It’s not often that a book leaves me completely unable to articulate what I feel about it. This speechlessness is generally a reaction to either one of two extremes when it comes to books: either what I’ve read is extremely terrible, or what I’ve read is extremely good. The last time this happened was last year, when I finished reading Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness and found myself unable to say exactly what I felt about it. I managed to find the words, but only after a while of sitting on it and thinking about it.
This time, the book that has rendered me completely speechless because it is simply that good is The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, the first in The Inheritance Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin. Now, I’ve heard a lot of things said about this series, most of it positive, and I’d acquired the trilogy to read whenever I felt like it. However, I kept on putting it off and putting it off, until (as is often the case) Hope decided to read the book and asked (or ordered) me to read it. And since she caught me just as I was finishing Mary Roach’s Gulp, I decided it was as good a time as any to start the trilogy.
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms begins with the narrator, Yeine Darr, comparing the city of Sky to a rare flower called an altarskirt rose. In comparing the rose with the city, Yeine describes, both succinctly and accurately, its nature and the nature of its residents, particularly of the Arameri, her mother’s family. And it is in this beautiful, rotten city that Yeine must find the answers to the question behind her parents’ death, as well as figure out what in the world her maternal grandfather, who summoned her there in the first place, could possibly want with her. She must also learn how to survive, for she is caught in the middle of a war, and her destiny is far, far greater than she ever thought it could be.
The first notable thing about this novel is the narration. Though it is told in the first person, there is a dreamlike quality to it that is a result of the fact that this tale is not told in a linear fashion. It slips back and forth between the past and the present, mythology and history, and later on, between two speakers: one is obviously Yeine, but the other is not named until later in the novel (though after a certain plot point the reader can easily guess who Yeine is talking to). Some reviewers have found fault with this non-linear narration, but I, for my part, find it exquisitely well-done and very well-managed. Some authors attempt to write non-linear narrative, and tend to fail quite badly, as they lose track and control of plots and characters. Jemisin, however, keeps a tight rein on her narration, but gives it enough play to allow room for the dreamlike quality I’ve mentioned earlier.
When I am reading stories told in first-person perspective, I always look for a narrator whose voice is easy to read and engage with. Sometimes, writers don’t manage this at all, and there have been times when I have put a book down because I want nothing more than to strangle the narrator – and I do not mean this fondly, either. Yeine is nothing like that at all. Though there are indeed moments when she feels a little bland, she is, for the most part, an interesting narrator and fascinating character. She’s sensible, but what I appreciate the most about her is that, when she does make a decision that is not sensible, she is either aware of it, or if not, owns up to the consequences. This makes her inherent courage obvious, even if she doesn’t charge headlong into battle.
In many ways, it is this kind of courage that lies at the core of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Much has already been said by other reviewers and critics about how The Inheritance Trilogy embraces women, people and cultures of color, and homosexuality, and I don’t know if I could add more to that discussion beyond saying that, as a woman from a Third-World country, what Jemisin has done with The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and likely the rest of The Inheritance Trilogy is extremely gratifying. I will explain, therefore, why I love Yeine: she is courageous in ways that marginalized people must be courageous in order to effect change – to confront oppression headlong, to look it in the eye and do something about it, despite all the possible hurdles that stand in one’s way. So many of us are used to ducking our heads, to looking away and bending to the will of those more powerful than us, because it is safe and less troublesome that way. Yeine was aware that simply bowing to the will of those who were more powerful than her would have been the easy way out – but it was not the right way out, and she deliberately chooses the right path, even if it is not the easy one. Of course, she had the gods on her side – in more ways than one, and no, I do not mean her relationship with Nahadoth – and while this aspect is rather troubling in a deus ex machina kind of way, it does not do much to overshadow the novel’s other strengths.
And now that I mention Yeine’s relationship with Nahadoth, I did find myself squinting at it sideways from time to time. Not to say I didn’t like it – I like a spot of romance in my reading as much as the next person – but it did seem to come up during the oddest of moments. I suppose it’s just because i would have much preferred to see her investigating after her parents’ death in a more old-fashioned manner, instead of approaching Nahadoth and the other gods and asking them questions all the time – especially since Nahadoth made it clear at one point that the gods don’t know everything. This is a minor complaint, though – and probably the result of my bias towards Sieh.
Overall, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is a remarkably promising beginning to a trilogy, and, more importantly, a heartening sign for the changing landscape of genre fiction. Jemisin’s style and language are exquisite and comparable to Ursula LeGuin in its quality and artistry. Her world-building is thorough and well thought-out, her protagonist/narrator is fascinating, and though her actions and her relationships with other characters are somewhat questionable because they slide a bit too close to deus ex machina territory, she is the for the most part intriguing to read about and attempts to find solutions to her problems without sacrificing who she is, at her core. The ending might be a little too happy for my taste – I would have liked a little more tragedy – but I cannot say there was nothing in the plot that did not indicate it was a possibility, and it was earned, and I appreciate that a great deal. I am now very much looking forward to the next book, which I hope will build on the momentum of this first novel and expand on the consequences already laid out.