The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is a title that just sort of made its way onto my reading list in 2010—the ridiculously gorgeous cover turned my head, and I always like to investigate heroines of color in fantasy. But I was content to let it sit on the reading list until I heard of The Broken Kingdoms, the sequel released eight months after the first. (Orbit, bless ‘em, has a refreshing approach towards releasing series.) Intrigued, I put it on hold at my library at home so it could be one of the first books I picked up during the holidays.
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms follows Yeine dau she Kinneth tai wer Somem kanna Darre, known to the Arameri ruling family as Baroness Yeine Darr, who rules over Darr, an often overlooked country in the High North. Yeine’s mother, Kinneth, was once the heir of Dekarta Arameri, the unofficial ruler of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, but she abdicated to marry Yeine’s father. After the death of her mother, Yeine is summoned to Sky, the capital of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, where Dekarta names her as a heir to his throne, throwing her into a deadly competition with her twin cousins, Scimina and Relad—a competition further complicated by the fact that the Arameri have gods under their control, the losers of an ancient war. In order to survive, Yeine must find allies in the strangest of places and discover the truth about why her mother left Sky.
As soon as I opened this novel, I realized I was in for something special when it came to the narrator voice and style; it opens with what sounds like a mentally broken Yeine reflecting back on the events that brought her to where she is now. I really like first person narratives that utilize this, such as the last book I reviewed, Evening’s Empire, especially when, through simply hearing the character further along in her journey than we see her, we know something is up. Jemisin’s style is clear and graced with a lightly grotesque sense of imagery, which is good for a novel that’s partially dark fantasy (but more on that in a minute). It flows beautifully, making Yeine’s narrative pauses work—she stops to gather her thoughts and occasionally even backtracks, as she fights to remember what happened in Sky. In fact, I wonder how this would play in audiobook format; I think it would do well! It’s well-paced; I flew through this in two days, although, I have to admit, I’ve been dragging my feet about writing this review.
You see, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms doesn’t quite know what it is. It’s been marketed as political intrigue, but we see very little of the titular Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, which is sad; it’s a global empire backed by the god of the sun, Itempas. (The worldbuilding has its highlights, such as the warrior women of Darr, but is accessible at best and scant at worst.) The political intrigue boils down to a claustrophobic struggle between Yeine, Scimina, and the enslaved gods. To be fair, there is some interesting political intrigue in Yeine’s mother’s backstory; occasionally, I wished Jemisin had just written about her. At first, I thought I was in for dark fantasy (after a segment where Yeine is hunted down in the palace by one of the enslaved gods), but Jemisin seems to shy away from anything too unrelentingly and permanently dark. It’s also a romance. The first title for The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms was The Sky-God’s Lover. Yeine and the Nightlord, Nahadoth, one of the original three creator gods (along with Itempas and the now perished Enefa), fall in love during the novel. Well, perhaps that’s too soft a phrase—their relationship is a little twisted and very sexual. Jemisin may be the only author I’ve read who can get away with some truly ridiculous sex scenes, since, after all, Nahadoth is a god. But I found that their romance took focus from other characters; for instance, there’s a betrayal in the third act, but we’ve only met the character who does so once or twice. This confusion makes this novel a bit too thinly spread; it’s decent at all three, but I’d prefer for it to be amazing at just one.
I had also a huge problem with how it ended. (Let’s see if I can’t do this without spoilers…) I did like the ending—I truly didn’t see it coming at all—but The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is the first book in Jemisin’s Inheritance trilogy. For a first installment in a series, it ended in so epic a fashion that I can’t really bring myself to care about the sequel. To me, it feels as though Jemisin had such a fantastic idea that she wanted to write it first, instead of a trilogy leading up to this epic climax. Had The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms been utterly standalone, I may have felt more charitable towards it—but as the beginning of a series, I was perturbed by how thoroughly it decimated the impact of anything that happens after it.
Bottom line: While The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms boasts an engaging story and interesting style, it can’t quite make it up its mind about what it wants to be—political intrigue? Dark fantasy? Romance?—and, unfortunately for a first installment in a series, its epic climax utterly decimates the impact of anything that could happen after it. If you’re interested, give a shot, but otherwise? A miss.
I rented this book from the public library.