‘The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms’ by N. K. Jemisin

By oldenglishrose - Last updated: Wednesday, January 19, 2011 - Save & Share - 4 Comments

There are numerous different reasons I’ve never joined a book club before: I’ve never found one that I could attend a train journey; the ones that I could get to are run by bookshops and so focus on new releases that they can sell rather than books that a particular group of people might find interesting; and I spend at least four hours a day on a train anyway, taking up most hours when such social activities as book groups tend to occur.  The Women of Fantasy Book Club, run by Erica from Jawas Read, Too solves all of these problems:  because it’s based online, I can happily participate from the comfort of my own home; all the books on the list were ones I wanted to read anyway; and time spent on trains just means more time for reading rather than time when I need to be somewhere else.  The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin is January’s book for this book club.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms tells the story of Yeine, who is summoned to the ruling city of Sky following the death of her mother, Kinneth.  There she finds herself named as one of her grandfather’s three heirs and must compete against her two cousins to succeed him as ruler of Sky when he dies.  While trying to keep herself alive, Yeine is befriended by the Enefadah, the god of night, Nahadoth, and his children imprisoned in human form and forced to serve Yeine’s family.  They offer to help her but not without a price and Yeine soon finds herself tied up in events much bigger than she had anticipated.

I think my chief issue with this book was that it was not the book that I was expecting it to be.  The title The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms suggests fantasy of epic proportions, concerned either with a journey through many distant lands or with political intrigue affecting whole nations.  In fact, it had a grand total of three different settings (although the palace of Sky is a fascinating one) and any plotting and scheming was secondary to what quickly became the main storyline: the romance between Yeine and Nahadoth.  From the moment that Yeine and Nahadoth, on first meeting, both try to kill each other, following which he inexplicably kisses her and both feel a wave of desire it was apparent that this book was not going where I had anticipated.  I get the feeling that in some of these reviews I come across as a bit of a prude.  I’m not: I have no objections to sex in books, and certainly not to romance in books, per se.  What I do object to is romance that comes out of nowhere and sex that feels gratuitous or is poorly written.  The sex in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms does have some significance to the whole mythology of Jemisin’s world, so it (mostly)  doesn’t fall into the former category.  It is, however, possibly the most overblown, ridiculous sex scene I have ever read (this coming from someone who read a sex scene involving tinfoil penis hats and false moustaches last year), in which Yeine and Nahadoth fly through the sky and see, amongst other strange visions, ‘vast, whalelike beings with terrifying eyes and the faces of long-lost friends‘ (p. 322).  Whales!  Why whales?  I could just about have coped until the whales came along, making me snort with laughter in a way which attracted most unnecessary attention on the train.  So, I didn’t like the sex and the romance and the fact that this was a large part of the book distinctly lessened its appeal for me, unfortunately.

Characterisation is also an area in which I consider this book falls down.  With the exception of some interesting traits which result from being a god, Nahadoth is the stereotypical dark, brooding romance hero.  As the novel is written in the first person from Yeine’s perspective, it is understandable that he remains a mystery up to a point, but I can only take so much enigma and angst before I find the romance unbelieveable and this book pushed beyond that stage for me.  A lot of the other characters are left unexplored, which is a shame as a lot of them have really interesting back stories which could have been fascinating if developed further.  The glimpse of Yeine’s grandmother is intriguing as are the snippets of information that are gathered about Yeine’s parents, but these are left as scraps and fragments.  A closer look at Dekarta and what exactly motivates him would also have been interesting.  Similarly, Relad had the potential to come across as compellingly conflicted rather than weak and insignificant, and I would have enjoyed Scimina, his rival cousin, more had she not been quite such a cackling Disney villain.  On the other hand, I thought that Sieh, the child trickster god, was beautifully drawn.  His character was multifaceted and mercurial, changeable in a way which made me wonder what would happen next.  I thought that the way that his physical form reflected his state of mind and his strength was a particularly clever touch, appearing as an old man when he is exhausted or in pain rather than his usual childish guise.

Yeine herself is of course fascinating, and this is primarily due to the wonderful, skillful use that Jemisin makes of her as first person narrator.  It is apparent that this is going to be a little bit different from the opening lines of the book:

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.  (p. 1)

She doesn’t just tell the story from her perspective, she changes her mind, she forgets details, she goes back to add things in and tries to puzzle things out as she goes along.  It is exactly as though she is a real person talking directly to the reader and I loved it.  Admittedly, I wasn’t sure about the narrative style at first, as the little broken up paragraphs can feel rather bitty and disjointed, but once I reached longer passages of continuous narrative I realised that this was a deliberate choice and a perfect reflection of Yeine’s broken mind.  It certainly makes for compelling reading.

I also really enjoyed the mythology that Jemisin has created for this world.  It is only revealed in fragments, which can be frustrating, but each detail that Yeine reveals adds to the overall picture of the gods and what happened to them until the reader begins to understand how current situations have arisen.  I particularly liked the limitations that have been put on the Enefadah, specifically that they have to obey any order given to them by one of the Arameri clan.  The ways in which they can choose to misinterpret these orders and the fact that Yeine deliberately tries to avoid giving them are important points in the development of these characters.

I intend to continue with this series because, although I found the story disappointly not to my tastes, I thought Jemisin’s writing was superb, plus I’m intrigued to see how she continues after an ending which is quite so spectacular.  Hopefully further installments in this trilogy will develop some of the other Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and some of the characters neglected in this book.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin.  Published by Orbit, 2010, pp. 421.  Originally published in 2010.

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4 Responses to “‘The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms’ by N. K. Jemisin”

Comment from Annie
Time January 19, 2011 at 4:36 pm

One of the difficulties inherent in any book club is that sooner or later you’re bound to come up against a book that isn’t what it seems or isn’t to your taste. I find I can cope with both of these scenario’s (although I did go over the top in my criticism of last month’s choice!) but much more problematic is the book about which there is very little to say. Whatever else the faults here might be you clearly don’t have that problem.

Comment from oldenglishrose
Time January 21, 2011 at 2:25 pm

I’m still not quite sure how the discussion aspect will work online, but I suppose we’ll find out at the end of the month. I’ll be interested to see what everyone else thought though, as a quick google reveals that some people think it was ok but not great, as I did, but lots of others consider it to be a spectacular debut. It should be a good discussion.

Comment from PolishOutlander
Time January 21, 2011 at 4:56 pm

I tried reading this and failed. Can’t remember how far I got but I still have my galley copy in case I do want to return to it. I was just so confused as to what was going on from the very beginning, and for some reason, the form in which the narrative took just wasn’t working for me: it felt clunky sometimes. To begin with, I am very picky about what fantasy or sci-fi I read, and even though this sounded like something I would enjoy, there was just too much going on within the first few pages that left me lost. Also, I couldn’t picture the characters in my head as to how they would look like.

Comment from oldenglishrose
Time January 24, 2011 at 11:02 am

It did feel quite bitty the way it was all broken up into little sections, I agree, although I enjoyed that once I got used to it. It was a bit disappointing as I was hoping to find a new author that I could love as much as I do Jacqueline Carey, but no such luck.

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