The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin
Reviewed by Maureen Kincaid Speller
29 March 2010
I make it a strict rule never to read commentary on anything I'm reviewing until I've finished the article, in an attempt to record my initial responses to a book as clearly as I can. In the case of N. K. Jemisin's The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, there has been an awful lot of online commentary to dodge in the last two or three weeks, which says something in itself. There is a buzz about this one, clearly, and I gather that the response is generally positive. Consequently, I do not write this review entirely in a state of blissful ignorance, but with a voice asking, from deep in the back of my mind, "is it worth the fuss?" We will come to that in due course.
To begin, however, this is the story of Yeine, nineteen years old, a member of the Somem tribe of the Darre people, through her father (although Darrean society itself is matrilineal); until recently Yeine was the chieftain of her people. However, Yeine is also Baroness Yeine Darr, through her mother, Kinneth, formerly a member of the Arameri. This recounting of lineage makes for a formal beginning, and in some respects this is a very formal novel; formal in the manner of its telling, through Yeine's first-person narration, her words carefully chosen. It is formal, too, because of the nature of the people with whom her own life has become entwined. The Arameri, the inhabitants of the city called Sky, are intricately bound to a way of life that is governed by blood relationship and custom. Everyone knows exactly who they are and precisely where they stand in relation to Dekarta Arameri, "uncrowned king of the world" (p. 7) and also Yeine's grandfather. Everyone within the palace is related to everyone else to some degree, however distant (as one character notes, "all descendants of Shahar Arameri must serve. One way or another." [p. 19]), and everyone carries a mark to indicate the precise degree of their status within the palace hierarchy. Everyone, that is, except Yeine, her mother having abdicated her position as Dekarta's heir for love of Yeine's father, and gone with him to the High North, a three-month journey from Sky, and the place where Yeine was born and raised.
Thus, we have a society which, if not entirely stagnant, is distinctly sluggish, and entirely hidebound by custom. A cadre of high-ranking courtiers of mixed parentage (because, like animal breeders, the Arameri recognise the need to invigorate the gene pool from time to time) are kept close to the throne to ensure their compliance and to swiftly root out any discontent. They run the palace while a Consortium governs the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms on behalf of the elite Arameri, many of whom merely go through the motions of ruling. There are a number of analogies to be drawn here with historical colonial activity, in India particularly. The Arameri "highbloods" severely underestimate the capabilities of that high-ranking cadre rather as colonial administrators underestimated the young Indian men they educated and then employed, with not dissimilar results in some instances.
Yeine is an outsider in this society, and ignorant of its particularities, but its basic workings are not entirely unfamiliar to her. While she may not have the dubious advantage of having grown up within the palace, as a governor of her own people, but also as the child of a mixed marriage, she understands the political dimensions of her current situation extremely well, and it is that understanding which will guide her through the situation in which she finds herself when she is declared her grandfather's heir. All this is in sharp contrast to the prevailing attitude of the other members of the elite, who regard her simply as a dark-skinned barbarian from the north; in his first meeting with her, her grandfather discusses her with his courtiers as though she were not actually present, while her own cousin, Scimina, later dismisses her as nothing more than a prettily dressed savage, without benefit of education because she did not grow up in the palace. I should note here that Jemisin's presentation of this attitude is skilfully nuanced, mainly achieved through Yeine's observations, throwaway remarks by others, and a pervasive atmosphere of unspoken threat. Only rarely do characters address the issue directly, and when they do, it seems almost trite and vulgar when set against the oppressive weight of unspoken belief in the superiority of the full-blood high-ranking Arameri. Which is, of course, the point.
This is, however, not the whole of the story. Alongside the dynastic struggles of the Arameri elite there is another struggle for supremacy. This is a world with a sun god, 'Bright Itempas,' but also a legend in which the other members of the godly triumvirate, Nahadoth and Enefa, were cast down, in a manner rather reminiscent of the struggle between God and Lucifer in Paradise Lost. Enefa has vanished but Nahadoth remains as a dark and sinister presence, imprisoned and bullied by Scimina in his daytime form, but free to roam at night, as the Nightlord, allegedly capable of great brutality. One of a group of gods who live within the Sky palace, he is attracted to Yeine, and she to him, and you may think you can see which way this is going, but I defy you to fully anticipate its unfolding before you finish the novel.
This strand of the narrative brings out more clearly an issue which, I think, underpins the entire novel. When does duty become enslavement? As noted earlier, all Arameri must serve, but the nature of that service can quickly become distorted. And if your idea of service is based on an initial premise that is itself flawed, what happens then? This novel is filled with people who have responsibilities, to themselves and to others, gods and humans alike, which they attempt, one way or another, to discharge, but often in doing so, they commit themselves to supporting a system that is itself corrupt. The world is literally a mess, and no amount of lofty intervention from Itempas, Dekarta, or anyone else can sort it out unless people are able to take on more personal responsibility.
To return to my original question, "is it worth the fuss?," yes, absolutely. In Yeine, Jemisin has created a character with a strong and distinctive voice, not to mention an uncompromising attitude. I like the fact that she is so clear in her own mind what she needs to do, and so determined to do what seems right. Having said that, Yeine is not the only character who catches the attention. There is a positively Miltonian flavour to the pantheon of downcast gods with whom Yeine allies herself, yet I also enjoyed the way they are also invested with what I suppose we must call "humanity" as well. There is a lack of perfection about them and Yeine which appeals. There is also a certain lack of perfection in the novel, with raw edges showing, tiny loose threads hanging here and there, odd moments of untidiness that I'm not convinced will be addressed by the next volume of what turns out, inevitably, to be a trilogy. I admit that my heart sank when I looked at this novel's title page and saw "Book One of the Inheritance Trilogy," and whether those loose threads really need to be addressed, I'm not sure, for they seem to emerge as much from the oral story forms from which this novel draws its energy (and it is important to remember that this story is being told out loud) as from any editorial carelessness. The vigour of the storytelling is such that, for once, I can honestly say that I found this novel extremely difficult to put down, and keenly anticipate the sequel. I find it very difficult to envisage where this story can go next, and I desperately want to see.