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…

Book Reviews: “Beneath a Marble Sky” by John Shors and “The Other Boleyn Girl” by Phillippa Gregory

Two book reviews for the price of one. Today only.

Actually, what happened was this: I started reading Marble Sky back in April, around the same time I was reading Prose’s book on Reading like a writer. I didn’t finish the Marble Sky book until the beginning of June, and by then, my online book club had started reading the Other Boleyn Girl. So I figured I’d play a little catch-up and start reading that book while I got read to review Marble Sky. Well, I got so caught up in reading the Boleyn book, that I decided to put the two reviews together, because, the two are surprisingly similar.

Both deal with politics within royalty. Both have female protagonists that merely wish to live their lives in peace and love. Both have siblings who hunger for the throne, and who win it, but are not happy to hold it. And both are historical fiction.

Marble Sky deals with Princess Jahanara, the daughter of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan. Being a woman who constantly looks up to her wise mother, Mumtaz Mahal, Jahanara is struggling in helping her brother Dara, more philosopher than ruler, to see the danger of their brother Aurangzeb, who is more cruel bloodthirsty and champing for the throne. After being placed in a loveless marriage, and witnessing her mother’s death in childbirth, she falls in love with the man who is the architect of building the greatest mausoleum in the world, Isa.

Jahanara’s world is full of plotting–scheming to spend time with her lover, scheming to keep Aurangzeb at arm’s length, even putting herself in dangerous situations to alleviate his hatred. She loves her parents tremendously and is heartbroken to see such strife within her own family. When Aurangzeb does grab the throne, Jahanara witnesses the downfall of her family, of Hindustan, of their entire way of life, and though she is powerless to stop it, she takes drastic steps to insure the safety of the man she loves.

Although this is a good book, there are some parts that was hard for me to read. Jahanara’s brother and the husband is quite cruel to her, doing thing that are downright torture. The fact that Jahanara willingly walks into these situations is very hard to watch, but indeed shows the strength of a very enduring woman who will do anything to protect her loved ones.

In contrast, Mary Boleyn is not a strong woman, not initially, anyway. She lives in a cloistered household where her parents see her and her siblings as commodities to do as they pleased. She is also placed in an arranged marriage, but what little love that could have eventually blossomed is squashed when Henry VIII takes an interest in her. Her parents then instruct her to forsake her marriage so she can become a plaything for the king, and enlist her siblings Anne and George to groom her into the right things to do.

Mary’s world is also full of plotting–except others do the plotting for her. She is pretty much a pawn of her family, forced out of duty to pleasure the king. Even her husband has no say, can only watch from the sidelines as his fortunes grow from his own wife being boinked by the king, who is portrayed by Gregory to be an overgrown spoiled brat, always wanting his way. At first, his desires are checked by the Queen, Katherine, who chooses to look the other way at her husband’s indiscretions while praying for his soul. But when Mary bears children, the king starts looking at her more-ambitious sister, Anne. And she isn’t content with just being a plaything. She wants to be Queen.

I have to say that I enjoyed the Other Boleyn Girl much more than Beneath a Marble Sky. Not to say that the latter isn’t a great book: Jahanara’s decisions and sacrifices had me quite enthralled. But you knew how relationships stood: Jahanara is the loving daughter. Isa is the man who loves her. Aurangzeb is the evil brother. Dara is the good brother. The characters and relationships to each other are clear cut. In the Boleyn saga, Gregory is far more subtle with her characters. There is no rape, no torture, no physical pain involved. Rather, all the turmoil in the book is more relational and emotional.

For instance, Mary’s relationship with the queen, two women trapped by the whims of the king. Because she doesn’t outright condemn Mary for taking on the interest of the king, she shows her displeasure through more subtle humiliations: when Mary gives her scarf to the king as a token during a jousting tournament, it is given to the queen by mistake. She holds up the scarf for Mary to see, then drops it to the floor in front of everyone and Mary is forced to pick it up. Yet despite knowing that the Queen dislikes her, Mary continues to serve her, looking up to her in a way that she can’t look up to her own, heartless mother. And when Katherine’s ladies-in-waiting abandon her for the more popular Anne, Mary is the only one who stays behind to serve her, partly from her own love of the queen, partly from guilt, and partly to act as spy for her uncle, who is determined to help Anne push Katherine out of the throne.

Then there is Anne herself. Viewed from her sister’s eyes, she is rival and friend, enemy and sister. Mary at one time is waited upon her, but as Anne’s popularity grows, she turns into caretaker as well, although their brother George is also in. Indeed, the three siblings, having nowhere else to turn, form a familial unit that almost borders on incestuous (and it is interesting how Gregory spins that side of George Boleyn–I came away with more of the impression that he could be another sister in a man’s body, that is until Anne starts getting very weird. But for that you have to read the book). However, the love they share, particularly between Anne and Mary, is always mixed with envy and spite. Gregory does a wonderful job in portraying Anne as a terrifying, catty character, but there is a price for her to act so; juggling her ambitions puts such a weariness in her that she only displays before Mary and George that is almost tender and sad.

Towards the end, Mary does find the strength to disobey her family and search out true love for herself. In fact, I would say that the two books almost mirror each other–both Jahanara and Mary escaping the pit their families had fallen into to find true love for themselves. And both have bitter endings, though Jahanara’s is a little more optimistic. Then again, she hadn’t seen both her siblings put to death as Mary did, and she doesn’t quite have the sense of doom that Mary has in knowing that the king has the power to do anything he wants. But while Jahanara’s ending was pretty much that for me, I hungered to know more on what’s life was like after Mary left, despairing that her sister’s only daughter will “never sit on the throne”. Good thing that Gregory wrote sequels.

So to rate these, I would give three 1/2 thrones out of five for Beneath a Marble Sky, but four 1/2 thrones for the Other Boleyn Girl. And if I ever get the chance to be queen for a day, I think I’ll pass.

Book Reviews at the Cafe (Or why should you care what I think about the Mists of Avalon…)

If you’re a regular at the Cafe, you’ll notice that I haven’t done any book reviews for a while. I can say that I’ve been busy working on our house, so I haven’t had time to read, much less write. And while that’s true, there’s also a more simpler reason–I got a bit burnt out on writing reviews.

It’s a big downside of being a writer. I can’t really read a book out of entertainment anymore. When I pick up a book, there’s a part of me that turns into an scientist of sorts, analyzing every word, every sentence. Why did the author chose ‘this’ word instead of ‘that’? Why would he chose to do this whole passage in dialog without any tags? Why put the description of the eyes ‘here’ when he could have done so at the beginning of the book?

Granted, it’s also a big plus, being a writer. It means that there are two levels I can enjoy the book: for entertainment, and for instruction. If it’s a really wonderful book, I learn how to incorporate its techniques into my own work. If it’s a mediocre, or even a horrible book, I learn what not to do and correct my writing accordingly. Writing book reviews is a way of cementing the lessons I learned into my brain, while at the same time giving you guys out there advice on what books to read and which ones to run away from (in some cases, screaming).

I’ve been wondering these past couple of months if I should continue doing book reviews at the Cafe. It’s not like I can’t do the same thing at a book review website–and I have been wondering if I should branch out a bit more to other blogs and such to gain more writing experience. Getting paid to review books is an option, too, though I don’t think there’s many avenues for this anymore. The book review as a whole has grown somewhat devalued since this whole blogging thing has started. And since “less people are reading books nowadays”, many newspapers have begun to cut down on their book review sections (I wasn’t surprised to learn that our own paper chose to move the book section from their Sunday section to their Saturday edition–which was a lame blow). Why bother paying for some schmoe’s review when a person could log onto anyone’s blog and read a review of it…for free?

I might look into doing some reviews on some outside blogs once everything here settled down into normality again (if that will ever happen), but in the meantime, I think I’ll continue my reviewing here. I can be open and honest with what I think, and I can write about any book I want, old or new. Plus, most of the people coming to the Cafe come to read my book reviews, according to my blog stats. If it’s a way to bring more people to the Cafe, then hey, come on in and dine to your fullest intent.

I think what I might do is limit myself to one book review per month. That way, I won’t get so burnt out in writing. I will list what I am reading for that month, so once I figure out that widget, I’ll put it up. And feel free to make comments of your own if you read the book or not. I have gotten some very interesting points of views from people who I don’t normally agree with, but the Cafe is an equal opportunity place. As long as you don’t say anything extremely nasty, we welcome all opinion.

And I should point out, all the reviews at the Cafe are copyrighted by LaShawn M. Wanak. Anyone using a Cafe review on their own website without permission will be bonked on the head with a plastic mallet.