N.K. Jemisin’s debut album, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is a novel that blew me away with its writing and storytelling. Set in a fantasy world where The Three gods have been entrapped with humanity, Jemisin crafts a world that is intricate and delicate, with a complicated set of politics and religions, where the story reaches a crossroads between morality and revenge.
At the dawn of history, the three gods (Nahadoth, Enefa and Itempas) warred against one another. Nahadth, god of the night, was imprisoned, while Enefa, god of Dusk, and creator of all life in the universe, was killed, and Itempas, god of the day, overcame both, and became the supreme ruler. Nahadoth, in punishment, was chained and sent to serve the Arameri, a ruling family that, with the power of a god at their disposal, came to rule the entire world.
Yeine, the story’s central character, becomes entangled in this story when she is recalled to the city Sky, the ruling seat of the Arameri family, from which her family had been cast out. Growing up in Darr, a far north kingdom, and whose inhabitants are often regarded as barbarians, Yeine finds that she is in an entirely different world all together, and finds that there are a number of different plans and expectations of her, from both the Arameri family, to which she is the heir to the entire throne, and the imprisoned god Nahadoth and his offspring themselves.
Jemisin creates an extremely strong, well-written character story with The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Between the incredible amount of world building, political and family structures and intricate plot lines, this story is wonderfully original, intriguing and thought provoking. Yeine’s character is something wholly different in the fantasy genre, far from the adventurer or reformer in a fantastic world, she voices her story, with her own confusions and objectives throughout. Pulled into a vicious society and power struggle, Yeine begins to seek out her mother’s killer, only to find that that particular story is far more complicated than she imagined.
Over the course of the story, the various characters and their motivations and plotlines begin to merge. Yeine’s mother’s story is the connection between all of them, from elements of lost love and the actions borne out of desperation, to family obligations that set much of this in order, to the workings of the gods and their struggle to break free from their slavery to the Arameri family. Reaching the end, when the final pieces fall into place, this story resonates with the shear scale of the drama and society that Jemisin has set up.
In the middle of it all is Yeine, who must navigate the various agendas and complete her own journey. At times, it becomes clear that she is merely a pawn in a much larger game, with little choice in the actions that happen around her, especially with the manipulations from the gods and family, but looking deeper, it becomes clear that despite being used on a number of fronts, her saving grace is her character – her own lifetime, experiences and motivations are hers alone: this becomes a large part of the story, and where she surrenders to fate, she becomes a force of her own, quite literally.
This story is set amongst a fantastic, wonderfully thought out world that stands up amongst many other comparable fantasy novels. Too often, the only real innovation comes with the actual land. Here, Jemisin has put together a world that is very complex. The title suggests the world itself, composed of a hundred thousand kingdoms. Of these, only a handful is really looked at, with the city of Sky hovering above. There is a real sense of political struggle between the worlds, with the Arameri family overlooking the organized fiefdoms below, with an enforced peace that seems as if it is ready to break apart.
The Arameri family is in a world apart, far above their subjects, unable to leave their city. Within their own territory, there is a horrifying set of rules and characters as internal politics runs rampant amongst the family, where internal fighting and squabbling turns family members against one another, as they attempt to use the gods in their own favor, ordering them around to carry out their whims.
Still yet is the detailed mythology that is constructed for this novel. Jemisin has really outshone others in this regard, creating a fantastic world with its own creation myths, where the gods walk amongst the people, with all of their own problems and motivations. The caricatures of the gods, especially Nahadoth, are intriguing, loosely based off of Freud’s theories, which in a weird way, makes quite a bit of sense. The portrayal of these gods is what is really interesting, especially with how they interact with the numerous characters that appear in the story. In the end, the story is crafted in such a way that all of their motives and agendas come out organically, as the story unfolds, building up to the end of the story, making this an exceedingly rewarding read, one that proves to be an extremely different sort of fantasy novel. Gone is the sword and sorcery style of fantasy writing. Here, the magic and power is in the society, the politics and the wills of the characters, akin to the way a strong film will rely on its story, rather than the gimmicks that make it look good.
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is a well written, conceived and plotted story that is sure to turn a number of heads over the course of the year. The end of the book provides the first words from the follow up novel, The Broken Kingdoms (The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is the first of the Inheritence Trilogy), which is already too far off to bear. This book contained so much in the way of characters, world building and story that it is a relief to see that it will be continued. Hopefully, that will come sooner, rather than later.