Ray Gun Reviews
SF/F reviews — and ray guns!

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin


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The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin
Orbit Books, 2010, 427pp
ISBN 978-0316043915

We’ve seen this many times before in fantasy novels: a girl from the backward northern country comes to court in the more sophisticated royal city and is awe-struck by the machinations at court. Oh, and it turns out she’s also the heir to the throne.

That could be how I could describe The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin, were I to have read only the first chapter or two. But this is one of those novels that starts out embracing all the typical fantasy tropes, only to twist and tweak each and every one in the course of the plot. In this case, the heroine, Yeine Darr, is already aware that her grandfather is the emperor of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms of the title. Her identity is not a secret, but her mother was exiled years before, so Yeine’s inheritance was revoked, only to be given back at novel’s opening.

Yes, the capital city of Sky is twisted with politics as all capital cities are, but Sky is even more twisted: the ruling family’s weapons are not just the usual weapons of political machinations, but also a group of lesser gods that are under their control. Long in the past the Arameri were given control over these gods and they have never given up that power. The gods, however, cannot harm anyone who bears the sigil of the Arameri, making the political maneuverings even more twisted and diabolical.

To make things even more convoluted, the gods have figured out a way to escape the control of the Arameri, and Yeine is at the center of that plan. Only she doesn’t know it. At least at first. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is in good part the story of Yeine discovering the destiny that was determined for her before her birth, a destiny that is not one to be envied.

The story alone of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is a fun one that would make for a good read. However, what makes this book one that I couldn’t wait to get back to every time I set it down is that Jemisin’s writing style is so very captivating. The novel is told in the first person by Yeine, who is not the best narrator. She often interrupts herself to give us some information about her culture’s past that she has forgotten, or even whole bits of the story that she has jumped over to get to an exciting transition point. Often Yeine will make a discovery and let the reader know she has, but then fail to tell us what that is for a chapter or two. As a result, the reader is kept constantly on his toes, trying to figure out what is going on. It sounds frustrating — and is at points — but it makes for a captivating novel.

I ripped through The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms in a few days (which is a good pace for my ever busy schedule these days) and I can’t wait for the next book in the trilogy. Press releases often tout an author as ‘groundbreaking’ and ‘the next big thing.’ I’m wary of those titles, but if anyone deserves them, N.K. Jemisin is first in line.

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