John Wiswell's Reviews > The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin
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Apr 12, 12

Read in April, 2012

A slow starter that warrants your diligence. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is about a young woman’s experience with the gods and royal perils in a city called Sky. While promoted as being about her competition with other heirs for the throne, it’s really about her investigations into her mother’s murder, and about the strange relationships she develops with the anthropomorphic and enslaved deities.

Virtually everything about the book improves as it progresses. Godly powers initially serve for teleportation or reading meager mortal minds, but later turn to body-horrors rivaling Evangelion. The opening premise of a girl thrust into power and specialness may not seem attractive. Give it another hundred pages and you learn she’s carrying a second soul inside her, one that ties in both to her mother’s murder and to the intrigue amongst the fallen gods. I don’t consider that revelation a spoiler, but more a promise of how unusual Jemisin becomes as it gets together. Anybody could write a put-upon princess with family problems; it’s much rarer that you get this kind of intimate alliance between a mortal and gods in modern prose.

Jemisin’s world is neat, and it doesn’t surprise me that other books in the trilogy follow other protagonists in other (if related) conflicts. In so wide a kingdom, with so many betrayals and cultures, spread between not only humans but divinity, even this novel focused on Yeine’s experience hemorrhages back-story. The intrigue over what actually brought her mother and father together, what split the throne of her grandmother and grandfather, and set the very creators of the universe against each other is ambitious in scope, even if it frequently relies on conversations or explicit exposition.

If there is a great shortcoming, it is that the novel sacrifices so much page-space to giving its main players dimensionality, and then has them challenge antagonists (both terrestrial and celestial) that are left one-dimensional or petty. Grandpa is a jerk and over-ambitious; the Sky Father is wanton and jealous. Their struggles are recognized in throwaway lines that are promptly dismissed. In a book that does an admirable job of making us care for Yeine and some gods by plumbing their feelings and experiences, the characters outside this circle feel spurned not because of their own faults, but because the author wasn’t as interested in them. And when a book has such a slow conflict that comes about so deliberately, and thereby relishes more in what has happened than what is happening, that feels like a missed opportunity, especially when the climax is a creative form of telling everyone off.

There’s little drama or doubt of where Yeine’s story is going (even up to the page before it goes to a place you don’t expect); rather, the novel is an enticing invitation to setting up a personal history. You don’t come to see Nahadoth turn warriors into black diamond statues; you come to see what a child-god older than our species is like. You don’t come to see the heirs sword-fight to supremacy; you come to see one of them find herself, whatever the price. This is not a book about what causes the nervous breakdown, but how you cope with it and what the gods will do once you weep. If that’s attractive, then by all means, please give The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms your time.
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