Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (NK Jemisin)

It's no secret that I am big fan of fantasy. When I was much younger, I would really be engaged in the popular fantasy series of that time (Dragonlance, McCaffrey, Brooks, Eddings, Jordan). Despite all those different worlds that I have frequented, I would always end up picturing my heroes to be Anglo. Over time I would encounter fantasies with a markedly Arabic or Asian tone, thus rearranging my perspective for the course of the reading, but for the most part, my fantasy worlds would remain predominantly white. It took an encounter with NK Jemisin's The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms to remind me that they don't always have to be.

At first glance, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms appears to be a manifestation of Joseph Campbell's monomyth. Yeine is half-Darr (a matriarchal warrior tribe in the north) and half-Arameri (the powerful ruling family from the central kingdom called Sky). She is content to be the young ruler of their tribe but destiny has other plans when she is also named heir to the king of Sky, her Arameri grandfather. Yeine travels to Sky and gets caught in a political web and a battle between the gods. Because in Sky, the Arameris not only rule over the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, they are also the masters of the once powerful gods who have now been enslaved as punishment for defying the Itempas the Skyfather.

But there is much to be admired in this book beyond the surface. The narration, written from Yeine's unique perspective, is sharp and frank and quite powerful. You could almost say that it is fragmented, the way Yeine moves to a different train of thought while describing something else, but it's written in a way that flows and -- as you will discover should you read it -- is justified. There were times when I thought that the language dipped, especially where the dialogue is concerned, but I think my admiration for that fragmented narration overcomes my dismay over its uneven qualities.

I thought Ms Jemisin did an excellent job of layering her story. Her construction of her imagined world's mythology is also masterful, awarding it a quality that's believable given the creation myths and legends found across the different cultures in our own world. The climax and denouement here still pays homage to those myths of long ago, but delivered in a way that I think makes it worthy of its Nebula nomination.

While racial and political struggles are not new themes to fantasy, somehow I was more aware of them here compared to other books. They constantly reminded me of Yeine's tenuous position in her new world. When I say politics though, I must point out that you shouldn't expect power games and schemes as strong as those in George RR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire but the agendas here would suffice. The characters, though, are mostly cookie-cutter. The good ones are good, the bad ones remain bad until the end, and I think I just wrote these very same phrases three reviews ago. Anyway. To be honest, I initially didn't think that Yeine had the right qualities to take on the Arameri ruling structure, and even now, still don't. She only had about seven days to act and things only came to a head because she allowed things to happen and not because she really did anything to trigger events. While Yeine may have somewhat disappointed me, I thought that one of the characters in this novel, the god Sieh, really came to life for me and was a constant joy to read.

My friend O and I usually have the same taste in books but this was one of the rare occasions that we disagreed. She had lukewarm feelings for it (lukewarm enough to make her give me her copy of the book) but I still found it genuinely fascinating (fascinated enough to be thankful that she did). I guess it is the kind of novel that you either love or hate. Obviously, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms stayed with me long after I turned the last page, and I anticipate the next book from Ms Jemisin.


Chachic said...

I've seen positive reviews of this in the blogosphere but I don't think I've seen it in local bookstores. I'm curious but not enough to hunt it down. Even though your review was mostly positive, it doesn't seem like you fell in love with it?

dementedchris said...

I think it had a lot to do with my friend's lukewarm reception... I think I was reading it trying to look for why she had her reservations! I'd still recommend it because it's much more different from my usual fantasy fare and I really enjoyed the POV and how it was used :)

Kyameel said...

This has long been in my "to read" pile, and I have yet to read it still. Thanks for reminding me XD

dementedchris said...

Nebula nominee, Kyam! :P I'm trying to read as many of this year's nominees as I can :)