The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms - N.K. Jemisin

Yeine (properly Yeine dau she Kineth tai wer Somem kanna Darr) has been summoned from her the tribal lands of Darr to the airy castle of Sky, the home of the Arameri--first servants of the one true god, Bright Itempas, rulers of the world, masters of the defeated gods.  The result is a shock: Yeine's ailing grandfather, ruler of all hundred thousand kingdoms, has made Yeine his heir. There's only one twist: he's made her two cousins his heirs as well, and whoever wins out will win the kingdoms.  Yeine, a mixed-race child who grew up in the "barbaric" lands of Darr, is thrown into the bewildering world of Sky, a world where captured gods walk amongst their human masters, where fascinating and terrifying nightlord stalks darkened halls, where Yeine is evaluated and compared and disdained for her non-Arameri features. With her grandfather growing frailer every day, can Yeine unravel the mysterious behavior of the gods, thwart her cousins, and finally discover why how her mother was killed, all before time runs out?

 

While it's difficult to imagine a more delectable plot, somehow I had trouble getting my teeth into this one.  Honestly, I think I was just too irritated by the writing. I didn't mind the prose style, which leans towards stream-of-consciousness and informality, with a few rather peculiar abbreviations scattered `round. I thought I was doing fine with the sometimes arbitrarily-placed dashes-- indicating that the narrator broke off and switched directions--

or the

dramatic

linebreaks

or the italicization of important words and memories and significant moments.

However, the narrative conceit is that Yeine is telling someone the story after it occurred, so she repeatedly interjects her own narrative, breaking the fourth wall to insert infodumps, tangentially-related stories, drearily portentous thoughts, and editorial musings such as:

Should I pause to explain? It is poor storytelling. But I must remember everything, and remember and remember and remember, to keep a tight grip on it. So many bits of myself have escaped already.

So.

Or how about this chapter opening?

There are things now that I did not know before.

Like this: [inserts infodump]

In my opinion, if you can't fit your infodumps into the natural flow of the story, either leave them out or rewrite the story. Even Yeine seems to question the style; after the narrative suddenly jumps into a memory unrelated to the current situation, the passage ends with this comment:

I will remember later why this is relevant.

* * *

As you might have noticed by now, each such interjection is separated from the main narrative by three asterisks. Sometimes the asterisks are inserted even when they don't separate different thoughts.

* * *

I have now developed a passionate hatred of asterisks.

* * *

Every single time the dreaded asterisks appeared, which was approximately once per page, they jerked me straight out of the narrative. It wasn't long before I was fuming. It has gotten to the point that I will stab the next asterisk I see right in the centre of its black little heart.

* * *

(Oops. Review paused while I fix my computer screen.)

* * *

Intellectually, I understand the gimmick.  However, I found it inelegant, jerky, and clumsy.  I was already grinding my teeth when I reached a chapter that opened with this:

Wait. Something happened before that. I don't mean to get things so mixed up; I'm sorry, it's just so hard to think. It was the morning after I found the silver apricotstone, three days before. Wasn't it? Before I went to Viraine, yes. I got up that morning and found

* * *

a servant waiting for me when I opened the door.

Yeine then proceeds to insert an entire chapter of events that should have been relayed earlier.  As far as I can determine, there was no narrative-flow-based rationale for this nonlinearity. Maybe it's because I was reading by kindle, but I took it as a personal insult: it forced me to scroll backwards to determine what the hell happened when, for no reason except that Jemisin wanted to artificially impose the style of utterly disorganized storyteller.

That chapter ends with,

That is when I went to Viraine, and that is what led me to the library and the secret of my two souls, and that is how I ended up here, dead.

At that point, I'd had enough of this literary masturbation, dropped the story, and picked up another book. I only came back to it around a month later, when my second library renewal was about to go out.

 

I really did like the idea of Yeine trying to explain her life to Enefa; I just found the stylistic conventions Jemisin chose to try to create that backdrop somewhat intolerable.

(show spoiler)

 While the in-narrative reason for this stylistic choice is uncovered as the novel continues, I just don't think Jemisin carried it off.

 

Yeine is a strong, flawed, interesting character: impulsive, thoughtless, passionate, and angry, and I love how Jemisin used her to explore some of the complexities of mixed-race heritage. However, although I like Yeine, I don't believe in her.  As we are constantly reminded, Yeine is a chieftain of her people, a seasoned warrior, a woman who has killed at least once and led her people for years.  I couldn't quite reconcile that Amazonian paladin with a girl who gets bored sitting in a council meeting, casually asks for (I quote) "the ladies' room," who gets nauseous at an execution, who fixates on her mother's past despite a situation that imperils the world.  How is a girl from a matriarchal society that treats men as chattel so easily able to handle all these authoritative men?  Yeine comes from a culture where the rite of passage involves either raping a man or submitting and being raped by him. She's used to brutality, so why is she so squeamish throughout the novel? While I liked the subplot of Yeine try to come to terms with herself through her deceased mother's history, it made her feel a little too myopic and immature to me. Dropped in the middle of a mortal struggle, with her country and the ruling of the world at stake, her major reaction is to angst about her mother. The mother is an interesting character in her own right, but how could Yeine know so little about her after knowing her for close to two decades?

 

An aspect of Yeine I found both interesting and complex was her direct, sometimes disturbing desire to put the lives of those she cares about over countless others. As Yeine says,

"There was nothing we mortals would not do when it came to protecting our loved ones."

--no matter the cost to the rest of the world.  I found it especially interesting because it added a tinge of hypocrisy to Yeine's disgust of Arameri selfishness.

I also thought the whole god-torture scene was problematic, although perhaps this was intended to add another flaw to Yeine's character.  Yeine even realises she's being utterly irrational:

"A day of pain was probably nothing to them...but not to me."

So to let Naha off the hook, she's willing to cause hundreds of her own peoples' deaths?  How can a leader of a country possibly be that weak? Keep in mind that this is the Yeine who murdered a man, stabbing him in his face, despite the fact that he was blameless for his part in her ritual. In any case, when she's trying to decide whether or not to capitulate, why not just lie better? She actually throws her grandmother to Scimina and is too stupid to realise it.  Fortunately for her, so is Scimina.

I thought the black diamond incident was even more problematic. Even after she has what she wants, even though she surmises that Naha could restore them to health, she causes the death of two men by a slow and painful transformation into diamonds--just to ensure that she will continue to "strike fear" into her enemy's heart.  In fact, she resorts to approximately the same tactics that she castigates Scimina and Dekarta for using.

 

She's also impressively egocentric in other ways; for example, take one moment when she catches T'vril musing:

"On one of the lower levels I surprised T'vril on a shadowed balcony, dangling a clipboard from one finger and watching a passing cloud. When I touched him, he started guiltily (fortunately catching the clipboard), which I took to mean he had been thinking of me."

Because I'm sure that the only secrets in T'vril's life are lustful thoughts about Yeine.  Speaking of which, I'm quite disappointed that we never figure out what on earth he appeared to be scheming with the other servants.

 

My other major character complaint was with the mother. How could Kinneth possibly be that coldly calculating? We're supposed to believe that she slept with one man, married another, faked kindness and compassion and smiles for close on two decades, solely for some strange revenge? And no one caught on to her falseness?  I'm not buying.

(show spoiler)

While I generally enjoyed the plot, certain aspects didn't sit well with me.  The general storyline is rather like a combination of A Confusion of Princes and Hunger Games, yet despite constant reminders that the other heirs are out to kill her and the fate of her homeland rests on the outcome of the contest, all Yeine does is wander around Sky, angsting about her mother and conveniently stumbling into various illuminating situations. At the same time, I enjoyed watching Yeine the outsider try to understand the unsettling world of Sky; as she says:

Sky is deeply, profoundly wrong in Darre eyes. It is blasphemy to separate oneself from the earth and look down on it like a god. It is more than blasphemy; it is dangerous. We can never be gods, after all--but we can become something less than human with frightening ease.

While one of the best aspects of this book is the way it examines imperialism, entitlement, and race, I think the moral complexity is somewhat decreased by the one-dimensionality of the Arameri.  The Arameri are something less than human; they are twisted, murdering, baby-raping psychopaths. Scimina, Yeine's major rival, is the sickest of the sick, and she's not exactly subtle about it:

"I think you want to be Dekarta's heir," I said softly, "and the gods help all the world if you succeed."
Quick as the wind, Scimina went from a screaming madwoman to smiling charm. "True. And I meant to begin with your land, stomping it ever so thoroughly out of existence."

Considering she monologues, crows about her acts of villianry, and randomly kills people for fun, I think Scimina failed to read the Evil Overlord List.  However, while the ending is somewhat predictable, I found it quite satisfying, with several twists that I didn't catch.

However, certain aspects of the ending struck me as sadistic.  They've seen how well enslavement and captivity improved Naha; now they go enslave the enslaver? Precisely how well do they think this rehabilitation will work?

Plus, I found Yeine's actions against Kurue disturbing. Sure, throughout Kurue came across as a complete bitch, but what exactly does Jemisin have against "wisdom" anyway?

(show spoiler)

Much of the story revolves around a romance of the forbidden and dangerous flavour.  While I think it will appeal to some readers, I found it profoundly and disturbingly squicky. For full disclosure, I should note that I dislike romance, so I'm a horrible judge of a good scene, but I really, really don't want to know about the epic, bed-breaking tantric sexscapades.

I found the weird submissiveness--e.g.

"Naked, I waited, an offering."

or

"Do with me as you please, Nightlord," I whispered.

profoundly icky. Why is she so submissive in her interactions with Nahadoth?  She's supposedly from a matriarchal society, remember?

The gods are always making comments to her such as

"What a wonder you are."

or

"I'm not equal to any of the three, Sieh, no matter whose soul is in me."
He grew solemn. "Love can level the ground between mortals and gods, Yeine. It's something we've learned to respect."

Why? What, exactly, makes her so special, so different from every other woman through the millenia?

(show spoiler)

 

I think the aspects of the story that I enjoyed the most were certain elements of the worldbuilding and the political commentary on imperialism, appropriation, and racism.  I also enjoyed its exploration of themes of motherhood, of the duality of creator and destroyer, of gods as tools and weapons, of dehumanisation and objectification. Jemisin constructs an interesting Israel/Palestine-type situation with a territory (Atir Plateau) claimed by Darr aeons ago, with the hatreds on each side building ever since. I thought Jemisin's creation of the matriarchal Darre was quite interesting: while the story is vehemently anti-imperialist, there are also some profoundly uncomfortable aspects of their culture, such as a right of passage that involves fighting and either subduing (raping) or being subdued by a man. Such problematic social customs (compare to female circumcision in our world) add an extra dimension to the discussion of imperialism.  The theme--evil white people imposing their wills, their definitions of civilization, their concept of "order"-- is certainly neither subtle nor original, but it is an important one to explore within fantasy.  The Darre have dark skin, come from a less-developed part of the world, are repeatedly described in animalistic terms, and are actually described as "savages" and "darklings."  The despots who have defeated and control them dismiss them as lower lifeforms with one breath and complain that the Darre still remember their subjugation with the next:

You know these darkling races, Brother. They have no patience, no higher reason. Always angry over things that happened generations ago.

(If you live in the U.S., how often have you heard that cringeworthy sentiment come up in political debates?) I loved Jemisin's portrayal of how the subjugators control even the terms used to describe their coercion:

"We don't call them gods." Viraine smiled faintly. "That would be an offence to the Skyfather, our only true god, and those of the Skyfather's children who stayed loyal. But we can't call them slaves, either. After all, we outlawed slavery centuries ago."

This was the sort of thing that made people hate the Arameri--truly hate them, not just resent their power or willingness to use it.  They found so many ways to lie about the things they did.  It mocked the suffering of their victims.

This twisting of terms is echoed later:

I'd rather Darre survive, now that I think about it. I imagine their lives won't be pleasant. Slavery rarely is--though we'll call it something else, of course.

Jemisin's portrayal of people attempting to escape a system of ingrained inequalities is also apt:

If the chance was ever given to him, he would fight to keep it. To use it. He would fight even if he had no hope of victory, because to do otherwise was to concede that the stupid, arbitrary assignment of fullblood status had anything to do with logic; that the Amn were truly superior to all other races; that he deserved to be nothing more than a servant.

While the frustrating asterisks, infodumps, and interjections caused me to put the book down for a while, I'm glad that I eventually finished it.  I think it's an interesting read, a heartfelt depiction of inequality and racism, and a potentially very enjoyable read for those more patient and tolerant than me. Personally, I really regret not liking this book more; I had seen Jemisin's name on blurbs for beloved authors such as Griffin and Carey and had been looking forward to considering her to be a new favourite. Perhaps that's really at the heart of my disappointment with the book: unfair expectations. For that, I am infinitely sorry.