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[personal profile] nymeth posting in [community profile] ladybusiness
cover image for The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin
There were three gods once.

Only three, I mean. Now there are dozens, perhaps hundreds. They breed like rabbits. But once there were only three, most powerful and glorious of all: the god of day, the god of night, and the goddess of twilight and dawn. Or light and darkness and the shades between. Or order, chaos, and balance. None of that is important because one of them died, the other might as well have, and the last is the only one who matters anymore.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is narrated by Yeine Darr (or Yeine Arameri), who at the age of nineteen is summoned by her powerful grandfather to the imposing city of Sky, the centre of the political world. Yeine’s home, Darre, is seen by those in charge of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms as a land of hopeless barbarians, and possibly of secret heretics. Her mother, Kinneth, was one of the Arameri, the elite family in whose hands power is concentrated; when Kinneth turned her back on her family to marry Yeine’s father, the whole of Darre fell in disgrace, and the economic repercussion of the Arameri’s ill will are felt to the present day.

The summons from Sky comes shortly after Kinneth’s mysterious death,  and one of Yeine’s reasons for going is to try and find out who wanted her mother killed after all this time – and why. But when she arrives, her grandfather, Dekarta, informs her that he’s formally naming her one of his heirs – which means that, along with two unknown and possibly murderous cousins, she’s now in the line of succession for the throne.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms mixes epic fantasy, political intrigue, a murder mystery, and a romance almost seamlessly (and I’ll elaborate on that “almost” later). The most accomplished thing about this novel is perhaps the worldbuinding – the world of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is a rich, complex, living world; a world of infinite story potential and of which you want to see more. Furthermore, as the passage I opened this post with suggests, there’s a complex mythology underlying the story. This mythology is strongly based on the idea of balance as an antidote to corruptive power, and as I’ve discussed before, this is something I’m always happy to find in epic fantasy. 

The first thing to suck me into The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, though, was not the worldbuilding but Yeine’s narrative voice. She often interrupts her narration with confusing asides (which do of course eventually come to make sense), but these don’t so much throw the reader off but heighten the narrative tension and the sense of mystery. It’s a delicate balance, but Jemisin achieves it perfectly.

One of the most interesting things about Yeine is the fact that she’s someone who is straddling two worlds: she’s both a citizen of a “barbarian” nation and someone with undeniably close ties to their colonisers; she’s part of the ruling elite and yet one of their subjects; she’s someone who never hesitates to question authority, and yet is not immune to the pull of power. 

The concept of intersectionality is very visible in the complex social and political world Jemisin created here. Yeine is oppressed in some ways, and yet powerful in others. Her social standing is at best uncertain, yet she’s not at the bottom of the Sky social ladder either. Even among the powerful Arameri, there are complex hierarchies that affect people’s individual and social power. There’s a lot of commentary here on power and oppression and the absolute necessity of making those in charge accountable. This commentary is clear but not heavy-handed; both widely relevant and organic to this particular story.

I love stories of this kind, and yet for some reason I never seem to read enough of them – stories that focus on power struggles and political intrigue, and whose characters have to navigate a web of complex relationships where every misstep may have disastrous consequences. The most satisfying example of this is The Hundred Thousand Kingdsoms are perhaps the political games Yeine’s deadly cousin Scimina forces her to play. 

Scimina is pretty much a textbook example of unrestrained power’s potential to corrupt, but I liked the fact that there was actually a lot of nuance in Jemisin’s exploration of these themes. The Arameri are ruthless and tyrannical, but they’re not your standard uncomplicatedly evil villains. Their influence in the world is a mixed bag, too. Their rule has created a lot of injustice, but also a lot of material prosperity with associated tangible benefits. As Yeine well knows, a new War of the Gods would destroy all that. And yet the current world order has a heavy cost that her people feel more acutely than most. It’s messy and complicated and there are no easy answers, just like in the real world. 

As I mentioned before, Yeine grew up in Darre, a place with a social structure completely different from Sky’s. The Darre are a matriarchal people, which in this context means that they invert many of our gendered assumptions about power and frailty. I wish more had been made of the Darre’s attitudes towards masculinity and femininity — perhaps this is something that will be explored in future books, but I felt that there could have been more implications to Yeine growing up in this kind of society than what the story allowed us to see.

However, one arena where we did see these implications was in the fact that she was so good at negotiating the power imbalance inherent to her relationship with Nahadoth (the Night Lord, and one of the demoted gods and godlings the Arameri have enslaved and use as weapons). I guess this is the moment where I say that like many other readers, I felt that the romance between Yeine and Nahadoth eclipsed some other elements of the story, and that this was a great shame. But first I want to mention the things I did like about the romance plot: first, the focus on female desire – Yeine is not one bit ashamed of the fact that she wants Nahadoth. Secondly, I liked the acknowledgment and subversion of many of the common trappings of paranormal romance. And finally, I liked that to some extent the novel explores polyamorous relationship arrangements, which is a pretty rare thing to find.

But sadly I still wasn’t sold on the romance as a whole. Some of this comes down to the fact that Nahadoth himself left me pretty cold. I could say I don’t really like this type of character – brooding, dangerous male leads, with complicated emotional histories, and who alternate between pushing others away and being extremely vulnerable. But coming from such a Zuko fangirl, that would be a shameless lie. I’m not completely immune to the allure of these heroes (I realise that a lot of the time their presence signals dodgy sexual politics, but this is not inevitable), yet for some reason this character in particular just didn’t do it for me. 

There was also the fact that I found the sex scene really awkward, as well as most of the passages describing Yeine’s desire for the Night Lord. This was especially striking because I found Jemisin’s writing so good otherwise. Here’s an example of her prose at its best:
There is a rose that is famous in High North. (This is not a digression.) It is called the altarskirt rose. Not only do its petals unfold in a radiance of pearled white, but frequently it grows an incomplete secondary flower about the base of its stem. In its most prized form, the altarskirt grows a layer of overlarge petals that drape the ground. The two bloom in tandem, seedbearing head and skirt, glory above and below.

This was the city called Sky. On the ground, sprawling over a small mountain or an oversized hill: a circle of high walls, mounting tiers of buildings, all resplendent in white, per Arameri decree. Above the city, smaller but brighter, the pearl of its tiers occasionally obscured by scuds of cloud, was the palace—also called Sky, and perhaps more deserving of the name. I knew the column was there, the impossibly thin column that supported such a massive structure, but from that distance I couldn’t see it. Palace floated above city, linked in spirit, both so unearthly in their beauty that I held my breath at the sight.

The altarskirt rose is priceless because of the difficulty of producing it. The most famous lines are heavily inbred; it originated as a deformity that some savvy breeder deemed useful. The primary flower’s scent, sweet to us, is apparently repugnant to insects; these roses must be pollinated by hand. The secondary flower saps nutrients crucial for the plant’s fertility. Seeds are rare, and for every one that grows into a perfect altarskirt, ten others become plants that must be destroyed for their hideousness.

Sadly I didn’t think to mark any of those awkward passages, so I can’t offer you one for comparison. It’s possible that the tone shift is meant to signal Yeine’s own awkwardness and embarrassment, but even if so, it didn’t entirely work for me. 

And now we come to my feelings about the ending, which I know Jodie is especially curious to read about. There will be SPOILERS in the following paragraphs:

The Hundred Thousand Kingdsoms is an epic fantasy novel set in a world where gods walk around, have divine powers but also human personalities, fall in love with humans and with each other, and so on and so forth. Naturally I suspended my disbelief about all the fantastic elements of this book, as I always do when I read a fantasy novel. And so it surprised me that I had some trouble suspending my disbelief about Yeine’s resurrection and transition to divinity. It wasn’t difficult to predict that something like this could happen in this world, particularly because Yeine tells us fairly early the narrative that she dies, and yet there she is, still narrating her story.

Feeling so disconnected from the ending led to a lot of self-examination on my part about the extent to which the story’s religious elements could be motivating my reaction. I don’t think that my emotional response would be invalid if that was the case, but I wanted to know one way or the other. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms seems to have a myriad mythical influences behind it, but it seems to me that there’s nevertheless an identifiable Christian element behind it (the idea of a god incarnate at the end, for example). The idea of going beyond humanity present in the story is also at odds of how I conceive of consciousness – not as infallible, but as all we have. But then again, I’ve just reread A Wrinkle in Time, which can be read as overtly Christian and is also very awesome, so maybe it wasn’t a matter of the religious echoes subconsciously putting me off. 

I spent a lot of time thinking about this, but I’m still not entirely sure why I initially felt like I couldn’t follow Yeine when she became more than human, or like something had been lost in her transformation. Perhaps it was just the fact that I had spent so much time watching her struggles and doubts, getting so invested in her and feeling so close to the limitations of her humanity, and so I had trouble letting go of all that. But fortunately the world of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is certainly not one where divinity unequivocally signals perfection or being “above” human passions, and this is part of why when all is said and done I loved this novel so hard.

My personal reaction, by the way, does not in any way mean that I think the ending is flawed. It offers very exciting possibilities in terms of future storytelling in this world, and I can’t wait to see where Jemisin will take things. 

[/end of SPOILERS]

I feel like I may have devoted more attentions to the overall small “buts” than to the many, many things I absolutely adored about this novel, so I want to end this post by emphasising how much I enjoyed the experience of reading it. You know that wonderful feeling you get when you’re reading something really great; something that makes whatever bookish time you manage to fit into your day extra exciting, extra worth looking forward to? That was me with this book. I’m very much looking forward to reading the rest of the series.

They read it too: Book Gazing, The Book Smugglers, Booklust, Medieval Bookworm, Stella Matutina, Eve’s Alexandria, Bird Brain(ed) Blog, The Literary Omnivore, Fyrefly’s Book Blog, Steph Su Reads, A Striped Armchair, My Friend Amy, Jenny’s Books, Rat’s Reading, Janicu’s Book Blog, Dear Author

(There are about 5000 others. Leave me your link and I’ll be happy to add it!)

Date: 2012-01-26 09:57 pm (UTC)
myfriendamy: (Default)
From: [personal profile] myfriendamy
omg lol. This is such a smart take on the book and unfortunately I just didn't get it. I think this is because I fail at fantasy :( It was such a weird experience because I found the book compulsively readable and yet I was constantly wondering what I'd just read

I'm glad you liked it though!

Date: 2012-01-27 04:42 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] aartichapati.blogspot.com
I really didn't like this book. I thought the writing was really self-conscious and, like you, that the romance was too much at the forefront than other important elements of the book. And I thought Yeine became RIDICULOUS with the romance stuff. I am all for females owning their sexuality and being proud of female strength and all that, but she was so weirdly apologetic about it (for example, the line I quoted in my review when she bats her eyelids at him and then immediately tells the readers that she NEVER acts that way). I also hated the ending- I like your analysis of it, but to me it felt very deus ex machina and I can't quite reconcile it.

And I generally don't like PURE bad characters, and I didn't see much at all to redeem Scimina or her brother. I would have liked just a little bit of a gray area there, rather than all black. Though I suppose Yeine was pretty gray, and the politics of the books were VERY gray.

Date: 2012-01-27 07:50 am (UTC)
bookgazing: (Default)
From: [personal profile] bookgazing
Ahhhhhhhhhh so much to talk about.

'I wish more had been made of the Darre’s attitudes towards masculinity and femininity'

Here's an article that Jeminsin wrote which explains more about the matriachal society she wrote: http://www.orbitbooks.net/2010/02/12/writing-a-post-feminist-character/ I know it's not the same as having it explored in book, but I thought it was interesting. Like you I came away wondering why she hadn't talked more about the matriachal society - how it came to be, why it was sexist etc. I read 'Miss Perigrine's Home for Peculiar Children' which also makes just a small reference to the matriachal society Miss Peregrine is from and makes clear her contempt for men. Again I wanted more, but this article made me wonder if the reason that line of investigation isn't explored more is because it seems so common place to the character who is talking about that they don't need to explain it. That's not to say they author couldn't have found a way to make their character explore it, but maybe they decided to take a different route to show a closer facsimilie of that almost unthinking prejudice of patriachal society? What do you think?

And can I use this as a chance to say 'If you like matriachal societies that really explore their approach to masculinity and femininity you should read 'Motherlines' by Suzy McKee Charnas? So awesome and I want your smarts all over that book.

Your interpretation of the religious element is very similar to mine. I immediately saw a trinity of gods, with just the strict, father figure left and saw a symbol of Christianity unbalanced. I'm not sure if Jemisin has written anything about whether she based her god system on any existing religions, but I'd be interested to find out. I didn't read the ending as you did at the time, but that seems like a really interesting link between the text and Christianity now you say it. The idea of a Christ resurrection never occurred to me and I'm going to say that's probaly because Yeine is a female. My brain gets Dr Who as a Christ figure, but apparently does not see a link between women and Christ death/resurrection - oh sexism you are always creeping up on me.

Oh and you say you see conciousness as 'not as infallible, but as all we have'. Would you mind expanding? I'd love to hear more from you about that.

I am a total Nahadoth fan girl btw. We still have very different taste in men :D

Date: 2012-01-27 01:22 pm (UTC)
bookgazing: (Default)
From: [personal profile] bookgazing
Thinking about it 'Motherlines' might not be quite what you're looking for either, as there are no men around to interfer with the matriachy in that book. Still it's not sunshine and rainbows, although it at first seems much better than what the main character has come from. Can I suggest 'Daughters of Carhullan' by Sarah Hall instead then (do-over recs!). Again no shiny happy land of women, just a community in conflict with good bits and awful bits, who eventually end up unable to remain isolated.

Ah, I can see why Yeine's fate would be a bit of a problem then, hadn't thought of it that way. It does seem like Yeine transcends the knowledge of both humans and gods, to become the god who knows the most, now that you mention it. Maybe this is for drammatic reasons, like they need an arbitrator who has that raised knowledge level to prevent all out destruction, but I can see how it would cut your connection with a character all the same.

Date: 2012-01-30 10:45 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] myreadingbooks.blogspot.com
I really enjoyed this book! I never did review it, but I am looking forward to one of these days getting around to the sequels. Wonderful review, Ana!

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