The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms
N. K. Jemisin
Yes, I know things have been a bit sparse here as of late. December is always a bit of a rough month between holiday related obligations and two jobs I tend to be split a bit thin and, during the free time I do have, tend be a little bit exhausted. Thankfully, I have been able to sit down for enough time read several books though finding the time to write about them hasn’t been easy. I actually managed to read through The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms in about three days or so which was a surprise because in truth I really hadn’t even expected to start reading the book.
What sold me on the novel wasn’t the back of the book, or the multitude of good reviews it has received but rather the single opening sentence from Brent Weeks’s (the Night Angel Trilogy, The Black Prism) review of it Goodreads: “What if gods were real…and walked among us…enslaved…and were used as weapons…and were really pissed off about it?” That sounded pretty cool to me. In fact, it reminded a little of Scalzi’s The God Engines; a novella I quite enjoyed.
The plot, at the outset at least, is fairly simple: a young woman, Yeine, is summoned to court by her grandfather who is the current ruler of the titular Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Yeine, whose mother was exiled and disowned, is the ruler of a distant provincial kingdom and given her mother’s recent death fears some kind of trap. She quickly finds herself drawn into the political machinations in the capital city of Sky where she is forced to compete in a deadly race to take her grandfather’s place. As if scheming family out to destroy her and all she holds dear Yeine must also contend with gods “trapped in tangible vessels and kept under lock and key and magical chain.” Often referred to as Enefadeh they are bound to serve those of Yeine’s bloodline by the Skyfather Bright Itempas when they along with another goddess named Enefa betrayed him. Or so the story goes. All isn’t as it seems and Yeine’s plight and the machinations of these bound gods slowly blossoms over the course of the novel.
Perhaps the thing that first struck me about the novel was the narrative structure Jemisin uses. The novel unfolds as an extended flashback which carefully jumps to the “present” to offer sparse though tantalizing hints as to where the story will eventually end up. At the start of chapter three we get a nice juicy little tidbit, “Should I pause to explain? It is poor storytelling. But I must remember everything remember and remember and remember, to keep a tight grip on it . So many bits of myself have escaped already.” While story has hardly progressed Jemisin has clearly hinted that something dire happens to our protagonist and her fate unfolds in two ways as one reads: through the story she is telling to us, and through the clues Yeine drops through the breaks and asides in that tale. It’s a clever mechanic and one that Jemisin pulls off with finesse somehow managing to impart a sense of intimacy, the notion of hearing a tale from a close friends, and a sense of grand scale given the beings involved over the course of the story.
The intermingling of personal history and the mythic past plays an integral role throughout the course of the story and the battle of human emotions and thoughts against the pull of divine machinations is one the novel’s biggest strength. As the goals of the bound gods are slowly uncovered, and as Yeine remember more of her past so too does she begin to uncover the truths behind the natures and origins of these beings. Of course the how of that adds another carrot for the reader to chase. The Yeine narrating the story obviously knows more than the Yeine she speaks of and there are times over the course of the story where it becomes difficult to tell the difference between truth, conjecture and myth.
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is a difficult novel to describe. The publisher’s blurb does little to help offering a description that does little to hint at the complexity and originality of the world that Jemisin has created. Though not the most fast-paced I still found it difficult to put down and I found myself just as drawn to Yeine’s personal struggles in Sky as I was with the divine power struggled between the imprisoned Enefadeh and Itempas. There is no sword slinging here, no spells being tossed about, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms focuses its attentions on deeper magics that tie together the mortal and the divine; namely love, hate and revenge. It is a wonderfully mature novel from a debut author who, given the publication of the next volume in the Inheritence Trilogy (The Broken Kingdoms) and a recent book deal for a duology, looks to to be here to stay. I for one couldn’t be happier. If you’ve yet to give The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms a shot you’re missing out one of the most original new authors to hit the fantasy scene in a long time.