Finished my first Book Club book, albeit a little late (and I haven’t even started on Dust yet, fortunately I’ve read it before). This first book was N.K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms.
The book is about (and narrated by) Yeine Darr, the still fresh ruler of the small country Darre, up north. Her Arameri mother ran away from her homeland; and her father, the king of the world; when she was young to marry a non-Arameri. So Yeine, although raised Darre, is also half Arameri. And as the book starts, her mother has recently been murdered and she has received a summons from her grandfather to come to the capital city of Sky.
Once there, she learns that her grandfather, Dekarta, is getting older, and has designated her his third heir besides her two cousins. Over the next days, Yeine strives to learn more about the circumstances of her mother’s death, since she is convinced one of the Arameri family has done the deed, or at least ordered it done.
While working on this, Yeine meets that which allows the Arameri to rule the world: captive gods, used as tools and weapons after they were conquered by their brother/uncle, Bright Itempas. The gods want to be free, and they convince Yeine to help them pull this off. When Yeine learns that her purpose is not to be a true contender for the throne but instead a sacrifice necessary to transfer the power, and that the gods have been using her for longer than she thought, matters get complicated.
Review (there will be spoilers but I’ll try not to go overboard)
I’m a bit in two minds about it. It has intriguing world building,with the many, many small(er) lands overruled by Sky only because they have the captive gods to do their bidding and thus force them to behave. I also liked that, despite worshipping of Itempas becoming mandatory, the different lands keep their culture. Too bad we were not really exposed to any of it, not even the cultures of Darre and Sky, beyond superficial glimpses here and there. Although we do see more of Sky, than of Darre.
Darre is a matriarchal society, with a strong warrior culture, and men are protected as prize horses. Of Sky we only see what is going on there, the actual lands surrounding it, hardly even mentioned. The city, however, is Arameri only. The only people allowed there (overnight, anyways) are family members. And that means that down to the last servant, everyone has Arameri blood. The level of purebloodedness is indicated by a marking on the forehead. And in turn, that marking determines how much control the person has over the captive gods. To be in Sky, at night, without a mark is very dangerous.
Yeine gets a fullblood mark, even though she technically is a halfblood. This makes her power over the gods almost absolute, only Dekarta can overrule her. At least, that’s the plan. Except that by the time she gets the marking she has already agreed to assist the gods, and her marking has been neutralised by them. The gods have agreed not to harm her.
I found the idea of a god killing his sister and enslave his brother and his children into human captivity refreshing. I don’t think I’ve read something like this before. It also made the desire of these entities to be free again, and how far they would go for it, much more believable. After all, they are gods, they made the universe, they were free to take whatever form they choose, and now they’re stuck on a planet, in a shape that is more or less unchangeable, and that for centuries.
The characterisations of the captive Nahadoth and Sieh were well done, they really became people to me, with a history and feelings and good qualities and flaws; as did Yeine. With the other characters, however, I felt this much less. While I get that not every character can be as well fleshed out, it was disappointing that most of the often used secondary characters felt like cardboard to me. Viraine was okay, but Scimina… She’s Yeine main rival for the throne, yet she never becomes more than the standard villain-because-we-need-one. What drives her, and her treatment of Nahadoth, is never made clear. Relad was very promising in the beginning, but got neglected later on, which made his sudden semi-importance near the end come out of the blue.
Then Yeine herself. While we get a good idea of her personality and her appearance, the way her culture has influenced her versus how things are in Sky gets glossed over. I presume this has a lot to do with her mother’s influence on her, who was after all the heir to Sky untill she ran off, but Yeine shows remarkably little cultural surprise to how basic things work in Sky. Even something as seeing men being treated as something other than a show horse, to be kept at home and safe, should have taken some adjustment after growing up in a culture like hers.
For me the biggest turn-off however, for at least the first half of the book, was the jumpy narrative. The story is told as a big flashback, but is often interspersed with short bits of Yeine in the present just talking. Most of this are loose remarks, disjointed comments, and often she will later remember or forget something she mentioned earlier. These bits were terribly off putting at first as they interrupt the flow of the story, and their purpose is unclear. All it did for me was annoy me. Halfway through, though, when we learn that Yeine is sharing her body with the soul remains of the goddess Enefa, things change a bit, and for the better. From that point on, the interruptions become more and more internal dialogue between Yeine and the soul of Enefa, and they start to frame the story better.
In the last few chapters, as the end ceremony takes place and, of course, nothing goes as planned, it all finally fell into place. The pace of the plot picked up, and when Yeine died and became the goddess Enefa… That for me felt as the beginning of a story. It sort of worked as the ending, but it somehow made the rest of the story very trivial and more a too long prologue. The other bits that happened, with Kurue and Viraine, felt a bit like Jemisin pulled a rabbit from her hat. Viraine… it was to be expected that he would do something, that he had something to hide was pretty clear throughout the book, but Kurue came out of nowhere.
I liked the book, even though the narrative threw me off. It was because of that mostly that it took me way longer than normal to finish the book. I’m interested in the sequel, but as I read that this has a different heroine, I’m not sure I will actually pick it up. I want to know more about Yeine’s adventures as a goddess, and more about Naha & Sieh. The review at Jawas Read, Too, gave the book a 7, and that’s a grade I think is quite fitting.
Pro: Nahadoth & Sieh. You should read the book just for them.
Con: Jumpy narrative, not always very cohesive, and sometimes slow-moving.