The OF Blog: N.K. Jemisin, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

N.K. Jemisin, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

"I would have expected the Darre to do a better job of preserving the truth."  He leaned closer, slow, subtle.  Something predatory was in his eyes - and I, entranced, was easy prey.  "Not every race of humankind worships Itempas by choice, after all.  I would have thought their ennu at least would know the old ways."

I would have thought so, too.  I clenched my hand around the silver fruitstone, felling light-headed.  I knew that once my people had been heretics.  That was why the Amn called races like mine darkling:  we had accepted the Bright only to save ourselves when the Arameri threatened us with annihilation.  But what Nahadoth implied - that some of my people had known the real reason for the Gods' War all along and had hidden it from me - no.  That I could not, did not want to, believe. (pp. 119-120)

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, the opener to the other The Inheritance Trilogy and author N.K. Jemisin's debut novel, is a novel that contains as seeming contradictions as its characters.  From the first lines of this first-person narrative through to the end of this trilogy opener, there are surprises coexisting with some rather awkward narrative elements.  The beginning chapters in particular highlight the novel's unevenness.  The very first paragraphs of the book, pregnant with foreshadowing:

I am not as I once was.  They have done this to me, broken me open and torn out my heart.  I do not know who I am anymore.

I must try to remember. (p. 1)
have the force of this mystery and hint of the unreliable narrator blunted by indulging a bit too much in expository explanation of who the first-person narrator (the nineteen year-old bi-ethnic (racial?) princess Yeine Darre) is and what she is doing.  Throughout the first half of this debut volume, it seemed at times that Jemisin could not decide whether to let Yeine act more as a portal through which the readers could experience the intrigue Yeine was embroiled in or if Yeine's character ought to be shown as an active, dynamic force whose actions would shape her reminiscences.  This apparent indecision led to a few dead moments for the first few chapters until the novel's central conflict began to overwhelm the first, lesser confrontation that the opening chapter established.

Yeine's character twists earlier epic fantasy staples such as the overlooked, rustic farmboy rising unexpectedly to claim a largely-forgotten regal inheritance, not to mention the sometimes irritating spunky young woman character type.  Yeine begins her reflections by relating why she was traveling to the court of the Arameri to meet long-sundered relatives and to discover that she had been named by her hitherto-now distant grandfather as heir, four months after her mother's murder (itself a plot device that is left rather underdeveloped here). There she discovers she is one of three heirs named, with the expectation that the three would battle it out for control of the court and of the so-called hundred thousand kingdoms under Arameri suzerainty. 

This conflict, although at times well-illustrated, is neglected, rightfully so, for the larger conflict mirrored by this smaller, mortal clash.  It turns out that the source of Arameri power are enslaved god-children, as well as one-third of the original triumvirate that ordered and shaped the universe.  It is this ancient conflict between brother-sister-brother/lover-beloved-envious ones that drives the narrative for the second half of the novel, as the court intrigue falls into the backdrop.  It is here here Yeine as a character begins to come into her own, as she begins to reveal more of herself than had been seen in the opening chapters.  It is this plot and character development that gives the novel a powerful, surprising conclusion that more than makes up for the tentative, hesitant first half.

There are several things to praise about The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms thematic elements.  Jemisin plays upon reader expectations of clashes between Light/Dark by creating a third, mediating element that forces readers to reconsider any previously-held preconceptions they may have held about the two (male) gods that still exist when the novel opens.  Furthermore, by having this third, mysterious goddess/element in the background, Jemisin creates a plausible mythology that not only is explored within the narrative, but which provides an interpretative scheme for the novel that may satisfy those such as myself who like multifaceted, challenging narratives.  As noted above, the three god/forces dominate the novel and Jemisin's skillful exploration of their motivations and their roles that infuses The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms with a compelling storyline which concludes strongly at the end in a fashion that will be simultaneously surprising and long-expected.  Love is such a strange creature and its mutations can affect so many.

Although The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is but the opener for a trilogy, it is virtually self-contained.  There is a definite, full narrative arc executed over 400 pages with a conclusion that brings all storylines but one introduced here to a close.  The only open arc is introduced in the closing chapter and it sets the stage for a completely different sort of story to be explored in the second volume.  It appears this trilogy may rely more upon thematic cliffhangers than narrative pauses to keep readers anticipating the next volume.

So how well did I like The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms?  For the first half, as I stated above, I found myself being annoyed slightly by things such as Yeine's seeming digressions, the perceived lack of focus on what might be the book's central element, and the sometimes-distant, passive point-of-view character who sometimes failed to make what was transpiring vivid.  But by the time that the gods' conflict emerged as the central focus, Jemisin's prose became more taut and the sometimes languid pace of the earlier chapters picked up in such a fashion as to make the final ten chapters or so very riveting.  The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is not a perfect novel, but it certainly is a very promising and intriguing debut novel, one that despite its flaws felt more polished and nuanced than the vast majority of debut novels I have read in recent years.  Jemisin has set the stage for what appears to be a redemption story and that alone would make me want to read the sequels. Knowing that, minor stumblings aside, that she has the writing chops to accomplish this leaves me anticipating the next volume more than I do most pending volumes.  Likely one of the better 2010 debuts.  Highly recommended.


Jeff C said...

You might have just talked me into checking this one out. Thanks for adding yet another book to my reading pile :)

Tea and Tomes said...

I've read a short story or two of Jemisin's, and I was immediately hooked, style-wise. I'm looking forward to getting my grubby little paws on a copy of this!

Roh said...

I've not heard of Jemisin here (I'm back in Bangalore now, likely to stay in India a while). I particularly like the idea of stand-alone openings to a trilogy. I don't think I've seen many that do not at least strongly hint that the next novel could do with being picked up too.

Larry Nolen said...

It's her debut novel and she's based in NYC (she's written some short fiction that I hear is excellent as well, but I haven't yet read it, although I certainly will shortly, since I have this editorship thing to do as well :P). It's also available in the Commonwealth, as Orbit is publishing it for the World English market, so maybe it'll be available in India now or shortly (it was published 10 days ago there, if memory recalls).

Roh said...

Ten days ago? Excellent. Now I have half-hardened concrete evidence with which to bully my usual bookstores.

(I'm making lists of things my stores will have to order for me internationally. There isn't enough time, money and there are far too many books right here as it is. Life is sorrow!)

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