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

This review gig is getting to me a little, I’m finding. When I don’t care for a book I elucidate exactly why to myself, and if I can’t I get frustrated. I’ll interrupt myself from time to time even with a good book, wondering what I’ll say about that, wondering whether there’s enough of an experience for me to write about, wondering, wondering, wondering. It’s not a bad thing to be a critical reader, certainly, but it can be distracting. And so I was delighted to find that I didn’t have the least attention to spare from The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful.

There’s a sort of feel to the old science fiction, back when it was all called science fiction regardless of whether it was pure swords and sorcery or all about aliens. (I think the categorical differentiation began to come about when icky girl writers got on the scene, but that’s another essay.)  It’s best in The Dying Earth and The Book of the New Sun, in the Ginger Waif’s humble opinion. The sprawling, sparkling, dirty cities, the civilizations great and terrible, the hovering threat from beyond the stars or beyond the heavens, all the horror and beauty a reader could ask for without the studied gritty reality you find in a lot of modern books that are trying too hard. The early excellencies of the old school. An elegant weapon for a more civilized age.

Yeah, as civilized as any world where old white dudes wrote all the stories.

But I can’t resist those incredible old universes, which is one reason I’m so very thrilled by The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Jemisin’s world has all the glories of the worlds that were and all the character depth and humanity of more modern spec-fic movements. There are frightening gods and shining temples and sinister priests and creeping perversions. There’s a protagonist with a history and a soul. Er, actually, that’s complicated, but… Let’s get on with the review, shall we?

Yeine is the rather young chief of her people, a small, matriarchal society considered not particularly civilized by the center of the world. This world has a very pronounced center, enforced by literal divinities. The Arameri are something between a nation and a family, the chosen wielders of gods as weapons, patrons specially chosen by the head god. (You will, as a fantasy reader of any stripe at all, recognize that the deities in question may be Other Than What They Seem.) The Arameri rule over everything by dint of having magical reusable nukes with personalities at their disposal, and Yeine is technically one of them. Her mother was the heir to the throne until she defected to marry a backwoods ruler. And as the story opens, Yeine is summoned to the city of Sky to face her grandfather.

Lot of background there just to get to page one. One of my favorite things about Yeine is that she’s a protagonist with a past. She’s got a touch of chosen one syndrome, but she was chosen for a very distinct, convoluted reason outside her control and she does well with the hand she’s dealt. She’s a defined person long before she walks into the story.

Anyway, Sky is full of backstabbing and horror and Yeine is thrown right into the center of it. Here’s where the book could have turned into a court intrigue, which I can enjoy if it’s done right, but I’m really very glad it didn’t. Wouldn’t have been half so much fun. Because Yeine’s friends and allies are the confined gods who give the Arameri their power over the world, and they’re just full of conniving and secrets and violence.

Very alien, these gods. It’s hard to write a deity and many writers aren’t up to it, but these are creatures believably drawn, quite distinct from humans but real characters all the same. It’s always hard to write the nonhuman in a way that works, so well done here. Yeine and her god friends are really the best parts, but her mad and terrible relatives (on both sides of the family) are also wonderful in their awfulness. There’s even this one nice guy. No idea how he got into this story, but then, he’s got some sharp edges of his own. Even the walk on characters have life and brightness. The characters and the world are inseparable in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Partly because some of them are deified personifications of abstract concepts and therefore part of the world because they want to be, but partly because it’s such a deeply imagined, intricate universe that everyone belongs right where they’re put and has a history and a glory.

Most of the actual history of the world of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is spoilerific. Its current situation is fraught with difficulties of its own, but it’s all amazingly epic. Jemisin only describes out two cultures in detail, Yeine’s and the Arameri, but there are hints about their surroundings. I love me some fictional anthropology and everything from dining conventions to intricate genealogies are present. Not laid out; it’s more of a snapshot thing. There’s not a complete story of anything anywhere in the novel, which is more fun for purposes of a world like this. You know the details are there. In fact, given the rapidity with which the sequel came out, they’re probably all written down in detail somewhere.

The writing is stylistically interesting on several levels. It’s a first-person narrative that’s forever cutting in and out of the story as it happened and some unknowable present vantage point that’s only explained at the end. In addition to increasing the reread value (“Oh, that’s what she was talking about!”), it keeps things mysterious and frantic to have this strange foreknowledge that isn’t foreknowledge. The prose is laid on a little thick sometimes, but I didn’t mind. That was another nicely old-school aspect to a very modern book and just added to the fun. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is heavy on the gory and squishy details, whether physical or emotional, and reading it is a pretty weighty experience, but I rushed through anyway. Definite page turner.

I won’t call the book flawless because nothing really is. Mythology is squicky and Jemisin held to that aspect of the story. The gods of the book are weird on the scale of the Japanese origin myth. While not a problem for me, their interactions can be unsettling the wrong way. There’s a bit of frantic catch-up from time to time, perhaps unavoidable with such a heavily convoluted plot. Keeping up is troublesome to say the least. But all my troubles with the book are little ones. I love this book hard and it made a tidy meal of my brain on my first frantic readthrough.

And if you’ll excuse me, the Ginger Waif’s copy of The Broken Kingdoms is waiting at the library.


One response to “Review: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, by N. K. Jemisin

  1. Also, Yeine is a woman of color, and the presentation of race is subtle and quite elegant. Perhaps slightly more subtle than is strictly optimal, but only a bit. And from where I am right now, I really enjoyed the crosscultural stuff, though I think that could have been expanded a bit more. (Though I’m also not sure if that would’ve slowed the story down, or made an already complex book even more complicated.)

    Did it remind you at all of Mindscape? I’m trying to put my finger on why.

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