Jul 22 2011 12:52pm

2011 Hugo Best Novel Nominees: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin

The Hunded Thousand Kingdoms by NK JemisinThis week we’re looking at the 2011 Hugo Nominees for Best Novel. You’ll be able to find all the posts in this ongoing series here.

I love The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (Orbit), N.K. Jemisin’s first novel, almost without reservation—an extremely rare state of affairs, as those of you who know me will recognize. This standalone high fantasy manages to be both dense and smooth: it’s rich with mystery, romance, politics, and theology, but it reads faster and feels shorter than its 400-odd pages, thanks in large part to its terrific narrative voice. I can’t wait for the two forthcoming books in the same universe, which collectively will comprise the Inheritance Trilogy.

Yeine, the novel’s narrator, is the granddaughter of the man who effectively rules the world. Her mother was exiled for marrying her father, and she grew up far from the center of power. Now her mother has died under suspicious circumstances and her grandfather has summoned her and named her one of his heirs. But the political struggle, deadly as it is, may be the least of her problems: the family’s power comes from controlling defeated and enslaved gods—who have plans of their own for her.

So what did I like so much? First, there’s the narrative voice. The book is told by Yeine as she struggles to make sense of its events, and opens thusly:

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.

I love a tight, distinct narrative voice, and this is my favorite kind, one whose form matters just as much as its content. Yeine is an outsider, smart and tough, but neither superhuman nor an author stand-in: among other things, she’s still grieving for her mother and she retains the prejudices of her matriarchal home. I like her irony and her passion and the rhythm of her narration. I finished this passage from the first chapter, sat back, and said to myself, “Oh, this is going to be good”:

There is a rose that is famous in High North. (This is not a digression.) It is called the altarskirt rose. Not only do its petals unfold in a radiance of pearled white, but frequently it grows an incomplete secondary flower about the base of its stem. In its most prized form, the altarskirt grows a layer of overlarge petals that drape the ground. The two bloom in tandem, seedbearing head and skirt, glory above and below.

This was the city called Sky. On the ground, sprawling over a small mountain or an oversized hill: a circle of high walls, mounting tiers of buildings, all resplendent in white, per Arameri decree. Above the city, smaller but brighter, the pearl of its tiers occasionally obscured by scuds of cloud, was the palace—also called Sky, and perhaps more deserving of the name. I knew the column was there, the impossibly thin column that supported such a massive structure, but from that distance I couldn’t see it. Palace floated above city, linked in spirit, both so unearthly in their beauty that I held my breath at the sight.

The altarskirt rose is priceless because of the difficulty of producing it. The most famous lines are heavily inbred; it originated as a deformity that some savvy breeder deemed useful. The primary flower’s scent, sweet to us, is apparently repugnant to insects; these roses must be pollinated by hand. The secondary flower saps nutrients crucial for the plant’s fertility. Seeds are rare, and for every one that grows into a perfect altarskirt, ten others become plants that must be destroyed for their hideousness.

Second, there’s the world, which takes a familiar idea from many religions, conflict among deities, and combines it very directly with earthly politics:

There were three gods once.

Only three, I mean. Now there are dozens, perhaps hundreds. They breed like rabbits. But once there were only three, most powerful and glorious of all: the god of day, the god of night, and the goddess of twilight and dawn. Or light and darkness and the shades between. Or order, chaos, and balance. None of that is important because one of them died, the other might as well have, and the last is the only one who matters anymore.

The Arameri get their power from this remaining god. He is called the Skyfather, Bright Itempas, and the ancestors of the Arameri were His most devoted priests. He rewarded them by giving them a weapon so mighty that no army could stand against it. They used this weapon—weapons, really—to make themselves rulers of the world.

That weapon is four gods bound to obey members of the ruling family, making them personal playthings as well as the source of the family’s power. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that both this book and Acacia involve racially-diverse empires built on slavery and were written by African-Americans; but The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, while still involving political intrigue and world-changing events, is nevertheless a narrower and much more personal story than Acacia. That said, there’s a good deal more to the history, particularly the theology, than these paragraphs can or should convey. (This does make it hard to summarize the book without it sounding rather conventional, since most of what makes it fresh and different is a spoiler.)

The history and structure of the world is not the only thing that is gradually revealed over the book. As I suggested earlier, this book contains strong cross-genre elements. By virtue of its setting, it’s a high fantasy. By virtue of its plot and characters, it’s a fantasy of political agency (which is, granted, nearly coterminous with high fantasy anyway); a mystery about the death of Yeine’s mother; and a romance. After I finished the book, I wondered if it was almost overstuffed, but everything is so thoroughly connected that I can’t say that anything should have been left out. I didn’t question this while I was reading, however, because the book is beautifully paced, with plot happenings and worldbuilding revelations coming at just the right intervals to make the book extremely hard to put down. It surprised me considerably more than once, and while other people may be better at predicting plot than I am, the book doesn’t depend on surprise for its force.

Finally, I loved the characters, which is a good thing because this is a fundamentally character-driven book. They are diverse in their experiences and their presentations of race, gender, and age, but with one exception, all of the major characters are three-dimensional and have comprehensible motivations. This includes the gods, who are an emotional bunch—as one tells Yeine, “You were made in our image,” and she doesn’t mean just physically—so if you require your fictional deities remote and unknowable, this is not a book for you. (May I recommend Megan Whalen Turner’s very fine novels instead?)

I did say I loved this almost without reservation, so let me mention those reservations now, two of them. First, some of the names do not thrill me, and normally I’m not sensitive to names. In particular, the ruling family belongs to the Amn race, which I had no idea what to do with until I heard the author at a reading (something like “ah-min”). (And for that matter, I’m still not confident about the vowels in “Yeine,” but that’s much more likely to be my own problem.) Second, there’s one very small question that’s left unresolved, how Yeine knows a couple pieces of information; I’m pretty sure I can infer the solution, but it’s left mysterious in the book and it nagged at me after I finished until I sat down and reasoned it out.

Other than that, my only complaint is that the snippet of the next book, The Broken Kingdoms, included here makes me really want to read it, and it’s not out until November. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is a complete story in and of itself, I hasten to add—so much so that the publisher moved mention of “The Inheritance Trilogy” off the original cover image onto the spine of the published book—but the related story promised in the snippet fascinates me.

You can read the first three chapters of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms at the author’s website, and read her own thoughts about the book in a “Big Idea” piece at John Scalzi’s blog.

(Disclosure: the author is a friend, but if I didn’t like her book, I just wouldn’t review it here.)

This post was originally published on on March 29, 2010. You can read the original comments below. If you’re interested in reading further about The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, check out Ron Hogan’s recent analysis.

Kate Nepveu was born in South Korea and grew up in New England. She now lives in upstate New York where she is re-reading The Lord of the Rings, practicing law, raising a family, and (in her copious free time) writing at her LiveJournal and booklog.

James Goetsch
1. Jedikalos
Intrigued by your review, I went to the author's website and read the first chapter. Another sale! Now I have it on my pc and am planning on reading it this evening (gotta love ebooks).
Kate Nepveu
2. katenepveu
Interestingly (to me), the ebook version has the older version of the cover still with the Inheritance Trilogy on it, which suggests to me that the change was made _very_ late in the process.

(While I'm comparing: the UK cover, which is the one on top of the Strange Horizons review, keeps the trilogy mention and drops the teaser text, which I've seen called too over-the-top in at least one review, but which I admit to quite liking ("Gods and Mortals. Power and Love. Death and Revenge. She will inherit them all.").)

I hope you like it!
Pam K
3. PamK
The name that really didn't work for me was Kurue--it made me think of kuru, the prion disease . :\

That quibble aside, I also really liked it. Jemisin's writing style--particularly the way she builds the story around cool, fantastic imagery--combined with the subject matter, made me feel like I was reading a Roger Zelazny book. (If Zelazny was a contemporary, African-American woman, that is.)
Kate Nepveu
4. katenepveu
Pam, that one my eyes just slid over in the way that happens with most unfamiliar words, because I don't read phonetically and usually don't try to hear things in my head. ("Amn" was so short and yet so confounding that I couldn't.) Now that you point it out, my best guess at its pronunciation isn't really satisfactory, though I couldn't have defined "kuru" without looking it up before this.
5. CarlosSkullsplitter
I enjoyed this book, and I thought it was very strong, but I'm curious if it was written as a response to Card's Hart's Hope, which parallels it in many places (no spoilers).
Kate Nepveu
6. katenepveu
CarlosSkullsplitter @ #5, the author interview at the back of the book doesn't suggest mention it, but otherwise I have no information on the subject.
Pam K
7. PamK
Kate @4: It is not something I'd expect to trip up most people! My grad school research group had a grant to study stuff related to prion diseases, so there was a period where I was hearing about them a lot.

Anyway, I expect it is nearly impossible to make up a bunch of fantasy names without hitting on something that sounds or looks like something weird in some real-world language, so I don't hold it against authors when they use a name that has an incongruous association in my mind.

(Wasn't there a post on this some time back? I am having deja vu.)
8. Booksandhorses
I'd seen this reviewed elsewhere and meant to read it, but knowing that it is by a woman (rare enough) and African-American has shot it up my list. Can't wait to get my hands on it.
Michael Ikeda
9. mikeda

Incidentally, on the subject of names in the book that have other meanings, "Amn" is also the name of a fairly important nation in the the "Forgotten Realms" world (a RPG setting).

This is probably just a coincidence.
10. Foxessa
I've assumed that a lot of the naming in this work are (vaguely) suggestive of languages in use during the different periods of the history of Yemen and Ethiopia, Nubia and Sudan.
Kate Nepveu
11. katenepveu
Pam @ #7: yup.

Booksandhorses @ #8, I hope you like it!

mikeda @ #9, I've never played Forgotten Realms, but perhaps there's a common ancestor/referent, as Foxessa suggests.

Foxessa @ #10, I wouldn't at all be surprised to hear that and it would make perfect sense, but I still would have appreciated some kind of subtle hint as to how to say "Amn" because it's a letter pattern that is not common (or present?) in English. (I just checked and the glossary doesn't have pronunciations.)
12. Dan Blum
I liked the book very much, and can recommend it unreservedly (the names didn't bother me, and, er, I didn't notice whatever it was that Yeine maybe shouldn't have known).

I particularly liked that, while the gods are, as Kate says, not remote, they still retain enough of a numinous aspect. For me, anyway. I don't think this is necessarily easy to manage but Jemisin does it to my satisfaction.

While the idea of mortals enslaving gods has probably been used in lots of fantasy works (and of course it occurs in various mythologies), I don't recall that I had read any in a long time, and then I read two new ones in fairly quick succession - this and Scalzi's The God Engines. Other than the fact that they both use this idea they're very different.
Kate Nepveu
13. katenepveu
Dan Blum @ #12, ROT13 for REALLY BIG, NO I MEAN IT spoilers: fur erzrzoref frrvat vgrzcnf sbepr anunqbgu vagb pbecbenyvgl, ohg anunqbgu cbvagf bhg gung rarsn jnf qrnq ol gura. v'ir unaqjnirq vg gb zlfrys nf rarsn'f fbhy fgvyy orvat nebhaq naq abg univat qrtenqrq zhpu lrg. v'z abg fher vs guvf nyfb jbexf sbe erzrzorevat gur qrfgehpgvba bs n pbagvarag, be vs gung'f fhccbfrq gb or na naprfgeny zrzbel.
Pam K
14. PamK

Given that the same thing happens to Yeine herself later in the book, I think that's an intentional decision by the author regarding the way the world works, rather than a slip-up.
Kate Nepveu
15. katenepveu
Pam, I'm sorry, I don't follow you; can you explain under appropriate spoiler protection?
jon meltzer
16. jmeltzer
I think the name criticism is a bit overdone. If even JRRT can slip up ("the hill of _Tuna_"?) not to mention all those using a'pos'tr'o'p'hes (such as Moorcock's "R'lin K'ren A'a", which I guess is an anagram of something Cornelius-related) then, well, Jemisin's "flaws" are pretty minor. Anyway, I'm on chapter 3 and I'm already hooked. Award contender?
Sam Kelly
17. Eithin
I've just finished this, having picked it up in town today, and I agree; it's wonderful.

The names don't bother me too much, but I think that's partly because I almost always ignore authors' suggested pronunciations for standalone names. Whole language schemes or consistent word fragments, yes, but not names alone.

jmeltzer@16: Actually, the Hill of Tuna only sounds silly in retrospect. When it was written, we were all eating tunny fish rather than tuna, at least in the UK. (Elizabeth David's Mediterranean Food was published in 1950, and uses that form.)
Pam K
18. PamK

As I understand it, you are questioning whether or not

Lrvar (be Rarsn) fubhyq or noyr gb erzrzore jvgarffvat riragf gung unccrarq va gur jnxr bs Rarsn'f qrngu. Jura Lrvar qvrf qhevat gur fhpprffvba prerzbal (naq fur ernyyl vf gehyl qrnq), fur pbagvahrf gb or pbafpvbhf naq jvgarffrf rirelguvat gung tbrf ba nebhaq ure. Fb, vg frrzf gur obbx vf vagreanyyl pbafvfgrag va gung qrngu vf abg gur raq bs pbafpvbhfarff va gur obbx-jbeyq, ng yrnfg abg sbe tbqf naq zbegnyf jvgu tbq-fbhyf.

Or maybe I am misunderstanding your concern?
Kate Nepveu
19. katenepveu
jmeltzer @ #16, I never said it was a major criticism; I would probably not have mentioned it if it hadn't been one of the very few that I actually had.

Eithin @ #17, so glad you liked!

Pam @ #18: d'oh! You're quite right in the specific, though (spoilers again) vg'f fhttrfgrq gung fur bayl fgvpxf nebhaq orpnhfr fur'f va gur cerfrapr bs gur fgbar, ohg fvapr gung'f n cbjre bs rarsn'f va gur svefg cynpr, lrnu, znxrf frafr.
Greg Morrow
20. gpmorrow
An "mn" consonant cluster is not allowed in English, but it is in other languages, such as memory-related words of Greek origin like "mnemonic". So "Amn" didn't cause me much trouble.

I really liked the book. I tend to value novelty -- I've read enough that most examples of conventional storytelling bore me or are too reminiscent of something else. This book insists on telling its own story its own way, and I praise it for that.

But I am also reasonably simpleminded in my tastes for entertainment, and the book also satisfies my typical desire for a heroic protagonist who takes action to achieve contextually-sensible goals in a story that reaches narrative completion.
Kate Nepveu
21. katenepveu
gpmorrow, we might sound like we're damning with faint praise, but yeah, you're right: different but not SO different that it's offputting.
I made my way to my weekly Barnes and Noble trip after reading this review and sat down with a coffee and this book in hand. I read the first chapter, and part of the second and was immediately drawn in. I can't wait to finish the two books im reading now to dive into this one!
Gabriele Campbell
23. G-Campbell
Can someone, please, explain to me how to decipher that spoiler code gibberish? :)
Kate Nepveu
24. katenepveu @ #22, I hope you like it!

G-Campbell, the first mention of ROT13 is hyperlinked to a web page that decodes it, which is:
Gabriele Campbell
25. G-Campbell
Thank you, Kate. I somehow missed that link. I've seen the code in several threads here but had been too lazy to figure out how to read it. Or I could say I was too occupied with important things, like writing my own epic masterwork *wink*, but no one's going to believe that a writer can withstand a moment of procrastination. *grin*
Liza .
26. aedifica
G-Campbell @ 25: If you use Firefox, you can also use the LeetKey add-on to translate ROT13 in two clicks. :-)

Kate, re the main post: I read this in preparation for the Good Reads panel at Farthing Party last year; this one was David Goldfarb's suggestion. I got to "(This is not a digression.)" and knew it was a book for me! (And promptly called my sister to tell her all about it--not that there was much to tell her about yet, since I wasn't even all the way through the first chapter...)
Kate Nepveu
27. katenepveu
Re: (This is not a digression.) -- yes, exactly!
David Goldfarb
28. David_Goldfarb
I'm surprised nobody has mentioned this yet: that "November" for The Broken Kingdoms is November...2010. I have the book sitting on a shelf in the very room where I'm typing this comment, so I'm 100% certain that it's already out! You'll have to wait till late October of this year for the third book, The Kingdom of Gods.
Kate Nepveu
29. katenepveu
Well, it is a repost of an old review.

I read it once very quick before it came out, in preparation for beta-reading the third. IIRC it involves a thing that I have an intense yet idiosyncratic dislike for, so I haven't had a lot of motivation to go back to it, but I don't particularly think that will be relevant to many other people (and would involve spoiling the entire book to explain).
j p
30. sps49
I don't want to read too many comments- there might be a clue, or spoiler, or something- but I trust Kate enough to go this weekend and find this book.

Thanks in advance!
David Goldfarb
31. David_Goldfarb
Ah, I didn't realize it was a re-post. Might have been a good idea to note that in the header somewhere.
Kate Nepveu
32. katenepveu
sps49, I am delighted and nervous at your trust! (The comments are quite safe, however.)

David, it's waaaay down at the bottom.
33. JennyC
This definitely wasn't my favorite of the nominees, but I think your review is very thorough and representative, and people who haven't had a chance to read it will get a good sense of it.

I tried reading it the first time when it was nominated for the Nebula Awards, but didn't go back to it until it was picked for the Sword and Laser group.. you should look up our conversations about it. The most fascinating one was a debate over whether or not this is really a vampire novel. :)
Kate Nepveu
34. katenepveu
JennyC, thanks, and that's at goodreads?
35. josh b
Actually , the name that annoyed me the most was sieh(?)
Too many vowels and not enough consonants !
Bob Blough
36. Bob
A terific book. The sequel is just as good - if not better. Waiting with bated breath for book #3.

Thanks for the spot on review.

Kate Nepveu
37. katenepveu
josh b @ #35, I had trouble with Sieh too, though not as much. Have--he's the POV character for book 3.

Bob, thanks very much.
38. Corie
Loved, loved, loved this book!! I haven't been so engrossed in a story in a long time. And I don't normally read fantasy. A unique setting, interesting, nuanced characters, intriguing story line. It's all good!

This novel is the clear choice for me for the Hugo.


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