Serena’s Review: “The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms”

Book: “The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms” by N.K. Jemisin

Publishing Info: Orbit, February 2010

Where Did I Get this Book: audiobook from the library

Book Description: Yeine Darr is an outcast from the barbarian north. But when her mother dies under mysterious circumstances, she is summoned to the majestic city of Sky. There, to her shock, Yeine is named an heiress to the king. But the throne of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is not easily won, and Yeine is thrust into a vicious power struggle.

Review: Technically, this was a re-read for me. I picked it up originally right when it came out, so about ten years ago now. I really enjoyed it then, but for some reason didn’t continue on with the series. Well, I decided that now was a good time to revisit Jemisin’s first trilogy, so I picked up the second book from the library and started out. Whelp, turns out I remembered basically nothing from this first book and was super confused right out of the gate, so a re-read was definitely in order before continuing on. And I’m very glad I did! I had a few vague ideas about what this book was about, but I really had forgotten just how detailed and rich this story is.

Yeine Darr had only recently come into her role as the leader of her small sub-nation. Challenging as this new role is, it is nothing to the sudden upheavel to her life when she is summoned to the grand city of Sky and finds herself thrust into the middle of a political battle. From small provincial leader, she’s now one of three potential heirs to the ruler of the entire land. But there is much more going on than a simple political struggle: Gods are involved. As Yeine works to uncover the mysteries of her own past, she begins to unravel a complicated history of her own world that has been hidden for centuries. But what can a country nobody such as herself do in this grand opera of gods and magic?

What I remembered about this book could mostly be summed up as “girl goes to palace and falls in love with some sort of dark, magical being.” Which…is somewhat accurate but also so, so much less than what this book is really about! For one thing, I forgot just how skilled Jemisin’s writing and world-building was in this book. Having now read more of her work, this isn’t as surprising, I guess, but when I first read it, it’s a wonder I didn’t just immediately continue on!

In the midst of an action-packed story centered around a complicated mystery, Jemisin still somehow manages to introduce a large cast of characters, build up an intricate world full of an entire pantheon of gods and various nationalities, and create a magic system within which it all operates. And on top of all that, the story never falls into any “info dump” traps. Instead, our narrator casually introduces various aspects of this world and drops hints here and there that slowly begin to paint an intricate picture in the reader’s mind. Indeed, the image is almost fully complete before you even realize that one was being built in the first place!

I’ve also talked before about the challenges of writing first person narratives and how rare it is to find this style of writing in adult fiction. As challenging as it is to build a new fantasy world and magic system on its own without resorting to long, info-dumping paragraphs, it’s even harder to do it in a natural-seeming way coming directly from the mouth of a character who would already be familiar with all of these things and have no natural reason to be speaking it out loud. To tackle this challenge, Jemisin relies on a nice little trick where her narrator is recounting her own story to some unknown audience. While Yeine’s story largely plays out chronologically, it’s clear that the narrator herself is speaking after the fact in the recounting of this story. In this way, little tidbits of information and sneak peaks into events coming up are dropped throughout the narrative, building suspense in the story itself and building curiosity as to how the past Yeine whom we are following along with comes to be the one who is narrating and clearly has a different perspective on her entire world. It’s a really clever technique, and one that we see Jemisin utilize to great effect in many of her works.

I also really liked the cast of character Jemisin builds up around Yeine. The gods themselves are all very complicated, neatly balancing extreme charisma and appeal alongside an ever-present, trigger-haired sense of impending violence. And the humans aren’t much better. Indeed, in many ways, this book emphasizes just how much worse the humans are than the gods who are thought to not possess any sense of humanity themselves. Alongside the perils of power and the quest to retain it, the story explores the darker themes of love and the choices it will lead the unwary towards.

I really enjoyed revisiting this story. I really had forgotten most of it, and it was a joy to rediscover some of Jemisin’s earlier work. This is a fantasy novel that is fully reveling in being a fantasy novel. It checks all the boxes I look for in this sort of story. If you’re a fan of Jemisin’s work and haven’t gotten around to reading some of her earlier stuff, I definitely recommend checking this out!

Rating 9: Complicated and rich, Jemisin proves why she was a force to be reckoned with right from the very start!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms” is on these Goodreads lists: Best “Strong Female” Fantasy Novels and Diversity in Fantasy and Science Fiction.

Find “The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms” at your library using WorldCat!

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