Uber-evil villain vs. dynamic first person character study. Epic title vs. small setting focused on character interaction. Heavily operatic backstory vs. scenes with poignant emotion. Hints at post-colonialism and cultural dis/integration vs. a me-me-me-and-only-me narrative. Predictable plot vs. unconventional setup of dramatis personae. These are just some of the juxtapositions swimming in my brain after finishing N.K. Jemisin’s 2010 The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Pile on top of that a secondary world with numerous kingdoms (100,000 apparently); nobles and highborn vying for power; a country girl in the big city; secret passages through a skyborn city; arcane forms of magic that appear and disappear; trysts with gods; a murder investigation; secret love letters; a numinous pendant; the powers of dark and light... and you’ve got the clear makings of a grand fantasy. The substance beneath, however, is less clear.
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is the story of Yeine, a nobleman’s daughter from a minor kingdom who comes to the world’s capital, Sky, to find her mother’s murderer. Immediately getting audience with her grandfather, the king Dekarta, she gets a major surprise: not only is she in line to inherit the throne, but will be in a three-way contest with cousins she’s never met for it. Succession acquired by force, one-third of her competition, the pale, conniving Scimina, “introduces” herself that night. An apparition of a bodyguard set on Yeine like a hound on a fox, a wild chase through the magical walls of Sky leads Yeine to a tower-top room full of gods, one of which, the boy Sieh, seems much more than his appearance would indicate. The apparition catching up, Yeine learns it is Nahadoh, the Lord of Night. Into his shadow her life is swallowed, her fate as future empress, following.
A first-person narrative focusing on character interaction and fulfillment of a backstory eons in the making, Jemisin’s original title, “The Sky God’s Lover”, suits the text better than the epic The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms which publishers pushed her into. At the fringes appear the egalitarian concerns of the sprawling world and hints of discussion on colonialism/racism, but the entirety of the story occurs in Sky and all the scenes involve Yeine and her relationship with the gods and nobles. At times narcissistic and others fully sympathetic, in full view are Yeine’s self-doubts, thoughts, confidences, confusions, feelings, and everything else that crosses her mind and heart. The climax drawing all of these aspects together in the context of her family and the gods, it makes for intense, powerful reading that indicate Jemisin has some talent as a storyteller.
The genre having a strong history of gods of dark and light, from Roger Zelazny’s Jack of Shadows to Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms joins the group. Like Erikson, Jemisin adds a semi-Greek feel to the pantheon of Sky and its myth cum history of Light, Dark, and Dusk-Dawn. The twist, however, is that they are subject to humanity, rather than vice-versa. Perhaps the most intriguing part of the novel, the gods exist under the thumb of humans, making for interesting playthings—something that plays out best in the exciting climax.
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms Jemisin’s first novel, and fantasy at that, she shows an out-of-the-gate approach to plotting. Rather than locating her two main plot motivators naturally and appropriately, she loads them one on top of the other at the outset, to the detriment of one. Yeine’s quest to find her mother’s assassin is an effective way of opening the novel. It provides a reason for her to travel so far from Dara to Sky, something to do in the opening section of the story, as well as an excuse for Jemisin to worldbuild as Yeine hunts for clues. But onto this Jemisin loads a three-way fight-to-the-death for the throne. If the fight were to play out in dramatic terms, i.e. assassins lurking in the shadows with sporadic attempts on Yeine’s life, then all would be well. But as it stands, there never really is a fight for the throne. Yeine’s life is never in danger, rendering the drama of the competition, moot. That the reader must discover its inanity one unmet expectation at a time hurts the narrative. “Why haven’t there been any attempts on Yeine’s life?” and “I thought Scimina would have tried to kill her by now to secure her place, no?” are questions I kept asking myself as Yeine moved through the paces of the murder investigation and learned about life in Sky. In short, the competition for the throne would have been better introduced later in the novel. On top of fitting naturally within the plot, it would also have tightened the pegs of drama significantly at a midpoint, helping push the plot through to its potent conclusion. As it stands, the mid-stages of the novel feel slack, something missing due to the plot overload at the beginning.
In the end, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is fantasy with an epic title but fantasy which remains very personal. The story of a young woman discovering herself in a murder mystery/fight for succession, the chaos of nobility, gods, and love surround young Yeine, keeping her life emotionally and socially dynamic. Jemisin imbuing the gods and magic with enough originality and imagery to make them unique, the story at least sticks its nose out from the pressing genre crowd. Whether or not the egalitarian interests are buffeted by a little self-absorption, however, remains for future volumes in the trilogy to be told.