The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

N. K. Jemisin
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms Cover

A very decent first novel


Until the last 50 or so pages, this was a very respectable 3 star read for me, after which I had to concede the extra half star. You see, I've heard a lot about N.K. Jemisin and she's been "on the radar" so to speak for a good year and a bit now; like a lot of authors "on the radar", she basically stayed there because I am only human and unlike others, I can't read more than one book at a time, so the decision of what to read next tends to be incredibly fraught. Now, most of the stuff I've heard about Jemisin relates to her newer trilogy (which kicks off with The Fifth Season), but I found The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms in my library's sf/f section, so that was that.

The story follows Yeine Darr, a "barbarian" from the North, who is summoned to the great city of Sky by her grandfather. Upon arrival, she is named heir and finds herself embroiled in a plot of mortals and gods, with more than just her life at stake. As she learns to navigate the corridors of Sky and wield the magic of the gods, Yeine must decide who and what is worth saving and whether she truly is the rightful heir to the throne of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms.

The story takes a little bit of time to pick up, and by writing it in a first person POV, Jemisin is able to let the reader be as confused as Yeine about the politics of Sky, the true powers of the gods and godlings who reside there and the motivations of Scimina and Relad, the two other heirs to the throne. There is Nahadoth, god of change and darkness, and his strange attraction to Yeine (which doesn't go unnoticed) is perhaps one of the best parts of the novel. In a really teenager girl crush kind of way, he reminded me of Angua's brother, from Terry Pratchett's The Fifth Elephant. Jemisin's, so I suppose in that respect she's definitely achieved her purpose. I also really enjoyed learning about the various gods and their powers, the ways in which they've been enslaved by the humans and the true history of how they came to me. I loved the relationships that Jemisin builds between Yeine and the gods, particularly Nahadoth and Sieh, the ways in which she has to choose between what is right and what is easy.

I admit I found the addition of romance a little bit strange, particularly given the very short time frame between Yeine's arrival in Sky and the events of the final two chapters. Yeine's time in Sky is meant to have taken only two weeks, which I found jarring considering some of her actions in the novel; why would others listen to her when she's only been there a week or so? I also remember one interaction with another character as her mentioning "these last few months with the Arameri", which completely threw me for a loop. However, I still enjoyed the story, even though I found some of it rather confusing at times. The romance is sometimes distracting as well, with much of Yeine's time seemingly spent between pining for Nahadoth and berating herself for doing so. There's almost "insta-love" here and I found that a bit jarring considering how well placed everything else is. I feel like Jemisin knew where she wanted her story to go, she just couldn't quite make it there in the time she had given herself. It's also why the last 50 or so pages move at such break-neck speed, which works well, in retrospect. Ultimately, I did want Yeine to succeed in her endeavour and the way in which all the pieces fell into place was respectable and interesting.

But, make no mistake, this very much reads like an author's first novel. The romance and timeframe I've already mentioned, but there are other niggling things: Scimina's almost transparently evil and in a world where others (Dekarta, Relad) have more of a grey approach to their morals, she really stands out like a sore thumb. I felt I was meant to hate her and nothing else, which almost doesn't work in a world where all the characters, Yeine included, have to make some tough decisions. She is petty and cruel (not unusual in light of Arameri upbringing), she is completely confident that she will make a great heir to the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and there is nothing redeeming about her at all. In a world where other characters are far more complex, Scimina stands out like a sore thumb.

I enjoyed the worldbuilding, the magic system and the gods' histories. I also enjoyed the fact that Yeine is a protagonist of colour who faces outright hatred from her family members for her outward appearance and although I have seen some complaints about how white characters are evil, I didn't think Jemisin was trying to make some elaborate point about real world racism; if anything, it was refreshing to have a character of colour who does experience racism and who simply fights back and gives at good as she gets. Yeine is never deterred and although she does experience slumps, she remains true to her word and goal, which is something I like about female characters; weakness isn't something that should be avoided, but it's nice to also have a good deal of inner strength to balance it all.

Would I recommend this? Yes, but with a caveat: it's not 100% amazing or even, at times, polished, but it's a great indication of whether you'll enjoy Jemisin's writing. Provided the romance element doesn't throw you off completely, do give The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms a try. And let me know what your own inner version of Nahadoth looked like.