Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Review: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin

Title: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

Author: N.K. Jemisin

Information on series: First in The Inheritance Trilogy

Audience: Adult, though with appeal for some older teens

Rating (scale of 1-5, with 5 being highest): 3.5

TL;DR: A dark love story set against a complicated backdrop of political intrigue where the stakes are life or death.

Longer review: N.K. Jemisin's debut novel, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, introduces a complex world of political intrigue where it is deadly dangerous to be among the elite or too far outside the norm. Unfortunately Yeine, our protagonist, is a descendant of both the ruling Arameri and the "barbaric" Darre. Centuries past, the Arameri conquered the world with the aid of the god of light, Itempas, and suppressed all other religions- and gods. Yeine's mother gave up a position of power as the Arameri heir to marry a Darre man, and lived out her life in exile for her choice. But shortly after her mother is murdered, Yeine is called to the capital by her grandfather to join the competition to become his new heir.

This is not an easy read. It is dark and sometimes confusing. I almost abandoned The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms before I finished it, but I stuck with it from a combination of sheer stubbornness and the appeal of the twisted romantic subplot. I am a sucker for any variation on the story of Psyche and Cupid, though this is more of a hint than anything close to a retelling. Fair warning, this book does contain a sex scene and there are no warm fuzzies. Everyone has hidden motivations; if morality is a spectrum, most characters lean away from the good end of the scale.

While The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms stands well on its own, readers will probably appreciate seeing how the story of these characters and their world plays out over the next two books in The Inheritance Trilogy. There is a diversity of cultures to this world that we are first led to believe is a mono-culture under the strict control of the Arameri. That Yeine's Darre people secretly hold some of their ancient beliefs and practices along with their darker complexions is easily assumed to be an exception. Jemisin created a very detailed world for this series, and it was difficult to appreciate or (for me, at times) to even grasp all of the meaning in a single reading. By looking at the same world, and some of the same events, from different perspectives in the second and third books, I gained a much clearer picture of the larger story.

That said, the murkiness of this book, where I was never quite sure of the motivations behind various characters actions or what their goals were, fit the themes of balance between light and dark or order and chaos rather well. That Yeine is trying to navigate this precarious, ill-defined space in her identity as outsider and elite, serves to emphasize the theme. This is one of several themes that Jemisin continues to examine and expand on throughout the series. I may've picked up The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms for a romantic fantasy, but I love The Inheritance Trilogy for a complexity that continues to make me think.

~Sarah, Carnegie-Stout Public Library

Read alikes:

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin: The first book in her third series, which was just published in August, The Fifth Season also features unique worldbuilding (the main magical power is literally worldbuilding or at least a power over mountains, earthquakes, etc.), and a main character whose powers make her an outsider.

Uprooted by Naomi Novik: For readers who are looking for a more typical (thought not entirely predictable) romantic subplot, this might be a good fit. I also might just really like this book (see previous review here).

The Emperor's Soul by Brandon Sanderson: A novella length story featuring an unusual female protagonist trapped by the ruling elite. A faster-paced story with more of an emphasis on action, but still featuring well developed, complex characters that touches on some interesting questions of identity.

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