The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms
By N.K Jemisin
One of the reasons I started this review series 2 years ago was to push myself to read new works. At the time, I found myself--for a variety of reasons--pulling inward and sticking to familiar and well worn paths. I won't bore you with the maudlin personal details but it wasn't just in reading and I found myself needing to do something to break out of the rut. This review series was and remains part of that. That is why you have and will continue to see independent and not as well known authors showing up here. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is an example of that. Before starting this series I would have never picked up this book, written by someone I've never heard of with no real connection to anything else I've read. Frankly, not every book I've picked up in that spirit has been a winner and there will likely be more reviews that consist of me howling in rage or muttering darkly in disappointment. This will not be one of those reviews.
Let's start as we usually do, with the writer, N.K Jemisin. Ms. Jemisin is the first African American woman author to be reviewed in this series. Why I mention this will become clear in a moment. Born in Iowa City, she would later attend Tulane University receiving a B.S in Psychology and later a Masters in Education from University of Maryland College Park. Before becoming a writer, Ms. Jemisin worked in education as a counseling psychologist, concentrating in career-counseling of young adults and adolescents. She started writing in 2002, with her first credited short stories showing up in 2004. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms was her first full length novel and was released in 2010. Since then she has earned Nebula, Hugo, Goodread Choice Award, and the World Fantasy Choice Award; and then there is her brief feud with Vox Day. At first I wasn't sure whether or not to address it but I decided it was best to do what I always do, confront it head on.
The beginning of that feud comes from a speech that Ms. Jemisin gave in Australia. I don't agree with everything she said but I haven't lived her life and that's all I'll say there. Vox Day quickly attacked her calling her among other things an educated but ignorant savage (some people just cannot disagree with someone without doing it in the most hateful and awful manner). Some of his supporters have suggested that she was given her awards on account of her skin color. Here's what I'm going to say. I don't do research on the writer for these reviews until after I have read the book and decided the grade I'm giving it. So I didn't know a lot about her and was vaguely aware at best that she wasn't a white male. So I have done the next best thing to a “blind taste test” if you will. I find these allegations to be, bluntly, horseshit. Which makes the allegations about the average quality I expect from Vox Day and his supporters. I could sit here and tell you about how he should be ashamed of himself but one should not expect a rabid puppy to change it's nature, that's how you get bit. That's all the space I want to waste on this subject, let's talk about this book.
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is the story of a young woman, barely more than a girl really, named Yeine Darr. She is a noblewoman and ruler of her nation of Darr, but is not sovereign. This is because her nation, in fact every nation on the planet, is ruled by a single family (a very large extended family) of god's chosen aristocrats. We've all heard this song and dance before but this time the family not only really is chosen by a god but can prove it. Of course that proof is blasphemy (I'll come back to this) and a gross violation of all that is good and noble, but details. The proof is provided by four enslaved gods. You see, a long time ago the gods battled and fought over... Everything. The winner threw down the losers and forced them to be enslaved to the whims and desires of a single mortal family. They used to gods to, say it with me now Pinky, Take Over The World! In some ways their rule is somewhat detached as they rule through the local elites and have set up something of a parliament where those elites have representation and can discuss the laws of the world. In other ways their rule is the most absolute tyranny the world has ever seen. There is no religious, economic, or political freedom; the members of this family are utterly above the law and able to act in any way they wish unless the head of the family and De Facto King of the World feels like stopping them. There is no safety or shield from the depredations of those above you expect to cry out for pity from a group of people who have been taught from birth that pity is a vile sin. Worship the wrong god and they will find and kill you, possibly using the very god you were worshiping. Speak poorly about your masters and plagues and monsters may be visited upon you. Trade in the wrong way or with the wrong people and your children will be made to starve. No one is safe, not even members of the ruling family who prey upon each other in ruthless and relentless power games and have enslaved every member of the family who is not a direct, pure blooded descent of their founder, the priestess that their gods were entrusted to.
Yeine Darr is very aware of this and hates it, perhaps in spite of the benefits she has gathered from the system or perhaps because of those same benefits. Ms. Darr is a half breed, her father was the son of the ruler of Darr, a matriarchal nation on the edge of the world. A nation that no one would pay any attention to if it wasn't for the fact that Yeine's Mother was the daughter of said King of the World who rejected her position to marry him. Yeine is their only child, raised in Darr away from half of her heritage. With the death of her parents she has been summoned to Sky, the palace city where only those blood related to the rulers of the world can live through the night safely to meet the degenerate rulers of the world, her family. She will have to confront her family and be pulled into their power games, because the King of the World is dying and someone has to take his place. If she wins, she can rewrite the entire world. If she loses, she'll die and might just take her nation with her into the grave. Meanwhile she'll have to untangle the past and find out just who her mother was and why she did what she did.
I like Yeine, she's an interestingly complex and somewhat flawed character. Mildly sexist given her upbringing in a Matricidal society that considers men somewhat less capable of self control than women. She also has a terrible temper and a tendency to screw up by not controlling herself very well (which is ironic given the above). That said, she is also very intelligent, brave; willing to put her life on the line for her nation and allies, and to keep digging for the truth even if it's something that she might not want to hear. She's ruthless in her willingness to risk herself for her goals and I respect that. She isn't a perfect person or a saint. She's a person with flaws and mistaken beliefs which were ingrained into her by her culture. She is also someone who is in a terrible situation under a huge amount of stress, and she acts like it. She comes across as believable and in a lot of ways. Which is a good thing because the entire story is told pretty much completely from her point of view via first person narrative.
Which actually leads me to one of my complaints. The first person narrative is actually distracting from the plot and other characters because Yeine often takes detours from the story to tell us things. Sometimes it's information that vitally provides context to what's going on. Other times, it's stuff I figured out 30 pages ago or stuff that's kinda interesting but has nothing to do with the story. Other times it's to repeat stuff that has already been covered in the story. Additionally you'll find her arguing with someone else in the narrative, which also doesn't really add anything to the story. Everything does tie together in the last chapter but I often find myself wanting to tell Ms. Jemisin to get on with it! Part of that is her tendency to use this to create mini-cliffhangers within the book itself. Which I will admit grates on me; partly because I want to know what's happening next (which admittedly means Ms. Jemisin has gotten me to care about these characters and the plot); partly because while there is nothing inherently wrong with cliffhangers, I feel it to be a very abused method of generating suspense unnecessarily. Additionally there are jumps forwards and backwards in time due to the narrative choices which I found annoying. Stopping right before a major confrontation to go back a day and tell me about something else is like ripping a juicy piece of turkey out of my mouth. It's annoying and kinda rude. Diversions from the plot also happen when Yeine is dealing with the non-human characters in the plot, the enslaved gods and boy does she do interesting things with these characters.
I am, I admit, speaking as a Christian and a 21st century American here but I have always considered it a type of blasphemy to enslave a fellow human being. If it is blasphemy to enslave a mortal sapient being crafted in God's image... how much more blasphemous is it to enslave a being whose image we are in made in? The empire that Yeine is trying to survive in is built on the enslavement of four gods, one of whom is older than the universe itself. Having lost the war in heaven they were sentenced to serve the whims and commands of the winners most valued mortal servants. It would be bad enough if these gods were simply used as weapons (and they are) but they are used as servants and playthings on top of that. The sheer gall it takes to look a being that is eternal and immortal and command it to do petty demeaning service is frankly beyond me (or at least I hope it is). It should be no surprise that these gods hate their captors and plot to bring death and pain to any of them they can. What is a surprise is the nature of divinity in this world. It is not just humanity that has been crafted in the image of their creators, the gods are forced into shapes and behaviors by the expectations and desires of the humans they created. They are in a very real way made more real and more limited by interacting with humanity and yet even before their enslavement they did it as often as they could. I really wished Ms. Jemisin had spent more time on this idea, it's a very interesting and subtle one, even if it is an incredibly modern take on the relationship between gods and humans.
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms brings a story that takes place exclusively in the upper reaches of a society that is rotting from the top down. The elite class (the 1% if you will) has held power for over a thousand years with no curb or check on their behavior and has received divine sanction for their misdeeds. As you can imagine it’s become a venomous, depraved atmosphere. This is an imaginative and rather original setting that manages to be dark, rich, evocative and disturbing and she is be credited for accepting the implications of her premise and going rather far with it. She doesn't get to Bakker levels of darkness but then that wasn't the point of the story. The story is a good one, the stakes are both extremely personal (the life and well being of a single person) and epic (as her relatives are willing to burn entire nations to hurt her) all at once. We are given a very limited view of this world but it's an eye catching one as we are guided by a character who is both amazingly privileged and among the downtrodden masses (there are a number of characters like that in this story actually bringing some very interesting nuance to the plot). I enjoyed the book immensely. That said I am hoping that Ms. Jemisin is willing to try a more traditional narrative. While I have harped on the narrative choices I will say that a lesser written book with the same narrative style would have led me to abandon it in disgust while with this one I was pulled on regardless. Because of that I am giving The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K Jemisin a -A.
Next week, what happens when someone puts a book in my hands and tells me Amazon has declared the writer the next Tolkien? Let's find out!
This Review Edited by Dr. Ben Allen