Book Review: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin

I first heard of N.K. Jemisin when she wrote “We worry about it too” during RaceFail. I then met her in personduring Wiscon (for a rundown on that, see my Wiscon post).  I got to hear her read an excerpt from her upcoming book, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and I thought: cool! A black woman writing epic fantasy just like me. I must read her book so I can crush her with my mad writer skillz get to know her works. And it just so happened that a friend of mine had an advance copy.  It’s not everyday that I get to read a book before it comes out in the bookstores. And it’s not every day that I get to spill cranberry juice all over it said book. This resulted in the embarassing act of me waving the book about in public while screaming, “NOT THE END! DON’T BLOT THE END!!!”

I was halfway through the book by then.

This is a good story. And I’m not saying that because I am unraveling her book word by word to pry out the secrets on how she made it so good a fangirl. In some ways, it’s similar to The Name of the Wind, in that both are nice slim books that don’t go overboard on setting, but gives you enough to spark your imagination. Both also contain young adults who have lost their families and must learn to live in a uncaring world. Both are told from first person POV–though I’m pretty sure if both main characters ever met…actually, I’m not sure what would happen. Instant dislike…fireworks…I’m just not sure ::surpressing the urge to suddenly write fanfiction::

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms tells the story of Yeine Darr, a young woman who is called to serve her grandfather after her mother’s untimely death. She is taken to the city of Sky, a place where the very gods themselves are forced to bow under servitude. There, she is named her grandfather’s heir, a dubious title since she has two cousins vying for the same title: cousins she has never met. Yeine must learn how to keep herself alive as the time for choosing an heir draws near…and uncovering some surprising secrets in the process.

Jemisin does an excellent job weaving these secrets into the story. She also does a wonderful job in incorporating the gods into the regular world, making them both powerful and powerless at once. Her characters are strong, from the childlike god Sieh whom you can’t help but instantly love (to your peril), to the very cruel Scimina, Yeine’s rival for the title of heir, whose acts are so cringeworthy I winced whenever she appeared on the page. And then there’s the oldest of the gods, Nahadoth, the god of darkness and change. Wild, dangerous, unpredicatable, trapped. Sympathy for the devil, indeed.

I loved the backstory of the gods and how they became enslaved as they did. I also loved how Jemisin used Yeine’s narration to get the story across. Whereas in The Name of the Wind, you had Kvothe narrating for an audience, with Yeine, you’re not quite sure who she’s talking to. In fact, you’re not even aware she’s talking to someone else until well into the story. Yeine’s narration isn’t as straightforward as Kvothe’s either. She stops, hesitates, backtracks, remembers things out of the blue, interrupts herself. In this case, it completely works. The reader gets drawn in.

There’s only one caveat I have with the book, and to be honest, I’m not sure it’s that much of a caveat. I didn’t get much of a ‘person of color’ feel from Yeine that I hoped for. Yes, she mentions that her skin is brown and that her hair is somewhat curlier than normal. It’s hard to tell, though, what her lineage is. I know her grandmother is described as white (as one can be considered as such in fantasy novels), and there are others who are related to Yeine who have brown skin, though it’s hard to say if they can be considered black (again, as one would be considered black in fantasy).

But then that brings up a whole other, older question: are POC writers required to solely write POC characters? I look at my fiction, and while most of my short stories prominently feature blacks (except for Christmas Eve at the Petite Bouchette), in my novel, at least one quarter of my characters are black. In fact, in my first draft, my main character was a white male. So, what does that say about me?

Furthermore, does it matter?

I found that in the vagueness of Jemisin’s physical descriptions, I was able to fill in my own details of her characters (if they ever did an anime of it, they should base Nahadoth off of Byakuya Kuchiki—that would be soooo hot!). And frankly, the story was so riveting, it soon faded to the back of my mind.

That’s the sign of a great story.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is the first book of the Inheritence Trilogy. This is good, because I want more. Lucky for all of you, it’s out now in bookstores. I definitely plan to buy a copy because I plan to dissect it even further I read it too fast and want to read it again at a slower pace. I rate this 5 floating cities out of 5. And I just can’t wait to meet up with Jemisin for the next Wiscon, just so I can tell her your book is too awesome! I must defeat you with my Willow congratulations on writing such an awesome book. Crush! Must crusssh!!!

I’ might also ask why it’s named a hundred thousand kingdoms when really it’s only really focused on a couple, but I don’t want to seem all nitpicky and weird…