First of all, I just want to apologize for being so behind on my reviews. Got three of them in the pipeline, two of which should have been written and posted weeks ago. But I've been going hiking pretty much on all my days off lately and I haven't had time to get to work on any of them. Sorry about that. . . But the beautiful fall colors up here are a temptation that I simply can't resist!
I've been wanting to give N.K. Jemisin a shot for quite some time. And when The Fifth Season won the Hugo Award for best novel, I knew the time had come. I never received a review copy of The Fifth Season, but I was able to dig out a copy of her debut, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Oddly enough, though that book was nominated for the Hugo, the Nebula, and the World Fantasy Awards, a lot of fans today seem to opine that it's probably the author's weakest work. Be that has it may, it's the one I had on hand and it's the one I read.
In the end, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is a solid debut. Like most SFF debuts, it features a number of flaws, most notably a first-person narrative that can be tricky at times, as well as a corny love story and some decidedly clichéd villains. But all in all, Jemisin's fantasy debut is an original and enjoyable read.
Here's the blurb:
Yeine Darr is an outcast from the barbarian north. But when her mother dies under mysterious circumstances, she is summoned to the majestic city of Sky. There, to her shock, Yeine is named an heiress to the king. But the throne of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is not easily won, and Yeine is thrust into a vicious power struggle with cousins she never knew she had. As she fights for her life, she draws ever closer to the secrets of her mother's death and her family's bloody history. With the fate of the world hanging in the balance, Yeine will learn how perilous it can be when love and hate - and gods and mortals - are bound inseparably together.
The worldbuilding doesn't play much of a role in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Although it is obvious that there is a lot more than meets the eye, N.K. Jemisin's plays her cards rather close to her chest and doesn't go all out in this debut. I have a feeling that readers will learn a lot more about the world, its inhabitants, the gods, and everything else in the two sequels, but the plot is rather straightforward in this one. The author provides information sporadically, in small increments that allow readers to follow along as the story progresses, but nothing more. I would have liked Jemisin to be a bit more forthcoming in that regard, as the most fascinating portions of the book are definitely the scenes in which revelations about the past are made. There is some political intrigue and a century-spanning plot that could change the world forever, yet the main story arc could have used a bit more suspense and mystery.
The characterization is probably the weakest aspect of this novel. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms features the first-person narrative of Yeine. The tale is told from her point of view at some point in the future, which robs the ending of much of its impact and makes it more or less predictable. In addition, especially at the beginning, there are questions about just how reliable a narrator Yeine truly is. She often appears to be distracted, or under the influence of drugs or alcohol. It all makes sense later on when the truth about Yeine is unveiled, but all the chapters' beginnings feel odd at first. Jemisin also has a tendency to have Yeine's thoughts move forward or backward in time, often going off on tangents that completely break the narrative's progress and don't always have much to do with the story. This usually kills the momentum of what is already a slow-moving plot and brings little or nothing to the tale. As mentioned, the love story was a bit overdone and corny in its execution. And that sex scene was a little too over-the-top. Still, it's the villains that leave the most to be desired. They're basically just your generic cruel bad guys, which was quite disappointing.
Having said that, even though the characterization is subpar, N.K. Jemisin scores points for exploring themes such as slavery, sexism, racism, and the abuse of power. She weaves these deeper issues throughout the various plotlines, sometimes subtly in the background and sometimes in more flagrant fashion. Regardless of how it's done, this is what ultimately gives soul to the novel. In the end, regardless of its flaws and its predictable ending, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms turned out to be a compelling and satisfying read. I'm told that the subsequent volumes will feature different points of view and will take place in other locales, which is for the best. One can only hope that we'll get to see more of the world and that the plot will feature more characters and be a bit more convoluted.