Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms - N.K. Jemisin

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, book one in the Inheritance trilogy, is one of the most discussed releases of 2009. It has launched Jemisin's writing career and since it's release four more books have appeared. I missed this novel at the time and only really noticed it once the nominations for the Hugo and Nebula awards came in for that year.  The reviews I've read about this novel have been mostly positive so I figured it was about time I caught up. Jemisin's approach to fantasy in this novel turns out to be very much oriented towards religion. I must admit I am a bit puzzled by the great number of positive reviews and award nominations. I liked this book well enough but it is certainly not everybody's cup of tea. For a d├ębut it is a very interesting work though.

Yeine has been raised in one of the barbaric nations of the north. After her civilized mother's death, she is summoned to the world's centre of power; the magical city of Sky. All nations of the world are controlled from this one miraculous place. With the power of a god behind them the rulers of Sky reign supreme. On arrival, Yeine finds her maternal heritage to be very distasteful. Her huge family is strictly hierarchical and although some safeguards have been put in place by the god they serve, decadence, cruelty and pettiness are rampant. What is worse, Yeine finds out she has been named one of the three possible successors to the current, ageing ruler. Yeine is not interested in taking on the burden of leadership but to her rivals, she is a threat. Staying alive long enough to figure out what drives her family and how she can survive in this lethal environment is going to be a challenge.

The story is told from the first person point of view, for which I always have something of a weakness. In this case, Jemisin does something very interesting with it by plainly stating that the narrator is dead. So far for the much heard criticism that using a first person perspective is a spoiler of sorts. It also allows Jemisin to seamlessly introduce a whole lot of worldbuilding into the tale. Yeine is from a backward province and has never been to Sky. Her mother didn't think it was necessary to teach her much about the city. Yenie is very naive during the opening stages of the novel and that allows the reader to take in a lot of the details that would have been obvious to a long time resident. It does make Yeine a very typical fantasy protagonist though. Girl from an out of the way part of the realm finds out she is heir to a kingdom. Fortunately, Jemisin is smart enough not to make this the centre of the novel.

The question that really interests Yeine is what happened to her mother. She suspects her mother was killed as part of the political machinations in Sky but finding out the truth in an environment here deception is a second nature to most, turns out to be very hard. Soon she is lost in a political game of which she understands neither the rules nor the stakes. As she reveals layer after layer of power struggles the stakes prove to be high indeed. Behind the Lord of Sky, the god Itempas is in complete control. After the the killing of one companions and the enslavement of the other he rules the universe as he sees fit, even forcing his defeated offspring into human shape, their powers at the disposal of his human ruler. This struggle between the gods is where Jemisin takes a different turn from most other fantasy series. These chained divine creatures play an important role in the plot.

Jemisin portrays them as larger than life beings, with dramatic powers and equally dramatic flaws. Yeine walks among them, bargains with them and to a point sympathizes with them. The theological underpinnings of this novel are complex. The gods remind me of those described by Homer in temperament, although the story of creation and cosmology seem more hinduistic, with a force of creation, a maintaining force and a destructive force (or Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva). With one of the three most important deities in complete control, the universe is out of balance. I guess we can see where this is going in the rest of the trilogy. Again, Jemisin doesn't take the obvious choice. She uses destructive god, imprisoned in human form, to inject sexual tension and romance into the story. He is dark, dangerous, unpredictable and apparently irresistible. This might not be everybody's favourite but personally I think it isn't overdone and adds something to the story.

The entire novel is set in just a couple of weeks, Yeine never gets the time to find her balance in Sky. Things move more rapidly than she can keep up with making it a very fast paced read. As fantasy novels go, it is not a huge book but still a substantial read. I read it in a few days, during a week where my reading time was severely restricted. I wonder if a bit more measured pace might have done more credit to some of the more technical aspects of the novel. Jemisin does a number of interesting things with point of view and playing with genre conventions and it is very easy to ignore those in favour of the plot. 

All in all I thought The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms was a very good read but not quite as original as it has been made out to be. It is still firmly rooted in traditional fantasy, and the story of a youngster from a backward part of the world discovering her heritage is not exactly unheard of in the genre, the twists in the plot don't really change that. Still, Jemisin is obviously talented and clearly willing to challenge genre conventions. That is a very interesting combination, something fantasy needs more of. It may be a while before I get around to it, but I will be reading the rest of this trilogy.

Book Details
Title: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms
Author: N.K. Jemisin
Publisher: Orbit
Pages: 425
Year: 2010
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-316-04392-2
First published: 2009

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