The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, by N.K. Jemisin

The trouble with discussing the books I read on the Galactic Suburbia podcast (as I did with this one in episode 20) is that I forget to blog about them – or I remember, but the sticky note gets ignored for ages because I feel like I’ve already discussed it…

I didn’t want to let The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms go without comment, though, because it’s one of the most interesting, original and intelligent fantasy novels I’ve read in a long time. It works against so many of the cliches and expectations of fantasy fiction, and while I think it doesn’t always succeed at everything it tries to do (it is, after all, a first novel), it made me genuinely excited for the genre.

For a start, it’s a complete story. Jemisin is writing a trilogy, but she has chosen to interpret that has being three individual novels set in different parts of the same world, with different protagonists and narrative threads. This is something I would love to see more of, as there is really nothing more satisfying than reading a novel that is complete in and of itself.

The premise of the novel is that the magical royal family of the hundred thousand kingdoms all live together in a city called Sky, forming an odd culture because only members of their family can live there – and so everyone from the king to the servants are all linked by blood. Part of this family’s power comes from the enslavement of the gods, who are trapped in mortal bodies. Portraying gods as characters is always a difficult task, as with any non-human race: if they are too alien it is hard for a reader to connect with them and their priorities, but if they are too human it seems inauthentic. I was impressed at the portrayal in this novel of various eternal creatures, and I did appreciate that while we have a clear cut heroine and some clear cut villains (everyone who wants to do bad things to the heroine), the story made it clear and believable that the culture had a different morality to our own. Many gods-as-characters in fantasy worlds are a little too amusing or shiny, like the children’s book versions of Zeus or Athena. I loved that the gods of Sky were so raw and complex and unpredictable, with humans only really able to understand them a small piece at a time.

Yeine is one of the Arameri, the family of Sky, but thanks to her mother’s rebellion and exile, she has been raised far from the crazy. Now, with her mother’s death, she has to travel to Sky and finds herself instantly swamped in a war for succession, in which she is intended to be a highly expendable pawn. I love court politics and I enjoyed reading about the complex and poisonous dipomacy Yeine had to learn to manage. I also enjoyed the very weird and unusual romance between Yeine and a demon, and the friendships that she formed. It is the gods rather than her own family that she feels a deeper kinship with, and that she longs to understand.

My hesitations with the text come largely from the structure: because we first see Yeine when she is arriving at Sky and only briefly visit her home, we have to be told a lot about her motivations and what is important to her, rather than seeing it – ultimately we have to rely on the fact that anyone would be upset if someone else threatened to destroy their home, because we as readers don’t really have much of an emotional attachment to where Yeine comes from, or the people who are dear to her in her old life. The only one we really learn a lot about is her mother, who is dead at the beginning of the story. Having said that, the offscreen relationship between Yeine and her mother, her hunger to learn why her mother left Sky and the way she pieces that history together was one of my favourite of the storylines.

Likewise, we have to be told that Yeine is a warrior from a warrior culture, and yet that doesn’t really come across in how she acts in Sky, where of course her physical skills aren’t likely to be much use because she is surrounded by people who can manipulate magic. The whole point of the story is that she is out of her element, and while I did appreciate that and I liked that she came across as quite human and vulnerable but slowly taking on the characteristics of the Arameri, I didn’t feel like her former existence as a warrior was really relevant enough to the story as it was told.

One criticism I have heard from other reviewers is the narrative style – Yeine tells her own story in first person, but it is often framed by her own commentary, meandering intercessions and explanations, just as if she is speaking the story aloud and occasionally tells bits in the wrong order and has to backtrack, and so on. I actually really enjoyed this aspect. I can see how people preferring a more straightforward narrative might be irritated by it, but I thought it was a good way to learn more about the protagonist, and I found it quite endearing.

At a prose level, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is exceptional. The language is just lovely, and not in an over-flowery kind of way. It is just beautifully told, and while I am rarely one to value pretty prose over the actual story, I did find that it more than papered over any of the novel’s weaker aspects. It helps that, along with the elegant narrative, the dialogue is sparkling, and there are some marvellous sensual scenes. Just about everyone has sexual chemistry with everyone else in this book, and while there is the squicky element of most of them being related to each other, it wasn’t a problem for this former classics student…

Also worth noting that both the author and protagonist are POCs – and thus part of the exciting wave of greater diversity in science fiction and fantasy that seems to be happening at the moment. I look forward to a time when this isn’t something worth noting, but in the mean time, having a non-white protagonist is still a rarity in traditional fantasy (though to be fair there isn’t a lot traditional about this book) and I think it’s important to have books like this that show that, well, of COURSE a fantasy novel doesn’t have to be all about white people.

More than anything, this is a novel of Ideas as well as character, and that gives the story of Yeine and Sky something of a science fictional sensibility. I was so entranced by what the book was doing, and how it was being told, that I only really perceived its flaws after the fact, which suggests to me that they are minor, and not really worth worrying about. I am excited to read the next book, even though I know that it is not about Yeine and the continuance of her story, purely because I want to see what the author is going to do next, as an exciting voice in fantasy fiction.