Thursday, 25 February 2010

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

I mentioned a couple of days ago that I'd been reading The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin.



The Arameri derive their power from a group of captive (and resentful) gods. Yeine is summoned from the north by the Arameri grandfather who she has never met, who is the most powerful man in the world, and has just named her one of his possible heirs - a situation that is most likely to end in Yeine's death. The palace is raised above the city of Sky, and all sorts of strange things that Yeine does not understand take place there: Gods are chained, heretics killed, ordinary citizens tortured to death. No one (including her grandfather) seems to like her, and she must learn to negotiate the intensely political atmosphere of the palace while saving her country and finding out what she can about her mother's death and her own mysterious birth.

And most importantly there are the gods, particularly Nahadoth and Sieh with whom she feels a strange connection. As the story progresses she (and we) learn more about the gods; particularly the big three: Itempas, who Yeine has been taught to worship, Enefa, and Nahadoth himself.

Yeine's voice is fascinating. The story is told in the first person, but the "I must try to remember" on the first page immediately makes you wonder if Jemisin's playing with the concept of an unreliable narrator. She isn't, exactly: what she is doing is far more interesting and I don't wish to spoil it. But it requires a lot of jumping around of styles - the frequent shifts from Yeine's ordinary voice to the less human, more mythical tone of a fabulist could easily have been disorienting. I think it's very impressive that they're not.

I also loved that Yeine really is shaped by her back story. She has grown up in a matriarchal warrior tribe where men are held in contempt and she has a particularly interesting relationship with some of her tribe's own customs. She's as ruthless (though less perverse) in her own way as her Arameri cousins. For much of the book she is aware that her own death is almost inevitable, but she deals with this knowledge - there's much less a sense that she's struggling to stay alive than that she's trying to sort stuff out while she can.

I'd read a couple of Jemisin's short stories and am a fan of her blog, and expected this book to contain lots of politics. I was right, but it was all a lot more nuanced than I expected (and my expectations were high). Power and how it works, relationships between nations, class, race and gender; these are all things that materially affect life in Sky.

But what raised The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms above most good sff, I think, were Jemisin's gods. She gets the gods pitch perfect. Huge and eternal and worldchanging. There's a very real sense of the vast periods of time involved in their history. (This is particularly true of Nahadoth, the first god, who spends aeons alone before his brother appears). And their story is unutterably sad - these beings are doomed to carry out this pain-filled (and love-filled) story for all of eternity because it's fundamental to who they are. But being human is an important part of them as well - at one point Yeine characterises the entire story as merely "one family squabble pitted against another".

This wonderful tension between big, eternal archetypes and the very human characters who have to carry them out reminded me a bit (because it's a book I love and think about a lot) of Alan Garner's The Owl Service.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is not flawless. Things began to get blurry and rushed for me towards the end, and there are a couple of side plots where I felt I'd been promised more than was delivered - a case in point is the danger to Darr, which is never quite threatening enough for me. But this is still a fantastic book (even more amazing because it's a debut) and I cannot recommend it enough.

2 comments:

roswitha said...

Superb review! I can't wait to read this book EVEN MORE now. :) Thanks for writing it up.

Aishwarya said...

You must read it. It's the sort of thing I think you will enjoy very much. :)