The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

I don’t really recall what I was thinking when I requested N. K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms from LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program. On paper it doesn’t look much like the sort of fantasy novel I’d take to. Young and somewhat naive protagonist is thrust into a power struggle on an alternate magic-using world against the evil overlord and his minions? Oh, please, where have we heard that plot summary before? Add to that it’s a novel by a woman, from a woman’s point of view, apparently aimed primarily at a female audience, and partaking to a certain degree of elements of the romance genre. No, it doesn’t look like my sort of book; I should go back to books like the last one I read, Alistair Reynolds’s The Prefect.

You’d think, but no, I enjoyed this one. There’s one thing Jemisin has over Reynolds: Style. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms has an engaging narrative style that pulled me in right from the first few pages. Reynolds, to judge from The Prefect and Revelation Space, has some interesting stories to tell — but to get them you have to push through a lot of very pedestrian, wooden writing.

[Also, he uses a lot of one-sentence paragraphs.

Or even sentence fragment paragraphs.

I hate that.

Especially when he uses one to end a section on a (DUN DUN DUUUUUUUNNNNN) dramatic note. To me that’s a mark of a hack writer. But I digress, I was talking about Jemisin’s book.]

Anyway, I liked her narrative style. I also liked one of the central conceits of the book, which I haven’t seen elsewhere: On her world, there presumably are very few atheists, because the gods are manifestly real — and the mortals are keeping them as slaves.

Knowing that, you pretty much know what the central character, Yeine, is going to be doing. Yeine is a 19 year old outsider, granddaughter of the guy in charge but child of his exiled daughter. She’s been summoned to his seat of power to, as it turns out, be a sacrifice in the upcoming succession ritual. She is, of course, not happy with this, but even less happy with what she learns about how her world is governed and the fate of the losers of the Gods’ War that nearly destroyed the world thousands of years ago. Nor will she stand by while the ruler’s heirs plot destruction of her home country.

It all works very well — remarkably well for a first novel — aside from a couple of rather overwrought sex scenes that really didn’t advance the plot as much as I suspect the author thought they did, right up until the last couple of chapters. At that point, I’m afraid, Jemisin runs out of steam. The ending is almost very literally a deus ex machina; there are some surprises along the way, but mostly it’s a case of a god waving a hand and taking care of everything. Very weak, and to make matters worse, not as well told as the rest of the book. It seems as if, following the narrative shift that takes place, Jemisin couldn’t find a voice that worked as well as what she’d used up to that point.

So something of a letdown, but not enough to sour me on what went before. On the whole I enjoyed the book. The jaded among you will not be surprised, and will sigh heavily, to learn it’s the first book of a trilogy. A trilogy in the true sense, apparently: three connected but self contained novels, as opposed to a novel in three volumes (like, for instance, The Lord of the Rings). What do you do for a sequel to a deus ex machina, though? We’ll see — I expect I’ll read it. At the back of the book are the first few pages of the next volume, The Broken Kingdoms, and I think it starts off pretty well. There’s also a thoroughly unneeded glossary; two historical appendices, far too brief to serve much of any purpose other than to say, “Hey, look, the author worked on the backstory!”; acknowledgements; and an interview with the author — all pretty much superfluous.

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