen) cannot be ignored. So, is the buzz justified? For me it is – Jemisin’s debut isn’t flawless, but it is a fun, unique and compelling read that is a welcome new addition to the world of fantasy.

The Arameri rule the world from their isolated perch in the city of Sky, magically held above all. They rule cold and harsh, wielding the power of enslaved gods to enforce their will. Yeine is the daughter of the former heir to the Arameri thrown. Raised far from Sky among the barbarian people of her father, she is summoned to Sky upon her mother’s mysterious death. Thrown into a world of vicious politics, Yeine must figure out who her allies really are – her rival heirs, hated grandfather, or the enslaved gods.

Immediately jumping out is the narrative style with which Jemisin chooses to tell The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. The story is told through the first person view of Yeine at some point in the future (making the ending somewhat predictable) in a sometimes startling colloquial way. At times the story jumps forward or backward with some relevant tangent with almost snarky interjections that often break the 4th wall of author-reader interaction. The reader is lead to question the reliability of Yeine and what she chooses to reveal and not reveal while being slowly charmed with a fish out of water story – an angry fish forced to fight for survival. One product of this approach is that The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is a fairly fast read for its 400+ pages – I’d say fast-paced, but some may disagree with this characterization due to a relative lack of action where the fighting is largely with words and political maneuvering. This style sets the stage well for the refreshing twist Jemisin puts on the standard outsider vying for the thrown in a fantastic world.

Throughout The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms Jemisin subtly addresses some rather deep issues important in our own society – slavery, colonialism, sexism, racial and ethnic intolerance, class warfare, and others. Slavery is perhaps the most obvious of these as a central element is the struggle of the enslaved gods as they seek freedom. Perhaps more interesting is the way Jemisin twists typical feminist roles by having Yeine come from a deeply sexist, matriarchal society and thrusts her into a more typically patriarchal one. Part of me really wanted this brought out more, but I realize that leaving it as a subtle background works better in the end. However The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is mostly about power – the abuse of power by Arameri, the ambition for power of rival heirs, power struggles of gods, siblings and lovers.

Not to be limited, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is also a love story – the fairly standard story of a strong woman falling for someone that is more powerful than her, dangerous to be with and at least theoretically, unattainable. Yeine’s forced growth as she figures out who she is while dealing with the anger and grief of her mother’s death in new and dangerous surroundings of course makes her vulnerable to a sympathetic soul. The sympathetic soul and forbidden fruit happens to be an enslaved god – something perhaps even more deadly than the succession struggle she find herself at the heart of. All of this culminates in a sex scene that is at once fascinating and full of ‘oh please’.

While it’s an overall solid debut, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is not entirely without flaws. First person narration is always tricky – it really works best when the reader likes or loves the narrator and can fall apart if the narrator becomes uninteresting or annoying. While I never became uninterested or annoyed, the narrative style did break the flow of the book at times in irritating ways and I can see how it could be an even bigger issue for some. Overall it’s handled well, but the unevenness is noticeable. Also, the scientist in me can’t help but question the city of Sky – I can accept that the power of the gods allows the city to be suspended half a mile above the ground. But apparently the gods also need to moderate the temperature and atmospheric pressure of the air around sky. This is completely unnecessary since Sky is only about 2600 feet above the ground – as someone who lives at an elevation of 7000 feet this inconsistency jumped out pretty readily even if it’s only a rather minor detail.

Jemisin creates a wonderfully unique and rich world even if we only see and experience only a small part of it in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, Book 1 of the Inheritance Trilogy. While it is the opening of a trilogy, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms stands well on its own. Subsequent books promise to show us more of the world as they are told from points of view other than Yeine in places other than Sky and Jemisin maintains that each will stand on its own equally as well. Book 2, The Broken Kingdoms, is coming in fall 2010 (
Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound).

Overall, I found The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by Jemisin to be a quick and fascinating read. Her unique voice and layered storytelling are welcome additions to the world of fantasy. Highly recommended. 8/10


Ryan said...

Great review sir. I've heard so much hype about this novel around the internet, but I am glad I read your review first. I appreciate your fairness and the flaws you found sound like things I would take issue with as well. I also appreciate that you mention how Jemisin addresses a few important societal issues. My interest level in this novel is rising.

Fence said...

I hadn't heard any hype about this, but after this review I have to say I'm interested. Maybe I'll order a copy for work... I love working in a library :)

Ron Buckmire said...

I saw the hype of this book as well and added it to my Xmas Amazon wishlist and someone got it for me.

I read it hoping for the best but I really did not enjoy it. The strongest aspect of the novel is the first perspective, but ultimately I really DID NOT CARE what happened to the main character in the end. Also the resolution was just plain confusing.

I'm shocked (and a bit chagrined) that it was nominated for the Nebula award.

To give you a bit of perspective I am a big hard sci-fi fan with Peter F Hamilton and Alastair Reynolds being my fave authors but I also enjoy well-written fantasy like Patrick Rothfuss and Scctt Lynch.


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