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

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by NK JemisinDear Ms. Jemisin,

Traditional fantasy is one of my favorite genres. In fact, it’s the type of fantasy I love best. And yet, I have such a contentious relationship with it because so much of it features elements I’m tired of: the vaguely medieval European setting, the quest structure in which the protagonist collects convenient plot coupons to defeat the enemy, the mindnumbing lack of diversity when it comes to the cast of characters. Speaking as a reader who grows easily bored with a genre after seeing the same kind of story again and again (and again), it’d be nice to see more types of stories that take a different path in a genre with such a long history. So when I first heard about your debut novel last year and read the sample chapters on your website (note to authors: please put sample chapters on your website!), I eagerly awaited its release and devoured the book when Jane forwarded me a copy. The fact that this review itself is tardy is my own fault and in no way a reflection of the book.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms tells the story of Yeine Darr who, shortly after her mother’s death, is summoned by her grandfather, the supreme ruler of the land, to court. The message is not entirely without reason because Yeine’s mother was once next in the line of succession.

My mother was an heiress of the Arameri. There was a ball for the lesser nobility — the sort of thing that happens once a decade as a backhanded sop to their self-esteem. My father dared ask my mother to dance; she deigned to consent. I have often wondered what he said and did that night to make her fall in love with him so powerfully, for she eventually abdicated her position to be with him. It is the stuff of great tales, yes? Very romantic. In the tales, such a couple lives happily ever after. The tales do not say what happens when the most powerful family in the world is offended in the process.

And because one does not refuse an Arameri summons, especially when the person doing the summoning is one’s own grandfather, Yeine travels to the family seat of power, the city of Sky. There, she discovers the unthinkable: her grandfather has named her heir. And because there are already two existing heirs — her cousins, Scimina and Relad — this can only mean one thing:

“It is very simple. I have named three heirs. One of you will actually manage to succeed me. The other two will doubtless kill each other or be killed by the victor. As for which lives, and which die–” He shrugged. “That is for you to decide.”

What a friendly homecoming. It makes me all warm and fuzzy just thinking about it.

In many ways, this novel is structured like a mystery. Not that I’m a heavy reader of that genre, but the plot focuses more on Yeine seeking answers to various secrets than it does on her trying to secure the succession or engaging heavily with her fellow rivals. There’s intrigue but it’s more family intrigue than political intrigue along the lines of George R.R. Martin or Jacqueline Carey’s original Kushiel trilogy. It’s not that sort of book and I think readers coming in expecting such may be disappointed. I’d like to think they wouldn’t be because the story we do get is strong and original, but I know how can be when you have your heart set on one kind of story and instead get another.

What we do get instead is a powerful story about Yeine learning about her mother. In fact, her mother’s presence permeates throughout the entire book even though she’s already been dead a month when the story begins. Her mother’s actions, her mother’s choices — all of these things impact Yeine in the here and now. But aside from that, we also see the contentious relationship between the two, one that is indicative of many a relationship between a mother and a daughter. A daughter can think she knows her mother but in truth, she only knows the faces her mother chose to show her. Only in death does Yeine learn about the faces she never saw.

My people tell stories of the night I was born. They say my mother crossed her legs in the middle of labor and fought with all her strength not to release me into the world. I was born anyhow, of course; nature cannot be denied. Yet it does not surprise me that she tried.

The other half of the story we get is devoted to that of gods. What I liked about The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms was that it dealt with gods in a mythic sort of way — the creation mythos, the constant give and take of fighting and friendship, even the incestuous aspects of many myths are portrayed. In the present story, most of the gods have been enslaved and made into living weapons by the Arameri. Yeine encounters them almost immediately when her cousin, Scimina, wastes no time in introducing her to the cruelty that’s characteristic to their people. But just as much intrigue surrounded Yeine’s mother, intrigue also surrounds the diminished gods who are trying to find a way to restore balance and break free of the shackles placed upon them by one of their own. It’s up to Yeine to navigate through all of these obligations placed upon her without being reduced to a mere pawn.

As is obvious by the number of excerpts I’ve been including, I really loved the prose and the way this novel was told. It reminds me of old legends as told by a master storyteller. Initially there are what appear to be random interjections or tangents in the novel:

So there was love, once.

More than love. And now there is more than hate. Mortals have no words for what we gods feel. Gods have no words for such things.

But love like that doesn’t just disappear, does it? No matter how powerful the hate, there is always a little left, underneath.

Yes. Horrible, isn’t it?

I don’t want to spoil what exactly these narrative interruptions are for those who haven’t yet read the novel, but it becomes clear about a third through the book. And I loved that revelation, and how hints of it were placed into the narrative from the very first paragraph.

Readers will either take to Yeine’s relationship with the chained dark god, Nahadoth, or they won’t. Personally, I enjoyed seeing how the power differential between them played out and changed over the course of the novel. I can understand why some readers would find it not to their taste, however.

If I have one complaint and it is a relatively minor one, it’s that the ending of the book is somewhat rushed and everything happens at once now sort of resolution. But as I said, it’s not a major quibble and didn’t make the book any less enjoyable for me.

I think readers looking for a change of pace from the usual settings found in the traditional fantasy genre will enjoy this one a lot. I thought the world was nicely developed and different from what we normally see. I liked that there were tensions among various classes and people, since that’s something that can get often glossed over.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is a book I’d recommend to readers who like traditional fantasy but want something different from your Robert Jordans or George R.R. Martins. I also think fans of Tanith Lee and Storm Constantine will like this novel. I was strongly reminded of their work while reading it, so I wasn’t very surprised to see them cited as influences in the author interview in the end. I definitely look forward to the second book in the trilogy. (I assume it’s a trilogy?) B+

My regards,
Jia

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This is a trade paperback and the current ebook price is set by the publisher at $9.99

Jia is an avid reader who loves fantasy and young adult novels. She's also currently dipping her toes in the new adult genre but remains unconvinced by the prevalent need for traumatic pasts. Her favorite authors are Michelle West and Jacqueline Carey. YA authors whose works she's enjoyed include Holly Black, Laini Taylor, Ally Carter, and Megan Miranda. Jia's on a neverending quest for novels with diverse casts and multicultural settings. Feel free to email her with recommendations at [email protected]!

19 Comments

  1. Jayne
    Apr 12, 2010 @ 07:41:52

    The thing with the co-existing heirs trying to kill each other off reminds me of “Stardust.” Or at least the movie version as I’ve never read the book. Yeah, warm fuzzies all over the place.

    ReplyReply

  2. Aoife
    Apr 12, 2010 @ 08:43:13

    Thanks for an excellent review, Jia. You really captured what I felt were the strengths, and some of the quibbles I had with this book, especially the ending. I’ll definitely be reading the next book in the series.

    ReplyReply

  3. Jia
    Apr 12, 2010 @ 09:01:10

    @Jayne: I’ve never seen the movie but I have read the book version, although it was many years ago so my memory is fuzzy. I do recall not liking it very much but I think that was because I read the version that didn’t have illustrations, which I’ve heard were half the charm of the book.

    Despite having that element though, that plot wasn’t really the major focus of Jemisin’s novel. Probably because only one of the heirs were really intent on getting the throne — the other was broken and the third didn’t want part of it and had her own (non-ruling related) goals to achieve.

    ReplyReply

  4. Persephone Green
    Apr 12, 2010 @ 15:39:07

    I’m glad to have a consumer review of this that confirms I made the right choice in buying it. So excited!

    I bought this book when it first came out and have it waiting for me when work is done. One more month.

    ReplyReply

  5. Dishonor
    Apr 12, 2010 @ 17:59:39

    I’m a true diehard traditional high fantasy fan, and yet, I too sometimes avoid the genre like it has a plague, simply because I truly think I want something new. And yet, when something definitely…different, like The 100k Kingdoms, arrives on the scene, my expectations are so high that I’m almost setting myself up for disappointment. I simply couldn’t understand why Yeine, who all but has a ticking time bomb about her head, chooses to investigate her mother’s past instead of searching for ways to fight the situation she’s placed in. She ended up being a relatively bland, placeholder-esque character for me, and while I enjoyed some of her interactions with other characters, like Sieh, it was mostly because of my fondness for those secondary characters. The ending struck me as extremely messy and rushed as well, so I’m glad that I’m not the only one who felt that way.

    In spite of my litany of complaints here though, I did enjoy the book in some ways. It was just the sheer inflation of my expectations, I think, that left me with a sigh of disappointment instead of exhilaration.

    ReplyReply

  6. Jia
    Apr 12, 2010 @ 18:24:04

    @Dishonor: I think I definitely would have liked the novel more if there had been more actual political intrigue versus family intrigue. Granted, family = politics here but it seems almost wasted to introduce such a cut-throat family dynasty and not really shot it.

    On the other hand, I think Jemisin is an author is watch so hopefully future books will deliver on expectations, particularly since we partially know what to expect.

    ReplyReply

  7. AB
    Apr 12, 2010 @ 18:40:47

    Loved this book. I just wanted to add for people who are interested that a big draw for me was that the first book has a definite ending. So often, I shy away from reading epics because doorstoppers put me off, but you could definitely just stop after this one and still be satisfied.

    Of course, I plan on reading the next one though!

    ReplyReply

  8. Tae
    Apr 12, 2010 @ 19:46:07

    hrm.. I love fantasy and especially high fantasy, so I will look into it

    ReplyReply

  9. Estara
    Apr 12, 2010 @ 22:52:36

    I really enjoyed the book, but I also think the gods stole the show, the more we saw of them. I very much liked the resolution of the story, but also thought the climax went by too fast. And I wonder if the book couldn’t have completely skipped one of the three heirs…

    ReplyReply

  10. Evangeline
    Apr 13, 2010 @ 19:20:17

    I picked this up at B&N and flipped through it because Jemisin is a cool woman, but high fantasy bewilders me!

    ReplyReply

  11. Dishonor
    Apr 14, 2010 @ 15:29:40

    @Jia: Precisely, Jia! You hit the nail on the head–I kept waiting for high-tension political balancing, with the really delicate touch Jemisin showed in the 1st chapter “altarskirt rose” description. Instead, the book shoved in some rather heavy-handed and, I think, semi-hypocritical Arameri bashing. I would have loved to see some more development of this really amazingly-set-up family/dynasty. When everything at court is so politically focused, why do we never see Yeine and court politics together?

    I’d like to see if/how she redeems Itempas in The Broken Kingdoms though. I loved the mythology setup (though I wasn’t crazy about the handling of the double-soul concept), and I thought that Jemisin did a great job giving the gods interesting and colorful personalities.

    ReplyReply

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  16. Teresa
    Aug 21, 2011 @ 20:33:56

    I enjoyed the lack of political intrigue in the story. I find political intrigue in fantasies as an overdone trope and really enjoyed the mythology of the story along with the exploration of family and the ties that binds families. Not only the humans but also the gods. This novel is more in the lines of character quest fantasy.

    From the first few pages of the story, I could tell that there was a weight to the world building. For those who are hesitant to start this novel I would recommend continuing. It is well worth the effort.

    ReplyReply

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  18. Sarawackadoo
    Nov 21, 2011 @ 14:05:25

    Thanks for the review! I have The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms on my Kindle waiting to be read. I guess I know what I’m doing over Christmas break.

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