The hundred thousand kingdoms (Inheritance trilogy)

The hundred thousand kingdoms / N.K. Jemisin

The hundred thousand kingdoms is the first book in the Inheritance trilogy. The books in the trilogy are fairly loosely connected though, and feature completely different POV characters, so I’m going to treat them separately here.

Jemisin is now notable for the racist, gendered harassment she received after giving a speech in Australia where she had the audacity to speak up about sexism and racism in the SFWA. It’s unfortunate that this is what she’s known for, as she’s well worth reading.

This is one of those books that I first encountered when emptying the book drop at the public library where I used to work. It seemed interesting and it was by an author that I had never heard of before, so i decided to check it out. It’s not the fastest read in the world but I certainly enjoyed what I found.

Brief plot summary

Yeine is a barbarian from the frozen land of Darr. Summoned to the city of Sky (named for the giant castle in the sky), she is named heir to the throne. Thrust into a competition with the reigning king’s niece and nephew that she doesn’t understand and stalked by the gods kept as slaves by the royal family, Yeine struggles to avoid becoming a human sacrifice and protect her homeland at the same time.

So how is it?

It’s pretty good. It definitely has some of that “first novel” feel, but Jemisin manages to create a compelling story while avoiding the vast majority of the epic fantasy clichés that plague the genre. Along with Jemisin’s other work, it’s notable especially for it’s rejection of the classic, European-inspired pastoral fantasy setting. The world of the Inheritance trilogy is unique, with its own culture that does a lot to defy one-to-one comparisons with real-world groups. Even Yeine’s background as “barbarian from the frozen north” is not copied wholesale from Howard or Leiber. Issues of race and identity are incredibly important, and Jemisin’s world is incredibly diverse. The phrase “hundred thousand kingdoms” is not hyperbole and the world is ripe for further exploitation.

The big “hook” in the series is the captive gods – the royal family has enslaved three gods and treats them more or less like toys. It’s an interesting concept and really helps to set the series apart. Jemisin manages to write the gods as distinctly sympathetic beings but never treats them like super-powered normal humans. It jelps to enhance the epic feel of the book while still keeping the cast size manageable.

The hundred thousand kingdoms does feel a little awkward at times. This coupled with the politics-heavy, convoluted plot weigh the book down at times. That’s really the biggest weakness here.

Like Erikson, Jemisin refuses to play the “noble savage” stereotype. While Yeine’s cultural background gives her some advantages, the society where she was raised definitely has problematic aspects. I think the occasional awkwardness of the writing stems from Jemisin’s attempts to avoid standard fantasy pitfalls. The later books in the series suffer less from this, I’m assuming because of Jemisin’s additional experience.

Recommendation

It’s a great book for fantasy fans, especially those tired the standard conventions of the genre, or those interested in broadening their literary horizons in general. It’s not really a “crossover” book, as much as it stands out in the genre it’s still firmly in the genre, so it’s not going to convince skeptics of the merits of the genre.

It has a lot of the complex character interactions of George R.R. Martin,  but lacks most of the explicit violence and extensive character deaths. That’s not to say that this is a “sanitized” book, but it’s not as explicit or extreme as Martin.

This is a book I recommend regularly to people looking for fantasy novels. It’s unique and interesting and people generally like it. In some ways I prefer Jemisin’s Dreamblood books to this series (they’re a little less “cosmic”), but the Inheritence trilogy is more of a “traditional” fantasy than those and the fact the second Dreamblood book is largely about incestuous sexual abuse make me recommend The hundred thousand kingdoms slightly more often.

Cross recommendations:
The killing moon / N.K. Jemisin –  The first book in Jemisin’s Egyptian inspired fantasy series
Throne of the crescent moon / Saladin Ahmed – more of a swords-and-sorcery book than this one.
Parable of the sower / Octavia E. Butler – This is post-apocalyptic sf, but deals with a lot of the same themes.
A wizard of Earthsea / Ursula K. Le Guin – The first Earthsea book is my least favorite, but it’s another example of great secondary-world fantasy that isn’t a reduced Tolkein or an expanded Robert E. Howard/Fritz Leiber.

I should probably add Daniel Abraham to my cross recommendations for this book but the more I look back on the Dagger and coin series the less I like it so I’m not likely to recommend it in general. Still, if you like Abraham then this series is a good bet.

 

 

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