Friday, August 12, 2011

Musings: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms
N.K. Jemison's The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is the first book in her Inheritance Trilogy.  It revolves around Yeine, a young woman from the remote region of Darre who is summoned to court by her grandfather, the reigning ruler.  Yeine's mother had been an Arameri before she left the castle to marry Yeine's father, one of a very select group of people with the power to unleash the gods, and now Yeine must learn navigate the very complicated (and often sadistic) politics of the Arameri court, a task made more difficult by the fact that she has agreed to help the Enefadeh, the gods currently under Arameri control.  But who can trust a god, especially a group of them who hold onto thousands of years of resentment and anger?  Yeine must juggle these difficulties and more, hoping to save her own life.

This book was released to much fanfare, not least because it's an epic fantasy novel written by an African-American woman.  If you read epic fantasy at all, you know how very rarely that happens.  The book isn't written in some sort of revisionist structure, which seems to be the fear that many fans of epic fantasy have when the discussion around diversity in the genre arises.  "But the genre is based in Medieval Europe," they say.  "Having people of other races in that setting would just be jolting."  Or my personal favorite, 'If you want a fantasy book about X region/ethnicity/history written, then you should write it yourself."  Fascinating how people don't realize just how bigoted statements like that are, but I realize that on this page, I am probably preaching to the choir.

So, to my point- Jemison didn't base this epic fantasy on Medieval Europe exactly, but she also didn't make it so overtly "African-American" in scope that epic fans wouldn't recognize their beloved genre in the book.  She just made the characters more diverse.  And for that, I thank her.  She did it and got nominated for a Nebula award.  So there.

But it's unfair to review a book in a racial vacuum.  I love that N.K. Jemison is not a WASP male, but still became interested in epic fantasy.  I love that she continued to read the genre, even though people who looked like her were almost always portrayed as "the Other."  I love that she then felt compelled to write a book in this genre, and that she populated that book with a very rich and diverse cast of characters that have many different backgrounds and shapes and sizes and colors.

But I didn't love her book.  I wanted to, and I wish I had but I did not.  In many places, I thought this book was more an awkwardly written erotic urban fantasy than the first book in a hard-hitting epic fantasy series.  There was a romance between Yeine and one of the gods, Nahadoth, but it was a very strange romance and involved paragraphs like:

"You wouldn't have had to kill me," I said softly.  I ducked my head and looked up at him through my lashes, curving my body in silent invitation.  I had seen prettier women do this all my life, yet never dared myself.  I lifted a hand and moved it toward his chest...there was a body within the shadows, startling in its solidity.  I could not see it, or my own hand where I touched him, but I could feel skin, smooth and cool beneath my fingertips.  Bare skin.  Gods.

Gods is right.  Ugh, really?  What is it with female characters in literature and the "prettier women" phrase?  It's always "prettier women did x but I never did."  Sometimes they will substitute the word "bolder" for prettier, but it really comes down to the same thing.  "A lot of other women do this, but it's really forward and bold and makes me seem like more of an object than the intelligent and resourceful woman that I really am, so rest assured, dear reader, that I only act that way in very specific and extenuating circumstances."  And those specific circumstances are almost always ones that involve some sort of seduction of a man.  It's never "I had seen prettier women than me change their own flat tires my whole life, yet never dared myself."  Apparently, pretty women never do anything useful, they just use their skills in an attempt to seduce gods.  Because they're pretty, this is allowed.  But if you're a girl and are not so pretty, well then... you're just stepping out of your boundaries.

I don't mean that the above paragraph ruined the book for me, though there were many written in similar veins about the romance between Yeine and Nahadoth.  It was also just that I didn't understand the set-up of the book.  Granted, I took two weeks off from reading it right in the middle because I wanted to read A Dance with Dragons.  But even so, I think the book was muddled in its set-up and execution.  It seems like every mortal person is somehow capable of also housing the soul of a dead god within him.  And the whole "absolute power corrupts absolutely" motif was done to such extremism here that I got tired of it (again, this reaction was probably in large part magnified because A Dance with Dragons also had a lot of sadism in it).  There are a lot of characters here that have the potential for brilliant gray areas, who made difficult choices for the sake of family or power or peace.  But we don't get to know them much at all, and so instead just get an impression of them all being evil.

I think what saved this book from being a DNF for me was the narrative voice.  Yeine was an interesting narrator, often stepping outside herself to tell the story, share asides and give some history.  I thought she was really engaging and enjoyed her story-telling, but the story itself didn't do much for me.


  1. When I heard the premise and background on this one, I got rather excited and wanted you to have loved it, but I guess the reality is that it was a little heavy-handed. It's not that I mind a little eroticism in my fantasy, but it has to fit, and it has to be tasteful. That bit that you mention about the pretty girls would have irked me as well, and although this is something that I would have liked to read had it fared better in your review, I think perhaps I will skip it. I am beginning to dip my toes into epic fantasy, and don't want to get caught up in a book that might change my opinion of it. This was a really compelling and straightforward review. I liked it a lot!

  2. Aarti, I completely agree with you on this review. I wanted so much to like this book and recommend it to everyone, but the tired tropes and the (SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT) literal "deus ex machina" at the end was just so disappointing for me. I hope Jemisin keeps writing and developing as an author. She has so much promise, but this book did not deliver.

    I think Nnedi Okorafor's "Who Fears Death" is another book mentioned in the same breath as "The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms." It really shouldn't be like that; the two books are completely different. "Who Fears Death" is a much better book with a unified voice and a much less muddled protagonist.

    In any case, I will continue to add my voice (and internet comments) to yours to call for more epic fantasy to break out of its conservative European origins and give us some more interesting worlds. Great review :)

  3. OMG, you HAVE to write a book with the line, "I had seen prettier women than me change their own flat tires my whole life, yet never dared myself." LOLOL

  4. Sorry it was not for you :/
    It was certainly not my usual kind of fantasy but for me the language just pulled me in

  5. It is on my TBR list and you made me curious with your honest and intelligent review; I liked your take on "prettier women have done this and that I I've never dared so..." Very stupid argument, not to mention the fact that beauty is fickle and definitely in the eye of the beholder so who exactly has told you these women were really prettier?

  6. Hm. But maybe you would like the second one better. But have a break from it because I don't think now is the time for even more dark fantasy. But the sequel has less if any weird kinky sex. HOoray!

  7. I liked this book, but you are right, it had a few problems. I still will probably finish the trilogy, though. That being said, I say that a lot...

  8. You know, I never even realized that this was "special" regarding the race of its author or its non-European centric story. I've encountered mixed opinions regarding The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, enough to make me thoughtfully consider reading it. Despite wanting to encounter more diversity in fantasy, I'm not sure I'd want that to come at the cost of quality... This review will certainly keep me considering and deliberating for a little longer.

  9. I'd be willing to try this one, though I can see why you weren't overimpressed with it.

    But the sequel has less if any weird kinky sex.
    But that's all I read them for, Jenny!

  10. While I thought this book was enjoyable enough I wasn't as enamored of it as everyone else seems to be. Mostly it was the narration style that turned me off. I found it confusing and awkward. And while I enjoyed the story I didn't think it was that unique, certainly not enough to warrant all the praise it was receiving. I didn't realize it was that unique for an African American to write a fantasy novel, and I haven't seen anyone else bring this up before, but perhaps that's part of what has drawn so much attention to this book.

  11. Your tire changing comparison is never going to leave me! That's absolutely fabulous.


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