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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

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

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms – N. K. Jemisin (2010)
Genre: Fantasy
Sub-genre: Difficult to classify, Epic or High Fantasy
Completed: February 21 2011

I first came across The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms in my local book shop. After noticing the incredible cover and reading the blurb I nearly picked it up on the spot (which would have meant paying exorbitant Australian prices no less). Instead I waited, and as has been the case with several books, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms remained on my ‘to read’ pile for far too long. Aside: I have also waited a bit too long to review the book that has appeared on all of my nominations and ballots for the various Speculative Fiction awards.

The wait paid off, however, as The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms was not the story I expected it to be. I would have been unduly disappointed. If the relatively slim page count didn’t already give it away this book is not an exploration of the interplay between myriad cultures. Yeine Darr has been summoned to the court at Sky, the seat of the ruler of the eponymous Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Her mother was next in line for the Arameri throne, until she abdicated to be with Yeine’s father (both of whom have died). Instead of being raised among the ruling class, Yeine is essentially a northern barbarian, so when she is brought to Sky to compete for the throne she is not expected to survive, let alone succeed.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is Yeine’s story in every imaginable way. She is an energetic protagonist with a beguiling narratorial voice. Her engaging but unreliable narration makes the story at once dynamic, believable and mysterious. Yeine is able to view Sky through outsider’s eyes, but her heritage gives her an insider’s agency. Although she is supposed to be a barbarian, she continually proves to be more humane and enlightened than her Arameri relations. Her bluntness and lack of Arameri subtlety make her easy to sympathise with.

Intriguingly, Yeine comes from a matriarchal society where men have a very low status. The obvious gender issues are not overplayed, but they form a vital part of Yeine’s character and actually help her to survive at court – she automatically identifies her female cousin Scimina as the real competition for the throne, while her male cousin Relad proves to be the insignificant player she assumed him to be.

Jemisin’s tale flows beautifully, once you become accustomed to Yeine’s narratorial interludes (which turn out to be more important than is immediately apparent). She creates terrific pacing through a perfectly rational premise – Yeine has seven days to win the right to inherit the throne or she will be killed. The prose is similarly smooth, with some tremendous descriptive passages that draw the reader into this other-world of incredible opulence and bound, subservient gods.

The mythology of the gods is compelling. Her creation myth provides a believable foundation and gives the gods understandable motivations. Jemisin handles the unique characters of the individual gods skillfully and consistently. Many readers will fall for the childlike Sieh (or develop some more mature feelings for the ominous Nahadoth).

There is a very good chance that The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms will appear in my favourite reads of 2011. I may even add a category so that I can properly acknowledge this astounding debut effort. I give it 4.5 stars – a tremendous story with only minor setbacks. It is a self-contained story yet also the first entry in The Inheritance Trilogy. I can’t wait to see where Jemisin is headed.

Read it – to see how intriguing and empowered a female protagonist can be in the hands of a strong, female author
Don’t read it – if you prefer to read bad books; to be fair the structure of the narrative and some of the content won’t appeal to many readers

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