Title: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms
Author: N.K. Jemisin
Genre: Fantasy, Romance
Page Count: 427
Publisher: Hachette Book Group Orbit
Notable Notables: POC protagonist, LGBTQ+ relationships
Recommended Readers: People looking for a challenging fantasy read and those who are into their female MCs getting entangled with monster gods
This is the first book I’ve read from N.K. Jemisin, who I’ve heard is a much-respected author and a legend, and now I understand why. Jemisin displays absolutely no fear in her writing, already seeming to be a master of sprezzatura when she penned the ambitious The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms.
Even having just finished it, I’m struggling to put all my feelings about it into words. I’ll start by saying that I initially chose it to read because I was expecting a certain Hellsing element, aka mortal woman gets involved with a half-crazed immortal being, whose hair and darkness float around him constantly.
Happy to say, I got exactly that and still so much more! What I did not expect, however, was how much this book was going to challenge me, both as a reader and as a demonstration of how fantasy and storytelling can be told.
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms follows Yeine Darr, who is summoned to the Arameri kingdom of Sky after her mother’s mysterious death. She suspects her grandfather and the current king of Sky, Dekarta Arameri, is behind it and seeks to investigate and possibly get revenge. However, Dekarta also shockingly names her as the third potential heir, dooming her to compete for the throne with two other heirs and members of her family. In the midst of Yeine seeking answers about her mother, she must navigate and attempt to survive a dangerous political game, one that has even the gods bowing to the Arameri family’s will––gods who also want to get Yeine on their side.
From the beginning, I had to adjust to the type of storytelling Jemisin was doing, for it was fairly atypical and, at times, difficult to understand. Told in Yeine’s first person POV, the prose is often disjointed as Yeine in stream-of-consciousness fashion attempts to remember details in the story and form a linear narrative, a task in which she does not always succeed. There are times, too, where Yeine is recalling something and begins having a conversation with an unknown party. The more you read, the more you can piece together, and honestly? I loved that. It’s been so long since I’ve read a book that didn’t adhere to a straightforward narrative, since Catch-22, and I’ve missed it.
Reading The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms was a lesson in risk-taking as well as a challenge for my reading comprehension. I can see people being divisive concerning how Jemisin structured the novel and chose to tell the story. For one, she doesn’t explain everything to you. There’s a lot of holes in the narrative, especially in the beginning, that the reader slowly has to figure out and really pay attention to as more details come to light. There are parts that are confusing and convoluted until Yeine gets to the point where she can finally show us what happened, and even then, not all is crystal clear.
Finishing the book, I can now look back and go, “Oh, that’s what she meant!” But there are still plenty of things that I’m sure I missed, that would require a second if not third read-through to catch, and that’s exciting to me to admit as a reader.
Even more is it exciting to me as a writer. Perhaps it’s my inexperience talking, but when I’m writing something, I always struggle with how much the reader needs to know before we just get the plot rolling. I struggle with how much needs to come to light and with what timing. I struggle with feeling the need to Write Clearly At All Times. This is not something that’s unique to me, nor do I think it’s unheard of to say that, as a writer, I have only ever written a linear plot; never have I dared a non-linear one. Jemisin did for her very first novel, so how much of a boss is she?
Jemisin continues putting so many to shame with the mythology she created for her world. While there were times I did wish her world-building itself had been more fleshed out, the mythos itself more than made up for it. I was enraptured with Sieh (precious Sieh!), Itempas, Enefa, and Nahadoth, the Nightlord. Especially Nahadoth. How Yeine interacts with all of them––and the other godlings besides––is diverse and captivating. Makes me wonder if I would do so well in the presence of gods. She and Nahadoth particularly have so much tension and layers, and their relationship only gets more complicated. I reveled in the unpredictability of it, especially since Nahadoth is a god of both change, seduction, and death, and Yeine knows that he is a very bad idea.
Lord, what an OTP to be given!
When Jemisin delves into describing the gods themselves and Yeine’s perception of their natures and appearances, I can already anticipate the adjective “non-sensical” being attributed to the descriptions. However, as someone who has read many books lately featuring immortals who look, sound, and act exactly human (just prettier and with more growling), it was amazingly refreshing to read about gods and be reminded in so many different ways about how not-human they are. How incomprehensible they are to mortal understanding. Jemisin accomplished showing this so creatively and so consistently that she will always have my respect as a writer for that, if nothing else.
Overall, though, I love Yeine the most. She is such a determined yet ill-equipped protagonist that it’s so easy to root for her and yet be as surprised as she is when she fails. The pride she has for her people, the Darre, and the disgust she has for her mother’s, the Arameri, are well-deserved, and you never doubt how she feels about them.
Having the two cultures juxtapose each other to the point of being completely incompatible also reflects Yeine’s own internal struggles with chasing what is most important to her: protecting herself and her people or attaining vengeance for her mother. Ironically, when she tries to apply one culture’s solution to the other’s problem (like using her new Arameri standing to improve conditions for Darr or searching for her mother’s murderer using the blunt stubbornness of the Darre), it backfires on her. It’s only when she accepts her strengths and her failings as a Darre woman and as her own person (and accepts that she will never be like her mother or an Arameri) that she becomes something more than either of them.
Her journey is one that I am incredibly satisfied with, even though her final outcome isn’t one that I normally like, but it works for this story and it works for Yeine, and that’s what’s most important to me when all’s said and done.
I’m excited to get to the sequel, The Broken Kingdoms, as well as check out Jemisin’s other series, The Broken Earth, because I’ve heard that one is incredible.
And I already adored this first novel. How much better have you gotten, Jemisin???