Cross posted from Bookgazing to dangle the shiny directly in front of Renay
In her review Nic from Eve’s Alexandria
says that ‘The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms’ narrative is ‘neither as fragmentary and unreliable, nor as conversational’ as the first lines of the novel had led her to hope. The novel opens by thrusting the reader into the distant, distressed perspective of an unnamed narrator:
‘I am not as I once was. They have done this to me, broken me open and torn out my heart. I don’t know who I am anymore. I must try to remember.’
and for the next two pages a sense of confusion continues to interject itself, no matter how solid a narrative the speaker tries to construct. The narrator identifies herself, elaborating on her precise lineage and the several different names she can be called, but this is preceded by the words ‘But I forget myself. Who was I again? Ah, yes.’, a phrase that signals the narrators struggles with a mind that is wandering for some reason. Although, after the first few pages the narrator turns to telling the story in a linear fashion, without many further interruptions, these early pages do set up certain expectations of further, messier disorder as the novel’s action and emotion becomes more intense.
These expectations are never fully met as this disordered and raw (although still artistically controlled) narrative strand is spread almost too regularly through the novel to stylistically reflect a significant amount of pain and confusion. The narrator, quickly introduces herself as Yeine ‘daughter of Kinneth’, she is from the tribe of Darre and she is the granddaughter of Dekarta Arameri, who we later find out is the leader of the family that rules N K Jemisin’s fantasy world. She then goes on to roll out her story, in a mostly linear past tense narrative that is interrupted at intervals by Yeine’s present tense voice (sort of, there’s a surprise concealed in this element of style that I won’t spoil, because it is really interesting to discover as the novel progresses). Yeine’s less controlled side only interrupts when events in the linear narrative have reached a natural break point in the past narrative, which makes the moments when the more chaotic narrative breaks through feel too ordered by the authorial hand.
It could be that this ordered insertion of a more mysterious, chaotic narrative is a structural indication that Yeine is a mentally strong character. Throughout the novel Yeine is shown to be a strong character and perhaps her strength extends to an exertion of control over the bubbling forces inside of her, which allows her to keep their narrative disruption to a minimum. Perhaps she proves her strength by reaching set points in her narrative before allowing a less ordered train of thought dominance. Still, considering that ‘The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms’ contains central themes of madness and epic disorder I was expecting a bit more stylistic roughness, such as phrases butting in to the nice neat mapping of out memories, especially since Yeine’s present state has been established as ‘broken’ and disorientated.
However, like Nic, I found myself easily won over by Yeine and the reader barriers my expectations might have erected were knocked aside as I spent more time reading about her. Yeine is kind of amazing. Soon after arriving in Sky she discovers that it is her destiny to die in roughly a week and nothing can save her. At first she is devastated and spends a day crying for herself. She then goes on to make an alliance with the gods enslaved by the Arameri, searches for her mother’s killer, uncovers a lot of secrets, schemes to improve Darre’s poor economic situation and finds the time to form meaningful relationships with people and gods. The inclusion of her tears allows the reader to feel a level of emotional realism which makes Yeine’s later actions even more heroic, as she overcomes fear and sadness that could have understandably left her unable to act. When she arrives in Sky she’s the warrior girl who has come to avenge her mother’s death and that sounds like a kickass character description, but by the end of the book she has done so much more alongside that.
The catalyst for her story is the kind of geography spanning, detailed family politics than I adore (as long as I can keep everyone’s names straight). Yeine’s mother, Kinneth, became estranged from her biological family, the ruling Arameri, when she left their home in Sky (a crazy balancing act of a palace in the clouds that overlooks a city of the same name) to live with her lower class lover. Sky, rules the entire Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, including Darre, Yeine’s father’s homeland. Kinneth was recently murdered and Yeine assumes her grandfather Dekarta was behind the killing.
Even though the gap between Kinneth and Dekarta’s original rift and Kinneth’s death is rather large Yeine is aware that no one puts the Arameri family in the corner and stays alive. At the beginning of the novel her mother has been dead a month and Yeine has just been summoned to Sky to meet her grandfather for the first time. She goes, giving up her claim to the leadership of Darre’s matriarchal society, simply because ‘one does not refuse an invitation from the Arameri’, a comment which immediately shows the uncontested power of the ruling family and the fear they inspire. She also hopes to get close enough to confirm her beliefs about Kinneth’s murder. If she can make an opportunity, she plans to avenge her mother by killing her grandfather. That is just the tip of the crazy complicated familial relationships that Yeine has to deal with1
Although Yeine is the narrator, the central character and such a different kind of female character (she describes herself as ‘short and flat and brown as forest wood’ and was brought up in a matriarchal society
that casually derides masculinity) it is disturbingly easy for my thoughts to focus on the male second main character of Nahadoth, because he is explosive and alluring. Nahadoth, is a god who was defeated by his brother Itempas, imprisoned in human flesh and forced to serve the Arameri. He is spectacular, with all the flashiness and destruction that word implies, while Yeine’s greatness is simply human. As a god of immense power, who enjoys killing and desires seeks revenge he is a deliciously sinister character, who is bound to catch any reader’s attention, while Yeine spends the novel learning to achieve her aims through subtle political machinations. In an interesting reversal of traditional gender types Yeine is the one in control of her emotions. She is by no means schooled into hardness, but she handles herself in a compact, quiet, effective way most of the time. Nahadoth on the other hand, constantly vibrates with dangerous emotion. He is a pretty special piece of negative character creation and it’s hard not to get caught up in gazing at his brightly coloured sparks.
I don’t want to put all the emphasis on the flashy male lead and the romance, because Yeine’s individual journey is the heart of this novel. However, ‘The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms’ is undeniably a fantasy novel with a romance at its centre. The relationship between Yeine and Nahadoth, which begins with Yeine plunging a knife into his chest after he has chased her through Sky, progresses as Yeine performs a delicate dance of intellect around a psychopathic character with a soul like a dark well. Eventually their relationship becomes romantic. I know this sounds like a bad idea out of the ‘every girl loves a psychopath’ worn out drawer of misogynistic paranormal romance plots. Luckily the novel contains space for Yeine to notes the crazy dangerousness of Nahadoth, even as she notices her attraction to him. Yeine has some control over Nahadoth, which makes her superficially equal to him and her personality is solid enough to counter him sometimes, but I was pleased to see that Yeine is never allowed to be certain that she can keep him from hurting her. Their relationship is written with a full awareness of the power imbalance that necessarily exists between even the strongest woman and a paranormal lover.
The narrative also has Yeine set up her own safety barriers, even as she slowly grows closer to him, because she’s aware he can never be trusted while she is human. At first Nahadoth is that guy you don’t want to let anywhere near your favourite lady character (even though he is undeniably fascinating) who supernaturally breaks into Yeine’s room, but as his relationship with her develops he becomes more careful to encourage her to find ways to protect herself from him. He does this without removing her agency to choose a relationship with him. Their romance becomes a co-operatively shaped partnership where each person tries to do as little damage as possible to the other, but it never compromises the discomfort the reader feels at such an unequal, dangerous relationship by slipping into idealistic simplification.
Even the sex scene, which is glorious and edgy and glorious again, is under cut by fear and uneasy amnesia when Yeine awakes, reminding the reader that nothing is pure, or easy about this relationship. The narrative always encourages the reader to fear Nahadoth’s touch on Yeine’s skin, until Yeine gains a state that will make her as equal to Nahadoth and as safe from him as she can ever be. The result is a slippery beast of a romance, which confronts the culturally dominant idea that romantic feeling should blot out any reasonable objections to a potentially disturbing relationship.
In her review Nic from Eve’s Alexandria, explains that the book loses her when the romance between Yeine and Nahadoth ‘overwhelms the rest of the plot and characters’ and ends asking rhetorically ‘where did all the court intrigue go?’ Despite being desperately engaged with the romance in this novel, I agree with Nic that something central to the political plot falls down a hole, as the romance is reaching its climax. Yeine’s initial motivation for forming an alliance with Nahadoth and the gods who live with him, isn’t an offer of protection from them. They can’t keep her from dying. What they can offer her is a chance to triumph as she dies, by winning a contest to be named Dekarta’s heir. To be honest I’m not entirely sure how they were meant to achieve that, as it’s my understanding that she knows they need her to lose the contest, so she’ll be given the chance to access a vital artefact that will set the gods free, but I might be misunderstanding. Anyway, the gods take no action to help her take Dekarta’s position. Towards the end of the book it’s like Jemisin remembers that plot strand needs to be tied up, but Yeine winning doesn’t fit with her plot resolution, so Yeine just says it doesn’t matter anymore. Um. Obviously it’s a pipe dream for Yeine to be named heir, but she is such a persistent, principled character I was surprised she didn’t at least push the gods as much as possible until they tried to act, or admitted there was nothing they could do. It’s a bit of an inconsistency and suggests that the romantic storyline became so dominant that Jemisin simply ran out of room to develop this part of the political plot.
Rich, emotional fantasy novels like ‘The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms’ give someone like me the chance to splash around indulgently in the artistry of darkly beautiful pain with very little guilt, but it’s not just a personal art/emotion kink that led to my satisfaction with this novel (although, wowsa). There’s a complexity to the novel’s presentation of the world that shows just how many ways of viewing the world there really are and the impossibility of establishing definite, eternal, standards of moral judgement. Alternate ways of thinking and being are acknowledged as characters experience the fluidity of their sexuality, or love people they never thought they could. Yeine has multiple sexual partners and at no point does the romantic storyline turn into a binary love triangle with all the ramifications of anxiety and shame triangle set ups are usually accompanied by. She just sleeps with someone and cares about them, sleeps with someone else and cares about them too in a different way. Emotional paradoxes are set up. Yeine’s relationships with a couple of the other gods like Sieh are full of conflicting emotions that really push readers to think outside traditional paths. Mothers both love and hate their children. Forgiveness is offered to people who have done very little to deserve it because forgiveness can’t be earned, but then forgiveness is held out of reach because sometimes it has to be earned. Love is love, is broken, is mad.
I need awesome characters with insight, emotions and all sorts of moral compromise to make me feel synchronised with the beating heart of a book. ‘The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms’ couldn’t have provided any better than Yeine, Nahadoth and the cast of sly, sympathetic, damaged family members who surround them. Is it any wonder I bought the second book in ‘The Inheritance Trilogy’ the day after I finished it? 1
It’s interesting to think how often epic fantasy takes the domestic familial relationship and politicises it, cross pollinating the two elements that lit-fic often uses to define what is good and what is great. Epic fantasy often manages to allow the ‘small scale’ family stuff to combine with the ‘big scale’ political stuff, without anyone even noticing. Interesting, right? Thanks so much for giving me a copy Meghan
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