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

January 24, 2011 Books, Reading, Reviews 2 ★★★★★


Where to begin. My friend K and I used to loan each other books all the time, when we both lived in San Diego. Now that we leave on opposite coasts, we do this intra-continental library post thing to get each other into new authors. Much of my shelves these days are thanks to her influence. This book started a new obsession. I read 75% of it in one sitting before I *made* myself go to bed because I had to get up the next morning for a social life (I know, how dare it interfere with my reading!), and proceeded to have exceptionally strange dreams.

But let’s start at the beginning. Most fantasy, let’s face it, is set in medieval Europe. Maybe that’s Tolkien’s fault, for making Lord of the Rings take place in a fantasized Britain of magic and myth, or maybe people just write what they know and it became a cliché that everyone liked, so no one fought against it. And then there’s scifi that takes place on other planets to excuse the utter strangeness and requires the main character to be like “us” so as to use him/her as a vehicle in understanding this strange new world. And then you have authors like Raymond Feist who have fantasy that collides with science-fiction: wizards who are the ambassadors to another plane of existence where actual aliens reside and take interest in the medievalish human fantasy world. I think Feist is the only basis of comparison I can offer for N.K. Jemisin’s debut, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. It hits all the good fantasy hotspots: monarchy, war, evil imperialates (wait, that’s a scifi crossover, but still one often present in fantasy – an evil king, perhaps), and a girl out of place. In Jemisin’s world, it is the history of the gods that most affect the story, which takes place in a serene and perfect city-castle of gleaming white that seems more fitted to a germ-free sci-fi future than a magical fantasy.

Once there were Three. First there was One, Nahadoth, the Nightlord. Eons later, there was Itempas, the Dayfather. Eons after that, there was Enefa, and it was she who brought Life to the Maelstrom, she who Created. But though she loved both her brothers (and one tries not to think of this in an incestuous way – it’s not like that, because, I suppose, they’re not *really* related…this is the part where my mother asks where Cain and Abel got their wives and we all get kicked out of Sunday School), and had children with both of them (later referred to as “godlings”), Itempas felt she was a threat. With the help of a human, Shahar Arameri, he killed Enefa and enslaved Nahadoth and all the children.

It is into this history, where the people only worship Bright Itempas, the Dayfather (or Skyfather), that our heroine Yeine is introduced. She is a minor noble in Darr, a leader of a tribe (they’re matriarchal, but the influence of patriarchy which gets a bit of a throwaway discussion is something that really piqued my anthropological interests), whose mother was an Arameri, a member of the ruling family in the palace of Sky; where the enslaved god Naharoth and the godlings all serve the ruling family. And, let’s call a spade a spade, while there is a Council to rule the world, it is Sky and the apex of the Arameri family that really has the power. After her mother’s death, she is called to Sky to her grandfather (the current ruler) and informed she will take her mother’s place as heir. This might seem typically fantastical, but she is one of three heirs – and she is to compete against her two cousins for the throne. Early on, we are clued in that she has little or no chance of succeeding against them and her confusion as to why she is summoned is a recurring question.

Though she comes to Sky alone, she does not remain alone for long – upon meeting her cousin, she is introduced to “Naha”, the enslaved day-version of Nahadoth, and in her flight from his murderous rage (the enslaved follow specific commands, and her cousin meant to scare her), she meets Sieh, a child-like godling who takes an instant liking to her and introduces her to the other gods. The story which unfolds from there is far too complicated to reiterate in this format, but needless to say, her grandfather intends that she help choose who will succeed him, and the godlings intend that she will be the instrument of their freedom from slavery.

Now, when I received this in the mail from K, there was a post-it on it that read “you will love Nahadoth!” And she hit it right on the head. Nahadoth is ever-changing, the antithesis to Itempas’s order, and Enefa their balancing stone; he is wild and unpredictable, and driven mad by his captivity (part of which is that he must spend the daylight hours forced into human form – while mortals were created in the gods’ image, the gods have so many more images than just that of a human). But it is his help that Yeine needs to pull off her coup. Their unstable “relationship” (the simple fact that they have spoken and he has not killed her is actually considered a pretty successful relationship, despite the instability of his madness) is looked upon with a combination of fear, disgust, and abhorrence by the godlings (some of whom are Nahadoth’s children), but when Yeine discovers the truth of herself and a bargain her mother made with the godlings, it is Nahadoth to whom she turns. She has few mortal allies, because everyone in the Sky palace is some part of the royal family (blood strength is indicated by fracticious circles on their foreheads) and everyone takes sides. Even the godlings (as some of them are Itempas’s children, not just Nahadoth’s) take sides – uncertain that a mortal can indeed help them despite her mother’s bargain (and they have intentions of their own). Yeine is more alone in a crowd than anything, and her willingness to embrace change links her to Nahadoth without even realizing it. She is straightforward, fierce (she was a ruler herself, after all), and pursues the truth behind her mother’s death without pause, even as she discovers more about her mother that directly contrasts what she knew of the woman growing up. In the palace of Sky, she is forced to become someone more than herself, and she begins to understand how and why her mother left, why she changed, and how Sky leaves a mark on everyone.

Learning, with Yeine, about the complicated politics of Sky and plots within plots (perhaps I should also reference Dune, but to tell you why would give things away – I am simply reminded of “plans within plans”), we are sent on a truly psychedelic (what other word can I use? I swear I didn’t eat chocolate or pickles before bed and I had *really* strange dreams) journey through hidden pasts and undiscovered potentials. No matter what I say, I’m oversimplifying the story – and certainly not doing justice to the characters and the wonderful development that Jemisin treats us to. I was almost completely incapable of trying to guess what would happen next because I was so entrenched in Jemisin’s storytelling. She’s not just telling Yeine’s story, she’s telling the story of the world, the story of the gods, the story of how one religion’s supremacy influences a culture and the retelling of history, and how even the smallest person can change…no, wait, that’s Tolkien.

But seriously, folks. Jemisin is a strong new voice to the genre, bringing beautifully written worlds and deftly woven characters that I was utterly invested in. and I have already devoured the second book in the Inheritance trilogy, called The Broken Kingdoms, and eagerly look forward to Kingdom of the Gods, to be published late this year.