Sunday, June 3, 2012

Review: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, by N. K. Jemisin

A chapter into this book and I was rapt. I could see what all the hype was about and I was kicking myself for waiting so long to start reading it. But somewhere around the middle these positive feelings started to wane, and by the end I found myself unimpressed. I don’t think I’ve ever had how I felt about a book change so much while reading it!

What captured me at first with this book was the structure of it. I liked the way the way Yeine’s version of events kept getting interrupted by a mysterious other voice. One of my favourite narrative techniques is the unreliable narrator, and this other voice disagreeing with Yeine’s telling hinted that we were only getting one version of a much bigger story.

I also really liked the idea of the novel. For such a firm atheist, I’m hugely fond of gods as actual characters in fiction- chained ones even more so. God of night, Nahadoth, faced off against his brother and sun god, Itempas, and lost. As punishment he and the lesser gods who supported him have been forced to serve a single family for hundreds of years. As a result this one family has grown disproportionately powerful and rules over all the other kingdoms who don’t conveniently have enslaved gods to do their bidding.

The character of Nahadoth was fantastically done, in my opinion. The trouble with gods as characters is that it can be hard to make them seem sufficiently godlike. Too often they come across as just really powerful and capricious humans. Not so here. There’s something wholly alien and terrifying about Nahadoth. A god he may be, but he has also been a slave for centuries and I really liked how Jemisin portrayed the effect this had upon him. He also reminded me a lot of one of my all time favourite characters; Neil Gaiman's Morpheus. If Morpheus has been trapped in that circle for two thousand years instead of twenty I feel he might have ended up damaged and dangerous in much the same way as Nahadoth.

And Nahadoth wasn’t even the best of Jemisin’s god filled cast. Nahadoth's son and fellow slave Sieh was far and away my favourite. He was made in the image of a child and has remained so for centuries, although it’s never made clear whether or not that’s by choice or design. There’s there fantastic tension in him, between childlike innocence and the wisdom (and despair) of the ages he’s lived through. Certainly Sieh was the most complicated character in the book, and I would liked to have seen more of him.

Instead I had to slog through pages of Yeine. If Nahadoth and Sieh were rich, complex wines then Yeine was water. There was just nothing to her. No personality, no initiative, no spark. My decreasing satisfaction with this book can be wholly attributed to her. The entire plot of this book consists of Yeine going where other characters tell her to go, and doing what other character tell her to do. The other characters plot and scheme and act, she spends a lot of time hanging out in her room.

She was the leader of her people, a fiercely matriarchal society, but you would never guess either of those things from the way she acts. Leadership skills? Tactical thinking? Diplomacy? None in evidence. If she escapes danger its only because another character helps her, if she guesses at someone's motives it’s only because another character pretty much had to tell her. The book couldn’t have happened without her there, but in the same way that Raiders of the Lost Arc couldn’t have happened without the arc, or the last Harry Potter book wouldn’t have gone far without the Horcruxes. Yeine is a glorified McGuffin, an object to be moved around and used by the other far more interesting characters who make up A Hundred Thousand Kingdoms.

The plight of Nahadoth, Sieh and the other god’s was engaging enough to keep me reading, and Jemisin does present an interesting take on ideas of sexuality and power. But Yeine’s character was so poorly done that it dragged down the whole book, and will probably stop me from ever picking up the sequel.

I bought this book 


1 comment:

  1. I've read a few reviews on this book and decided I wasn't going to bother picking it up. After reading your depictions of the gods, now I'm thinking I want to read it for them but I still don't want to read it for the main character. I guess I'm going to have to seriously consider this choice.