The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms [Reading Challenge 2019]

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

by N. K. Jemison
Current, Penguin Group, 2013

[Challenge # 14: A book about a person of color (PoC), any variety, written by an author of the same variety]

Up to now, I haven’t read much current fantasy, that is, books published after 2001. In recent years I read fantasy YA – which disappointed me more often than not – but stuck to new releases from my favorite go-to authors for adult fantasy reading. I was a little nervous when beginning N. K. Jemison’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms because I’d been out of touch with new writers in the field. I wasn’t sure what I would find.

But, wow! I did enjoy it a lot, enough for five stars. I can say without reserve that fantasy has come a long way since Dragonlance and The Wheel of Time, the series I most associate with the 1980s and 1990s with. The ones featuring florid, thorny typefaces for the book’s title and busy Darryl Sweet cover art of all the characters in one posed, dramatic moment. The kind sold in B. Daltons in malls across the heartland, when the genre began its homogenization in response to an increased readership with money to spend.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is a parlor fantasy, by which I mean 90% of the action occurs in the same locale, with the same people. A young woman from a dark-skinned warrior tribe, Yeine, is chosen by her estranged grandfather to become one of the heirs to his vast, theocracy-governed kingdom, but she must best his two other heirs in magical combat. Arriving at the capital city and its tethered floating palace, Sky, she discovers the gods have installed in her the soul of a defeated goddess in a plot by them to become free. The gods are currently the slaves of the theocracy’s rulers and must do their bidding while locked in human form. The plot is part Beauty and the Beast, part coming of age, part mystery, and part Dying Earth in that its magic felt like advanced science. The tone is Vancian as well, very wry, but also humanistic – Cugel the Clever with an understanding of the moral consequences. There’s an echo of Frank Herbert’s Dune series in its examination of Godhood, and of Octavia Butler in its examination of the emotional bonds between the human and the alien. Yeine narrates, and thankfully avoids present tense. Her voice contributed a great deal to my enjoyment of a novel which is composed of more than a few disparate elements, and I wish every writer who has their heart set on using first person present would read it, just to see how much more powerful a more traditional POV is.

Though most of this world seems to exist in a pre-gunpowder age, the characters have a basic understanding of astrophysics and come across as quite modern. The minor characters could be harried bureaucrats in any local government or school system, and the fantastic gods-created floating palace often comes across as a luxury hotel in Dubai. On the other hand, not every hotel has gods in human form running around, playing tricks. Though there are four in the story, only two emerge as real characters, Sieh, who, though “adult,” embodies the essence of childhood, and Nahadoth the Nightlord, who has two different personalities, one for day and one for night, when not even his masters can fully control him.

It’s Yeine’s interactions with these two deities that carry the story forward. Her feelings about them are constantly changing, ranging from sympathy for their plight to anger at their machinations, and the author did an excellent job at portraying them as alien beings with components of humans, but who aren’t really human. I was more fond of Sieh than the Nightlord, who, in seeking his true identity, seduces Yeine several times, the last resulting in a titanic orgasm that leaves the bed broken and room trashed. The story veered close to being a bodice-ripper at that point; yet, it fit, and lent weight to what was otherwise happening in the plot. Though indulgent in that it happened three times, it didn’t detract significantly from the book.

Apart from these moments, the POV felt very cerebral, again like Vance’s fiction where a reader can enjoy the sounds of the words and the concepts, yet not quite taste the sweat or feel the heat. There was a lack of visceralness. But again, this fit the type of story it was.

The pace was brisk, with no wasted moments or words (well, except for those orgasm scenes) and the narrator’s personal mystery deepens as she begins to converse with an unseen entity who may or may not exist in her head, or may only be a narrative affectation to get her point across. I thought the latter, until the story’s twisty-turny, thunderous conclusion. All I can say is duuhhh for me.

At the end, I’d had a wrenching yet entertaining experience. Psychologically the story felt far longer and more epic than its word count had predicted, always my sign of an excellent writer. It might have been expanded more, but then, it wouldn’t have carried the punch it did.

I don’t think The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is for everyone. There’s a level of abstraction there that’s a 180 degree turn from more traditional, Tolkienesque fantasies. But for those who want to see what the genre is capable of, I recommend it.

NOTE: Since finishing The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, I read a post by the author, who is African American, that states Yeine’s race is intended to be brown-skinned like the Inca of Peru and Bolivia, not her world’s equivalent of “black.” So I may have to choose another entry. Or not… what do you think?

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