“The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms” by N. K. Jemisin tells the story of a young woman named Yeine Darr. After her mother is murdered, she is summoned to Sky, the capital of the Arameri, by her grandfather, who is the ruler of the world. The Arameri are renowned for their cruelty and have maintained absolute power through the enslavement of powerful gods known as the Enefadeh. When Yeine arrives in Sky, she learns that she and two of her Arameri cousins are contenders for her grandfather’s throne. Yeine allies herself with the Enefadeh, who are as dangerous friends as they are enemies, as she becomes wrapped up in a plot that could threaten her very life.
The story is told through Yeine’s voice, but uses flashbacks to both childhood memories and religious stories to accomplish worldbuilding. It’s mostly told in the first person, but sometimes Yeine breaks the fourth wall and speaks to us directly. The style worked for me far better than a giant infodump would have, and allowed relevant details about the setting to be introduced as they become meaningful to the story. However, it’s the sort of thing that isn’t for everything, and my prediction is that readers will either love it or hate it.
One of the major themes throughout the novel is the difference between the way that children perceive their parents and the way that they really are. Yeine keeps asking questions about her mother while trying to reconcile herself with her murder, only to find that her mother wasn’t always the kind and gentle person whom she remembered, but rather a scheming Arameri woman who didn’t shy away from using torture or sex to achieve her own ends. Her mother was a complex character with a variety of motivations, and Yeine’s memories only portrayed one facet of her character.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Jemisin’s writing is the setting. Most fantasy novels take place in some permutation of medieval Europe. This one doesn’t. “The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms” features a large and diverse group of nations that are overseen by the Arameri. For example, Yeine’s home nation of Darre is a matrilineal warrior society. On a similar note, this isn’t the type of fantasy world where all (or almost all) of the characters are white.
“The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms” is the first novel in the Inheritance Trilogy, but it can function as a standalone. The two novels that follow it each focus on different characters at different points in history who have their own self-contained story arcs. I was very happy to see that Yeine’s storyline was resolved, and I was quite pleased with the ending.
You might not like this one if you have a weak stomach; the torture scenes here make the ones in Scott Lynch’s novels look tame by comparison, and they always caught me by surprise. Jemisin doesn’t shy away from violence or the darker sides of human nature.
I’d recommend “The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms” to anyone looking for fantasy set in a world that’s refreshingly different from the norm. If enslaved trickster gods and a devious inbred ruling class sound appealing, then this one’s for you.
I read this book as part of the Award Winning Books Challenge hosted by Gathering Books. “The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms” won a Locus Award in 2011, as well as being a Hugo and Nebula nominee.