The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin

For the past few months now I've come across countless favorable reviews of N. K. Jemisin's debut fantasy novel, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms as it made its way round the blogosphere. And while most reviewers mentioned the mountains of publicity the publisher generated by calling The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms the fantasy debut of 2010, they all seem to agree that it did in fact live up to the publishers promise. Now that didn't sell me on the book alone, but combined with the superb cover and after reading an excerpt online, I was sold and ready to weigh in on the book for myself.

While still in mourning for her murdered mother, Yeine receives an unexpected summons from the exalted city of Sky, the ruling seat for all of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, from her estranged grandfather the king. Although Yeine has never once traveled to Sky or met her powerful grandfather, upon her arrival she discovers his intention to name her as an heir to the Arameri throne. Despite the fact that Yeine is the recognized ruler of her own homeland Darr, she is only half Arameri and completely at a loss when it comes to the ruthlessness and cruelty of the high-blooded nobles. But Yeine is not the only contender for the throne: her two cousins Scimina and Relad have planned and schemed their entire lives in preparation for assuming control and will each prove to be intelligent if not, merciless adversaries as only one heir can live through the struggle to become king. Sky continues to be a city of revelations for Yeine, including her introduction to the array of complex yet deadly gods trapped into human form as punishment by the Skyfather, Bright Itempas. The mischievous, child-like Sieh, the dark and alluring Lord Nahadoth - enegmatic beings who draw Yeine nearer with their promises of understanding and affection. Scarce on knowledge and on time, Yeine flounders in a incompressible world of secrets and gods as she slowly uncovers mysteries about her family and those hidden deep within herself.

Oftentimes when a fantasy novel devotes such a large portion to explaining a new pantheon of gods an their abilities the story itself suffers. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms boasts such an impressive creation myth, complete and believable, with stories stretching back to the beginning of time. Despite this wealth of information, Yeine's story swiftly flies by as each new detail added more substance and layers to her struggles. This was partly achieved due to the unique narrative style of the book, told in first person style by Yeine. At times we meet the confused, young-Yeine who is experiencing the action first-hand, then there is the matured Yeine looking back and narrating, and other times a third Yeine who reminds herself of details or who is there to help to collect her thoughts. Sounds confusing on paper, but N. K. Jemisin merges the voices together flawlessly to create a riveting fantasy that reveals itself only by degrees. Take these first few lines of the novel for example:
I am not as I once was. They have done this to me, broken me open and torn out my heart. I do not know who I am anymore.

I must try to remember.

***

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.

***

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.

***

But I forget myself. Who was I, again? Ah, yes.
That's an excellent hook if I've ever read one.

Truly the most outstanding feature of Yeine's story are the characters. Yeine herself varies through a variety of emotions - despair, rage, love, fear - all very genuine in the face of such trials. Her adventures are narrated in such heart-pounding accuracy that I often felt fear, joy, or revulsion right along side Yeine. Then there are the gods, the Enefah. Their very existence and power defies everything Yeine previously knew about them while their subjection to Itempas is heart-breakingly tragic. I was utterly enamored with Sieh and his floating spheres and his youthful eagerness to help Yeine. I just want to wrap him up in my arms and keep him safe. Yet no matter how human or tragic the gods appear to Yeine, she continually faced reminders of their true god nature: powerful and decidedly not human. I'm like Yeine when it comes to the gods: I love them all - even if they scare the pants off me.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms was an excellent debut, one that I'd recommend almost without reservation.

series reading order:
~ The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms
~ The Broken Kingdoms (November 2010)

Because Everyone Likes a Second Opinion:
A Dribble of Ink review
The Book Smugglers review
Fantasy Cafe review
Janicu's Book Blog review
My Favorite Books review

7 comments:

Chachic said...

Oooh this one looks really good. I'll add it in my wishlist.

Michelle said...

Chachic - I think you'd like it. Very different sort of high fantasy, but nonetheless intriguing.

Janicu said...

I had the same experience - the excerpt sealed the deal in making me buy this one. The writing sold me.

IntrovertedJen said...

Great review! This is going on my list!

lasrisas said...

I have been wanting to read this one forever. I first heard of Jemisin when I listened to one of her short stories at EscapePod (a podcast for science fiction short stories). Can't wait to read this one!

Michelle said...

Janice - She does have quite a hook there! Your review was one that actually spurred me on to read this one. So thanks!

Jen - Good to hear.

lasrisas - Hmmm. I'll have to check those out. I didn't know she had short stories. Thanks for the tip!

Chelle said...

I just began reading this yesterday. I hadn't read a review before - just took a shot in the dark hoping it'd be good - and am glad to hear it's worth while. I'm only a few pages in but it's very interesting already.