The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by NK Jemisin Review

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is the first book in a new series (The Inheritance Trilogy, which lends itself to some potentially hilarious confusion with The Inheritance Cycle) by a new author, and I think that shows.  The story and the world had quite a fascinating premise, but it was executed with mixed results, at least for me.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

Yeine is a young woman summoned to her expatriate mother’s birth city after her mother’s murder, only to find on her arrival at Sky that she has been designated an heir to her grandfather…and that spending even one night in the city would bind her to it for life. Worse, the succession is determined by a fight literally to the death between the heirs.  Yeine finds herself at the center of a conspiracy surrounding the succession, her existence, and the very fate of the world, with two other heirs ready and willing to kill for the power, and three broken, enslaved gods her only allies…or the instruments of her destruction.

The story is told from a first-person point of view with an additional narrative frame of having the speaker (Yeine) both reflecting back on what she experienced with little comments like “I didn’t yet understand this” and also interjecting floating pieces of information (“when I was a girl my mother told me this story about the gods…”) or allusions to her current state (“I can’t remember—I can’t remember—I can’t—”) in separate sections from the main story.  Said story is not presented in a strictly linear fashion.  While most of the action does take place in chronological order, there are a couple places where she backtracks to cover an event she “forgot” to include earlier, and of course because of the frame there is an imposed future referent at all times that the narrative must be building toward.  The storytelling technique did not work for me for two reasons.  First, I felt like the darkness and looming threat implied by her first words, about being broken, were not borne out by the outcome.  If the story had been told without the frame, I would have had no expectations and therefore the ending would have been less…jarring.  On the one hand, having the expectation of full dark made the end a bit of a surprise, but on the other hand, that end just didn’t feel like what the foreshadowing had built it up to be.

The second issue I had with the framing, and this is really the more significant one, was that it made the book very difficult for me to read.  The near-constant (by which I mean 2/3 of the chapters) jumping to a different place in the narrative from where the last chapter had stopped made me stop reading basically every time the perspective changed. If I have to re-set my orientation anyway, my mind seemed to think, then I should just stop reading and then pick it up again later.  This book was not a quick read; I could not find a reading rhythm, so what should have taken me a handful of nights took 3 weeks.  Maybe I am a lazy reader, for preferring a more straightforward approach, but the thing is—by the end of the book, I didn’t see the necessity of telling it this way.  I have read some books (The Lies of Locke Lamora is the example coming to mind, but it’s by no means the only one) that, by the end, justify their odd narrative style and come together in such a way that you understand why any other way of unraveling the yarn would have diminished  the telling of that particular story.  This book didn’t do that.  After I finished the story, its weird pastiche of reflection and information dropping and unfulfilled foreshadowing seemed distracting, not necessary, and, at least for me, the story would have been much stronger and more engaging told straight.

I also felt a strange distance from Yeine, despite being “in her head.”  I’m not sure if this is a result of the framing, that she was distancing herself from her own story–if so that distance was a tonal triumph–or if it was a result of Jemisin being too straightforward in telling the events instead of making the reader feel Yeine’s emotions with her.  But I really didn’t.  At the points in the story when she was shocked or battered down or enraged, I didn’t feel particularly shocked or battered down.  Yeine told me how she felt, and I just kept observing like I was watching a surveillance feed.  It was…strange.  Again, not sure if it was intentional or not, and I think here the intention makes the difference between whether this comment is a criticism or a compliment.

But, there were also some unambiguously enjoyable aspects to the story that made me come out of it with a more positive than not impression.  In the first place, despite my criticism of the framing of the story, I actually had no problem with Jemisin’s prose itself.  Inside a chapter her words flowed easily and read quickly.  I also enjoyed the aspects of her world-building (and story-building) that were not standard fantasy fare.

For example, the gods in this world were actually real, which I always enjoy.  They seemed to me a conflation of the Olympian gods and Aristotle’s Prime Mover, being both the creators of the universe and of life, and yet also very almost-human in their emotions and squabbles and behavior.  I’m sure one could make an argument that their humanity was a flaw (especially considering Yeine’s frequent insistence that they were not comprehensible), but I actually enjoyed the implication that they seemed like humans because they had made the humans–so really the humans seemed like them.   They were also the source of the magic in the world, which made a better explanation than either no explanation or one of the over-explained systems we’ve all read before.

In some ways Yeine’s nature, and certainly her quest, are not particularly heroic, yet she’s not an anti-hero.  I am not sure she was the most relatable protagonist, but she was certainly someone different.  She may not have won with a flaming sword, but she was also not a victim, despite being placed in a situation where she could only operate within the narrow confines she was given.  And the various mysteries (perhaps I should say the various angles of the mystery) surrounding Yeine’s situation gave me a compelling reason to keep reading.  I wanted to know what had happened and what would happen, and I wanted to know if she’d find a way to avoid the fate that seemed inevitable, and I wanted to see what happened if she did(n’t).

Overall I thought this book was an intriguing start for a new writer.  It was more interesting than emotionally engaging, and I think it would have been stronger told in a different way, but it kept me reading.  If you want something different from what you’ve read before, this could be a good place to start. If you need stories that really connect you to the main character on an emotional level, this may be a pass for you.

Elena Nola is the imperial movie critic and the colder half of the Ladies of Ice and Fire.

2 Replies to “The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by NK Jemisin Review”

  1. I admit the writing style for this book appealed to me moreso then the traditional chronological order most books use. It felt more like a story being told to me then a story I was reading (I guess the difference between hearing a story first hand from someone and then reading it as an accounting in the newspaper).

    I definitely appreciated Jemisin’s different perspective on the Gods and Yeine. I liked them more for their obvious flaws and damages.

  2. I think for me, it was just really hard to read because I do tend to read on auto-pilot and it was kind of exhausting to have to re-orient myself every. single. chapter. I’ve seen the non-traditional style worked in, and in this case it was probably just a matter of personal tastes and reading styles. 🙂

    Agreed that her gods persepctive was pretty awesome, though!

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