The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin (2010, 395 pages, Fantasy)
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is one of the best books I’ve read in a long while. I loved it not only as a reader, but also as a writer. This was Jemisin’s debut novel (and is very deservedly nominated for a Nebula this year). My second thought upon reading the final sentence (after thinking, “drat, it’s over”) was “I aspire to write like that.”
Jemisin creates a vivid world (the titular Hundred Thousand Kingdoms), and the plot is full of political intrigue and mystery, but it’s the characters that really make this book special. Many of them are gods who’ve been forced into mortal flesh and enslaved to the will of the Hundred Thousand Kingdom’s powerful ruling family, the Arameri. Petty, compassionate, complex, tortured souls, these gods are as vivid as any human characters. Though imprisoned in mortal bodies, their divine power can still manifest; Jemisin uses this to potent effect, creating truly memorable scenes and images – such as a god who is forever a child playing with spinning, fiery planets and solar systems as toys.
Into the mix comes Yeine, daughter of the exiled and murdered heir to the Arameri throne. Summoned by the king, Yeine is pulled into the political wrangling of the human and divine occupations of the fantastical capital city of Sky. Yeine makes an interesting heroine. She possesses no extraordinary powers or qualities. She isn’t beautiful or intimidating or even particularly strong. What she does have in spades, though, is steely determination and a refreshing pragmatism, plus a passion to solve the mystery of her mother’s murder. I found myself rooting for her because she seemed so much like a regular person rising to the occasion under very challenging circumstances. The story is told from her point of view and in the first person. Usually I’m leery of first person POV, but it’s handled to very good effect here.
The final element I’ll comment on is the story’s primary setting, the city of Sky. Jemisin has outdone herself creating a place that embodies the people who inhabit it – creepy, powerful, and jealous, yet still beautiful. Sky is the kind of city that would be born if magic began to inbreed. The place is fabulously eerie, capable of changing shape, and hides plenty of its own secrets — in a sense, it’s a character in it’s own right.
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is a stand-alone novel, though Jemisin has recently published another book (The Broken Kingdoms) set in the same world. A third book is on the way. I look forward to devouring them both.