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

This 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 Tor.com 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.


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