“The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms” by N.K. Jemisin
Jemisin’s debut novel is, in many ways, a breath of fresh air in the fantasy genre. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms tells the story of Yeine Darr, a woman mourning the loss (and potential murder) of her mother. Yeine is summoned to the capital of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, an enormous, magically-supported palace called Sky, and there she meets her grandfather, Dekarta, ruler of the Kingdoms, and learns of her status as one of three contenders for the inheritance of her grandfather’s title. Told through the broken and disjointed narrative lens of Yeine, Jemisin’s story blends elements of pastoral and epic fantasy with the intrigue and mystery of any good “who dunnit” story.
One of the best things about the book is the fractured structure of the narrative. While the content of the story is continually asking the reader who might be behind Yeine’s mother’s murder, and who, if anyone, she can trust, Yeine’s narrative voice is often superseded by another narrator, disembodied, but present. This narration, a mystery to both the reader and Yeine, parallels the mysteries of the story, and makes for a really fun read. It’s a bit like fumbling about in the dark for your glasses in the morning; you’ll find them eventually, but you might need to spend a bit of time knocking things over and getting frustrated before you do.
Given that this is Jemisin’s first foray into fantasy, and especially given her willingness to play around with point of view and narrative, I’m willing to overlook a lot of the complaints I’ve seen in other reviews. However, where Jemisin’s novel falls short is in the development of her world. She does a beautiful job of illuminating the mythology of the world and of giving us a clear sense of her characters — the gods in particular were really fantastically done — but, in a world where culture and land are of the utmost importance to many characters, especially Yeine, the development of the setting, both physical and cultural, is sadly lacking. This seems like it might be one place where she might have wanted to take a leaf from the traditional fantasy novel’s book; although her dynamic push at the borders of the genre is wonderful and refreshing, one thing fantasy novels almost always have going for them is full explanation and description of place. Certainly writing under the genre umbrella of fantasy doesn’t mean a writer can’t dip out for a bit, but The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, as a novel filled with characters from, theoretically, many thousands of different kingdoms, would have been greatly strengthened by adhering to this one fantasy trope.
On the whole, I had a fun time reading this book. As you can see on the cover, this is the first of a trilogy, and I’m looking forward to reading the second installment, The Broken Kingdoms. As for The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, I happily give it 4 out of 5 helpings of lasagna!