Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Book Review | The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin

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Yeine Darr is an outcast from the barbarian north. But when her mother dies under mysterious circumstances, she is summoned to the majestic city of Sky - a palace above the clouds where gods' and mortals' lives are intertwined.

There, to her shock, Yeine is named one of the potential heirs to the king. But the throne of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is not easily won, and Yeine is thrust into a vicious power struggle with a pair of cousins she never knew she had.

As she fights for her life, she draws ever closer to the secrets of her mother's death and her family's bloody history. But it's not just mortals who have secrets worth hiding and Yeine will learn how perilous the world can be when love and hate - and gods and mortals - are bound inseparably.


Our loved ones never truly leave us.

Even when they are lost to us, the memory of them remains; the memory above all else. And we inherit from our mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers more than memories: often they bequeath to us a bauble or a trinket or a sum of money. Sometimes more and sometimes less, but be it a lot or a little, invariably something is left.

Yeine's parents left her a legacy. A legacy that will rend the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms apart, from the heavens above to the darkest depths of this dying earth, as surely as it will set Yeine on a path pockmarked with revelations of love, and loss.

Following the death of her mother - a fullblood Arameri cast out of the capital because of her love for a man from Darr, a distant barbarian domain where two decades and one daughter later someone finally killed Kinneth - Yeine is obliged to travel to Sky, a city sunk into the firmament of the heavens where the Gods are said to walk. There, for the first time in her life, she meets her grandfather: Lord Dekarta, the ailing ruler of all that the eye can see, not to mention all that it cannot.

Dekarta is not kind to Yeine, nor does it seem he is in the least happy to see her, despite his storybook love for her mother, yet he bids the girl compete with her two cousins, Scimina and Relad, in a game of thrones: the winner of which brutal maneuvering will inherit not just a chair, but the whole of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. And to lose is to die - a fact that preoccupies Yeine for almost the entirety of N. K. Jemisin's award-winning debut, with very little variance.

..all I could think of was death. I was not yet twenty years old, I had never been in love. I had not mastered the nine forms of the knife. I had never - gods. I had never really lived, beyond the legacies left to me by my parents: ennu, and Arameri. It seemed almost incomprehensible that I was doomed, and yet I was. (p.209)

Needless to say Yeine has no taste for the transparent politics of the Arameri, a noble race - a single bloodline - which has all the world under its thumb; all the world, and all but one of the deities who had a hand in its creation... because it is true that Gods walk among men along the pearlescent streets of Sky. They, too, are slaves to the Arameri. And they take a particular interest in Yeine.

Of the three pet Gods the Arameri keep, Sieh, who appears as a boy and scoots about Sky on a small sun, is easily the most interesting. Yeine's feelings for Sieh are almost maternal, so it follows, I suppose, that her feelings for Sieh's father, Nahadoth - such a straightforward tortured soul archetype as to surprise a reader - are like those of a woman in lust, or love.

Make no mistake, as I did: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is primarily paranormal romance, but set against an alluring high fantasy backdrop rather than the urban environs of most such fiction. Nor is N. K. Jemisin's first novel - volume one of the Inheritance trilogy, aptly titled - nearly so complex as I imagine it must sound. Indeed, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is in real need of nuance.

Sieh alone rises above the tiresome angst of the entire: a trickster God, born of an impossible commingling of order and chaos, older than the world, and yet he chooses to be as a child in every aspect. Why? Out of love, or obedience? Well, that'd be telling, and there's really precious little else to be told besides, so let's leave it at that.

Yeine, alas, lacks intrigue, and agency. New to Sky and the Arameri, but for her murdered mother, she is a made-to-order conduit through which the author is able to first construct and latterly explore, if only tentatively, the Kay Kenyon-esque setting of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. As a simple cipher Yeine serves her purpose perfectly; as a girl on the cusp of adulthood with a history or opinions of her own, however, I had a hard time believing in her. She comes from a faraway land where women have dominance over men, where the Gods are but a whispered rumour, where she has been respected, and feared, and admired... yet though we spend the entirety of this admittedly modest narrative in her company, and hers alone, she hardly remarks on the differences between one life and another.

In terms of character, then, I fear The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is something of a disappointment: hollow, uncomplicated, and once-removed from the real meat of these people, in this pristine place.

But you know what? It's not all bad. Actually, otherwise, the first book of the Inheritance trilogy is surprisingly engaging. Its world "of whispered myth and half-forgotten legend" (p.253) is neat, though somewhat derivative - namely of The Entire and the Rose, as aforementioned - and very nicely put together, if a little too easy-does-it... but there's two more books to take care of that, and I'd expect no less. The politicking, meanwhile, is entertaining, and not remotely overbearing; in this case the linearity of Jemisin's debut works in its favour.

Above all else, however, I was in awe of the effortless elegance of the author's prose. Particularly for a debut, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is very well written indeed, reminding this reader of Daniel Abraham's marvelous first flush, and just as I can overlook bad writing if there's a good story to be had, I can forgive a beautiful wordsmith an absence of character, as in this case. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms would have been a markedly more remarkable experience had its narrative not been robbed of meaning by Yeine's tepid perspective, but nevertheless, with this debut - an uncomplicated hybrid of high fantasy and paranormal romance - N. K. Jemisin has certainly made her voice heard.

And it's a voice I'd hear more of, whatever my qualms.


The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms
by N. K. Jemisin

UK Publication: February 2010, Orbit
US Publication: October 2010, Orbit

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  1. I managed about twenty pages of this before I put it aside. At that point, there was nothing about the book that appealed to me.

    As to the quality of the prose, it is interesting how wildly opinions can vary. For me, there was nothing special about the prose of this book and though I love Abraham, I feel his prose is the weakest aspect of his books.

  2. I was ready to give up the ghost on this about then myself, but solely because of its reputation I pushed on - with this book and then the trilogy - and I'm glad now that I did. Both of the sequels are rather better than The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, I think. But I'm getting ahead of myself!

  3. This book has a pretty good reputation around the blogs as a good read, but every time I read a review, I don't feel that twinge of interest in the book. I'm not one to read something just because everyone else is, so I think, despite your positive review and many others, I'm gonna let this fish swim by.

    Then again, your reviews for the rest of the series might sway me....

  4. I just finished rereading this one, in preparation for reading the other two books of the trilogy. I've put them off for too long now, and I wanted to refresh the story in my mind. There were definitely some interesting themes to it, and Jemisin's style certainly is smooth. I'm excited to pick up book 2 soon! (I've only had it on my shelves for months now...)

  5. @Bibliotropic - If you've been through The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms twice and you're still excited to see what's next, I expect you'll have a great time with the sequels, Ria. The best is certainly yet to come.

    Happy second blogiversary, by the way! :)

  6. @Ryan - Nah. I shouldn't think so. If there's nothing about this first book that interests you, mate, then the sequels aren't likely to change your mind. However much better books two and three of the series are, they're basically more of the same. Except... moreish.

    But like the man says, there are plenty other fish in the sea, so. :)

    Now then. I'm going to Bratislava. Speak soon, everyone!

  7. I had a similar opinion ... well written prose, but somewhat shaky story/characters. I just finished and reviewed book three ... book two was infinitely better on every level, but don't even bother with book three, it was far worse in my opinion!

  8. I didn't find the book beautifully written, but it does have a fair amount of polish for a debut. Otherwise I agree with your review - I'll look for reviews of the others, since me thinks you could rekindle my interest in the series.

  9. At the time of reading, I found this one flawed but interesting, and I decided that I'd continue in the hope of seeing the flaws corrected and the strengths brought out. In the months since, though, that drive rather evaporated. Many of my problems were those that you raised, and I'd agree with you on the prose. It (and Abraham's) is not exceptional in the sense of its very style being remarkable, as is the case for, say, VanderMeer or Ligotti, but it does excel in the Epic Fantasy tradition, I think. I don't mean to damn with faint praise there, either. Their writing, though Abraham's far more so in my opinion, focuses more on conveying the story than on itself, as is the genre's norm, but does so with rather more color and character than is, I feel, common.

  10. I loved the narrative conceit of the novel and its beautiful writing! Yeine's somewhat confused narration is perfect for her story, but I can see how that could affect one's appreciation of her as a character. I do agree though that books two and three only improve on what comes before.