The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms
N.K. Jemisin

I am hopelessly behind with this post. I initially picked up The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms in an unwise bid to join this read-along, knowing full well that I had busy schedule leading into the holidays. I started reading one day after the hosts provided the last round of questions, hoping that I would finish in time and somehow write a coherent reaction. Then Christmas hit, then the break with the kids, then New Year’s, then family travel, then a bunch of other stuff, and here I am two months later, finally getting this off the ground. Is it too late to wish for continued relevance? I don’t regret joining up with the read, since I don’t know when else I would have started reading Jemisin, but I probably should have found a different way to handle my many demands.

I’m late enough that following along with the posted questions seems a bit silly, so this will be more of a spoiler-free look at the parts of Jemisin’s novel that I found most interesting. The above read-along should hopefully provide enough in terms of plot summary and reaction to excuse my laziness, as there are several other things I’d much rather dive into.

Most interesting to me is the way that Jemisin avoids fantasy cliché. Hundred Thousand takes place in an utterly fantastical world, with gods and magic, impossible cities and savage tribesmen, swords and prophecies. It is not science fantasy, with that variety’s carefully constructed and logical systems of magic, or rigorous economies and societies. On the other hand, there are no prancing elves or gruff dwarves, for which we can all be grateful. The world reminds me most of what I have read of Elric, with its decadent rulers in a magical city perpetrating horrors on the underclasses. Similarities break down beyond this crucial point, but the setup at least feels familiar.

More than anything else, I value the author’s attitude towards the past. I find myself returning over and over to David Brin’s assessment of the crucial difference between science fiction and fantasy: SF points ahead to the future, while fantasy looks backward to a lost Golden Age. I don’t know why authors do this, unless it is something that must be ritually sacrificed at midnight to the gods of Middle Earth, but almost without fail, some character will break into a paean to past empires of glory and their requisite vanished secrets. Bonus points if magic is failing and/or the empires belonged to elves. This is not a fail-safe way to separate the two – Brin himself uses it to call Star Wars fantasy – but it is one more tool with which to pick apart convention.

Jemisin has this chance in Hundred Thousand and, to my great joy, declines it. No nostalgia for a better age, no lost technology, magic, or wisdom, no effort to re-establish the ancien regime. Thank you, N.K.! For once, the present is sufficient. The future is likely to be better, not a further degradation of past brilliance. This means a great deal to a devotee of science and human progress like me. To be clear, there is a bid to restore a past situation, but it is not nostalgia driving the bus, nor does the final resolution show much reverence for the past. People who were once in power wish to return, not because of Kids These Days, but because they want power. Very practical. No lost civilization, no slavish, Confucian devotion to days of yore.

Hundred Thousand also chips away at other fantasy conventions. Not surprisingly for a black, female author who also crusades for social justice, Jemisin launches assaults on racial, gender, and sexual orientation tropes. The main character comes from a darker skinned tribe, is judged harshly for it, and fights back against the paler ruling class. Not only are strong, active female characters found on all sides of the conflict, but societies with gender roles wholly unlike our own have major roles. People have relationships among all possible gender combinations without comment from the characters; in this at least the author has created a world free of discrimination. In all cases though, I never found the book to be preachy. Each choice is part of the story and logically connected, not just a stone upon which to grind an ax. Maybe others will feel differently, especially those who are uncomfortable with anything but straight, white, male leads, but I actually had to think consciously about this before I noticed it.

Related to these are Jemisin’s rejections of both noble savage and virtuous princess tropes. Yeine, our erstwhile heroine, comes to the cosmopolitan, debauched capital from the hinterlands. The option is there to make her naïve and pure, with the possibility of a final triumph that both preserves these traits and perhaps even uses them to vanquish her unrighteous oppressors. I don’t want to spoil anything, but those who have read this will probably agree that the details of Yeine’s coming of age ceremony are some of the best in the book. Yeine is fully formed, a mature woman with strengths and flaws; her society has its own ups and downs. If she wins at the end, it is not necessarily through some virtue imparted by her morally superior life on the frontier. If she suffers, it is not because she is a woman leading an independent and willful existence. Refreshing stuff here! None of this “first woman to lose her shirt gets offed” or “reliable, rural horse sense toppling soft and morally suspect urbanites” nonsense.

Dragging myself back towards the action and away from philosophizing, I have to compare the book to Karin Lowachee’s Warchild. Not that they share a plot or theme, but something about the narrative voice, the barely restrained intensity of the writing in Hundred Thousand recalled the other. Both are first novels and, I assume, had a lengthy gestation. Both have the feel of a world long in the planning and fervent ideas raging behind a composed, first-person perspective. It is almost as though the authors fear that this is the only chance they will have to say everything they possibly can; fortunately both have the skill required to keep everything under control. The smoldering momentum drives the plot from the very first; when the action slows, Jemisin’s attitude carries the story without losing any pace.

Hundred Thousand was hugely compelling. If the next volume is even half as electric as the first, I won’t be able to put it down. Part of me wanted to forge ahead with the read-along, which is now pushing into the third book in the series, but I had to relent. Other duties called. Rest assured, however, that I will be returning to Yeine’s world very soon. It ranks among the best fantasy consumed last year.

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5 thoughts on “The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

  1. That is a great review. I agree that Jemisin had all sorts of opportunities to use standard fantasy tropes, and she didn’t. What she did do is give us something fresh, seemlessly. As you point out, the gender orientations were simply a sidenote on a character – it was something I had to think about. Same with gender and skin color. The story was the important thing, not the biological details of the characters.

    And you mentioned one of my all-time favorite authors – Karin Lowachee. I have read all her books and love each of them, but Warchild is my favorite.

    As always, you are most welcome to join in the read along, if you have the time. We will be starting Book 3 this coming Monday and running for 5 weeks.

  2. My plan was to read this one this month, being a huge fan of her Dreamblood duo. It seems everything else hit at once and has put me behind on my (very) loose schedule. But I have seen nothing but good reviews, and am glad to see one more.

  3. So happy you liked Hundred Thousand Kingdoms! Jemisin flips all the expected tropes on their head, doesn’t she? This is the only book I’ve read by Jemisin, and she’s already turned into one of those “must read everything they’ve ever written” authors for me. Now, if only I could get out from under my toppling TBR pile to actually *read* the 2nd and 3rd books in this series. And Dreamblood.

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