Review of N. K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (Orbit Books, 2010)

Jeff suggested to me yesterday that he’d be all right with me posting this before Friday, so I hope this entry is not ill-timed. If it is, Jeff, feel free to take it down!

Now here’s the review:

More spheres floated in this room, dozens of them. They were fantastically varied—of all shapes and sizes and colors—turning slowly and drifting through the air. They seemed to be nothing more than a child’s toys, until I looked closely at one and saw clouds swirling over its surface.

Sieh hovered near as I wandered among his toys, his expression somewhere between anxiety and pride. The yellow ball had taken up position near the center fo the room; all the other balls revolved around it.

“They’re pretty, aren’t they?” he asked me, while I stared at a tiny red marble. A great cloud mass—a storm?—devoured the nearer hemisphere. I tore my eyes from it to look at Sieh. He bounced on his toes, impatient for my answer. “It’s a good collection.”

Trickster, trickster, stole the sun for a prank. And apparently because it was pretty. The Three had borne many children before their falling-out. Sieh was immeasurably old, another of the Arameri’s deadly weapons, and yet I could not bring myself to dash the shy hope I saw in his eyes.

“They’re all beautiful,” I agreed.

It was when I reached this passage, on page ten of N. K. Jemisin’s debut novel The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (forthcoming from Orbit Books in 2010), that I fell in love.

Before reading this novel, I was familiar with Jemisin’s writing through her short stories. As the editor of PodCastle, I’ve had the pleasure of running two of them: “Red-Riding Hood’s Child,” which divided the audience very strongly into camps of love and hate, and “The Narcomancer” which is forthcoming as PodCastle’s next giant-length episode (text available at Transcriptase). Both are strongly voiced, dark pieces that reflect a distinct and unique perspective.

From talking to Jemisin at conventions and reading her guest posts at The Angry Black Woman where she writes as Nojojojo, I knew that Jemisin’s most comfortable length was the novel. Since I had seen her accomplish unusual things with short stories, I was looking forward to this book. When Jemisin mentioned she had a single advanced reader copy left to pass out to someone who’d agree to review, I pounced.

Jemisin’s novel takes place in a world where a single empire, headed by the Arameri family, has conquered one hundred thousand kingdoms. They enforce their colonial adventures with the power of four enslaved gods, all of whom hate their masters but lack the ability to escape.

Some years before the novel begins, the daughter of the Arameri ruler ran off with a noble from Darre, one of the weaker and more remote of the hundred thousand kingdoms. She gave up her position as the Arameri heir and bore a daughter, Yeine Darr, who would grow up to rule her father’s tribe.

Yeine Darr seems content with her life in Darre, until her mother dies and Yeine is summoned to her grandfather’s court where she is named as one of the heirs to the hundred thousand kingdoms. Now, trapped in her grandfather’s palace, Yeine must navigate an unfamiliar culture, defending her life against the machinations of her treacherous cousins, and searching for secrets about her mother’s death. Her only advantage is an uneasy alliance with the enslaved gods who are clearly using her for their own, mysterious ends.

The book is immediately compelling, featuring a masterful set of opening chapters. The exposition unfolds at an exciting rate, creating effortless wonder as the reader discovers the novel’s world in an organic, credible way. The setting details are specific, unique, beautiful, and believable, with some truly stunning writing:

There is a rose that is famous in High North. (This is not a digression.) It is called the altarskirt rose. Not only do its petals unfold in a radiance of pearled white, but frequently it grows an incomplete secondary flower about the base of its stem. In its most prized form, the altarskirt grows a layer of overlarge petals that drape the ground. The two bloom in tandem, seadbearing head and skirt, glory above and below.

This was the city called Sky. On the ground, sprawling over a small mountain or an oversize hill: a circle of walls, mounting tiers of buildings, all resplendent in white, per Arameri decree. Above the city, smaller but brighter, the pearl of its tiers occasionally obscured by scuds of cloud, was the palace–also called Sky, and perhaps more deserving of the name. I knew the column was there, the impossibly thin column that supported such a massive structure, but from that distance I couldn’t see it. Palace floated above city, linked in spirit, both so unearthly in their beauty that I held my breath at the sight.

The altarskirt rose is priceless because of the difficulty of producing it. The most famous lines are heavily inbred; it originated as a deformity that some savvy breeder deemed useful. The primary flower’s scent, sweet to us, is apparently repugnant to insects; these roses must be pollinated by hand. The secondary flower saps nutrients crucial for the plant’s fertility. Seeds are rare, and for every one that grows into a perfect altarskirt, ten others become plants that must be destroyed for their hideousness. (p 3)

The main character is well enough portrayed, a stoic woman who has been trained as a warrior, and maintains a calm, efficient rationality in the midst of conflict. She’s overshadowed, though, by the excellent characterization of the gods — Nahadoth, the Nightlord and Sieh, the trickster. (There are other gods in the book, and even in Sky, but these are the two that most impress.)

Sieh is an interesting and contradictory figure, an immortal who remains a child. The childlike trickster figure exists in many mythologies, but Jemisin does an excellent job of interpreting the archetype. She approaches the paradox bluntly but intelliegntly, allowing Yeine and Sieh to discuss the practical and philosophical ramifications of being an eternal child. Scenes between Sieh and Yeine are simultaneously unpredictable and credible, alternately supporting and subverting the reader’s perceptions about how women and children behave.

It’s clear early in the text that Yeine will have a romantic relationship with Nahadoth the Nightlord who shares many traits with the archetypal brooding hero. Nahadoth is described early on as a savage god of destruction, though his inclinations appear to be more complex than that. He is a god of chaos and change. Having been enslaved for centuries, Nahadoth is wrathful and bitter as well as dangerous and unpredictable.

In some ways, Nahadoth resembles the lately popular vampire lovers — eternal, handsome, dangerous, unpredictable. However unlike many vampire swains, Nahadoth’s motivations are fully fleshed, allowing him to manifest behaviors that exist apart from the romantic narrative. Jemisin also addresses the question of why someone like a vampire or a god would be attracted to a young mortal, though I won’t expand on how in the interest of avoiding spoilers.

Importantly, Nahadoth’s characterization deepens over the course of the novel, but remains consistent with his personality and powers. There’s no suggestion that he becomes safe simply because he’s romantically interested in Yeine. The sex scenes between them are legitimately frightening, the tension woven so that pleasure and violence seem like easily plausible outcomes.

The novel has some flaws. The ending is not as satisfying as the beginning. Too much of the book’s narrative tension derives from the sense of mystery, leading to a feeling that the questions that drove me through the text were more interesting before they were answered than after they were resolved. A few last-minute reveals were not adequately foreshadowed.

Still, this book was one of the best I read in 2009. It’s well-considered, well-written, and well worth reading.

For those readers who are interested in race, sex, and sexuality, the book offers some intellectual lures. It’s certainly not necessary for readers to be interested in these issues to enjoy the book — the plot and characters are clearly intended to stand on their own and they do — but as Jemisin’s political writing establishes, she’s an astute analyst of race, gender, and sexuality, so it’s no surprise that this manifests in her text.

My analysis of these issues in the novels will be incomplete for several reasons. One, alas, is time. Another is spoilers — it might be interesting to come back to this with a deeper analysis after the novel has been published.

The most obvious connection to race in this book is the main character’s heritage. Her father is a person of color from the Darre while her mother is one of the white colonialists, the Arameri. (Of course “person of color” and “white” are historically entrenched definitions that would make no sense outside our world, but since we’re interpreting this book from our world, it makes sense to consider these definitions.) Yeine was raised by her father’s people. She identifies with the marginalized people. She doesn’t look like the idealized white, tall Arameri. She is brown, short and marked as other.

Just as in the real world, colonialism is racialized in the hundred thousand kingdoms. Brown-ness is marginalized and subject to the military whims of whiteness – even moreso in the text than in reality, since the Arameri employ godly powers to ensure subjugation.

More subtly, the novel plays with race, slavery and power in the form of the gods. Brown divinity is denied and chained to serve, or killed and written out of history. Brown power creates wealth and convenience for white masters.

The gods are always rebellious, sly, testing for opportunities to escape or cause havoc. The cost of enslaving them can be extremely high as Yeine learns when she dreams about the experiences of an incautious ancestor. This reminded me somewhat of the arguments put forth in slave narratives, emphasizing the emotional and moral costs of enslaving others. Power is never simple – one must always be wary of those one conquers or enslaves.

The Darre exist as a counter-example to some of the Arameri’s colonial excesses, but their matriarchal, warrior-oriented society poses other ethical questions. Jemisin creates several shocking rituals which serve to initiate Darre women as warriors. I’ll reveal the one that seems least like a spoiler – a recounted ritual in which female warriors capture a man from a nearby tribe, forcibly circumcise him, and then use him sexually. It’s suggested this sometimes ends in marriage.

I was surprised by the strong disgust that the description of this ritual evoked in me. It’s obviously disturbing, but when I swap the sexes in my head, I can think of similar kinds of practices that exist in the real world. I’m a jaded reader and usually inured to the technique of sex-swapping, but this was a case in which Jemisin was able to use it to good effect and provoke shock I might not otherwise have experienced.

The discomfort I experienced when reading about Darre rituals – mixed in with their good qualities and the sympathetic Yeine – made me wonder what kind of work could be explored in this setting. It’s extremely difficult to create convincing, interesting matriarchies. They often swing toward utopian or dystopian. Even ambiguous ones usually fail to present a credible, coherent sociological framework. I think the undercurrents of violence and power in the Darre rituals have potential to be part of a credibly imagined matriarchy, and it would be interesting to see what happened if she developed the society further.

As I wrote this review, I corresponded with Jemisin a bit. I had initially wanted to discuss some points about race she brought up at a panel, but those turned out to be tangential to the review. Our conversation turned to sex and sexuality instead, and Jemisin pointed me to some writing she’s done on Yeine’s sexuality. I had also known that Jemisin was interested in writing slash fiction, both from her comments on her story “Red Riding Hood’s Child” and from her blog entries.

My initial reaction to Jemisin’s article on Yeine’s sexuality is that I’m disappointed she didn’t end up including Nahadoth’s sex-changing capabilities in the novel. Jemisin relates that her readers felt that such investigation made it “too obvious that I was trying to make a statement about human sexuality and my beliefs,” but it doesn’t require a large leap of logic to think that a creature that can change his physical attributes to suit his partner’s desires might change his sex, too. It’s hard to interpret reader reactions like Nahadoth’s changing during sex to become female “took [Yeine] into primordial Id territory” as anything but sheer biphobia. And while I understand Jemisin’s statement that her first purpose “with this novel… is to entertain my readers,” I find the statement somewhat disappointing because it seems to cut bisexuals out of the category readers.

I was most intrigued by Jemisin’s note to me that she’d changed the narrator’s sex. Now Jemisin was quick to add that the novel has changed significantly in the ten years since she wrote Yeine-as-male and that her positions on gender and feminism have evolved since then.

Still, I found myself wondering about the effect the sex-swap has had on the novel. Yeine is an interesting character because she is calm and rational, but violent when necessary, a mix of traits that mostly code masculine in both our world and the Arameri’s. Yeine’s lack of femininity increases her otherness and her danger when she’s thrown into Arameri society. It also increases the conflict between the two societies. When the Arameri threaten to destroy the Darre, it’s a powerful moment because it’s clear that the Darre lives aren’t all that’s at stake – it’s very easy to compare the loss of matriarchies in Jemisin’s universe to the lack of matriarchies in our own. (It’s possible this was meant explicity; some people think there used to be matriarchies and that these were destroyed. Depending on the person making the argument, the destruction might have happened in pre-history, or could even have happened as a result of real-world colonialism. Personally, though, I’ve never seen evidence for matriarchies I found convincing.)

It seems as though the book would be less interesting if Yeine were male. Yet I have to admit that I almost read her as male. I had entertained a vague suspicion during the romantic encounters between Yeine and Nahadoth that the character had been imagined as male at points, even before Jemisin’s note. I don’t know what caused this feeling. It’s entirely possible that these scenes didn’t exist at all before and Jemisin’s note about changed sex was a coincidence. Maybe I was inferring based on having read “Red Riding Hood’s Child.” Or, could something possibly be in the text? Perhaps embedded in the imagination of the character herself? Something that made her seem male, even though female-bodied?

I can’t imagine what it would be. Any of the markers I can think of – behaviors, thought patterns, linguistic choices – really should not determine sex. The more I think about this, the more it disturbs me. It will be interesting to see if anyone else has a similar reaction, or if a reread will help me isolate what was triggering those feelings.

You can’t go grab this book for yourself yet because it won’t be out until February, but it is available for pre-order on Amazon. Also, the first chapter is available as a sample here, with the next two chapters scheduled for release in January and February.

9 comments on “Review of N. K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (Orbit Books, 2010)

  1. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    Rachel–perfect! No problem at all. And although I didn’t get as much reading done on the book tour as I meant to, this is on my list to read before it comes out.

  2. Andrew Breitenbach says:

    Jeff, is the book self-contained? Amazon lists it as book one of a trilogy, so I was wondering how trilogy-ish the plot arc and ending were. Thanks!

  3. Rachel Swirsky says:

    Hi Andrew,

    It is apparently part of a trilogy, but the only way I know that is from checking on Amazon. The book is entirely and refreshingly self-contained.

  4. Andrew Breitenbach says:

    Oops! Rachel, did you write the review? Sorry about that — I thought you meant Jeff wouldn’t mind you posting his review a day early. Or something.

    That’s great about its self-containment — I find as I approach my doddering early middle age that I just can’t bring myself to read works where the main plot arc spans multiple books, especially when the later books have not yet been written. Call me overly artsy, but I’d like to read a novel, not a sequence of events with something nominally exciting staple-gunned to the end so that one feels somewhat appeased until the next installment comes out.

    Anyway, the book sounds great, so onto my Amazon wishlist it goes!

  5. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    I would love to take credit for Rachel’s posts!

  6. Rachel Swirsky says:

    No worries. It’s easy to miss post authorship sometimes. Over on the political blog, that’s occasionally useful, because people will grab some statement I made and blame it on the blog owner, then go rag on him instead of me in their private forums or whatever. ;)

    “I find as I approach my doddering early middle age that I just can’t bring myself to read works where the main plot arc spans multiple books, especially when the later books have not yet been written. Call me overly artsy, but I’d like to read a novel, not a sequence of events with something nominally exciting staple-gunned to the end so that one feels somewhat appeased until the next installment comes out.”

    Ahem. While I can be persuaded to read trilogies, I feel much the same. For what it’s worth, one of the other books I reviewed — Soulless by Gail Carriger — is another example of a self-contained beginning to a trilogy. Racing the Dark, although beautiful in many ways, is not.

  7. Larry says:

    I’ve had a copy of this book for about a month now and it is very difficult to resist reading it yet (I decided when I received it that it would be one of the first books I read/reviewed in January 2010). This review is making it even harder to resist reading it right now. Sounds like it’ll be exactly the sort of book I’ll want to read :D

  8. Alex Cohen says:

    To Andrew: it’s part of a trilogy, but the three books have different protagonists, take place over a fairly long time period, and each has a self-contained plot.

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