Thursday, 11 February 2010
‘The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms’ – N.K. Jemisin (Orbit)
One of the characteristics of this blog has been my unfailing ability to be the last person to read a ‘hot new debut’ or ‘next big thing’. I don’t know how I manage to do it, I certainly have every intention of reading these books as soon as humanly possible. No matter how good my intentions are though I will invariably read these books months after the rest of the blogosphere have polished them off and moved on to other fare.
No more though! The plan is to be there right from the start in future, no more turning up late to the party for me! N.K. Jemisin’s ‘The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms’ is a book that several blogs have highlighted as ‘one to look out for’ and the reviews I’ve seen so far have all been positive to a degree. Where better a place to start then for my new found resolution? Where better indeed... ‘The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms’ isn’t without it’s flaws but was an enthralling read nevertheless. I’ll definitely be reading the sequel.
Yeine Darr’s life is a consequence of her mother’s self exile; she lives in the barbarian north, not really a part of her adoptive people and with no idea of her roots. All this is about to change though... Yeine is summoned to the majestic city of Sky and is named as one of the heirs to the throne by the ruler of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. It’s not as simple as it sounds though. The other two heirs (Yeine’s cousins) will do anything to gain the throne and Yeine must find her place in the labyrinthine corridors of Sky before she can even begin to fight that battle. In a city where the lives of the Gods intertwine with mortals Yeine will also find that her every move is being manipulated in ways that she never even imagined. The only thing that Yeine can be sure of is that she will find out the truth behind her mother’s death and the bloody history of her family that has led to this point.
As much as I didn’t want to hang around before reading ‘The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms’ I’ll admit that I came to this one with no expectations other than the positive reviews of a couple of blogs that I trust. Books are hyped for more than one reason and it would be a poor publicity department that didn’t put their weight behind a book when it hits the shelves. Cynicism aside though, books are also hyped because they’re very good and worthy of praise; ‘The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms’ not only falls into this category but sits there very comfortably indeed, you wouldn’t have thought this was a debut effort from Jemisin.
That’s not to say the book is without faults though. Starting the story from just before its end and then going backwards and forwards, filling in the gaps, is a novel way of building up the big picture but I never really got a sense of things coming together in that manner until a lot closer to the end. What I got instead was a feeling that the narrative was being doled out in a piecemeal manner when a little more cohesion could have made all the difference in terms of things flowing more smoothly.
In a similar vein Yeine’s story is told from a first person viewpoint (hers) and this does prove detrimental to the smooth running of the plot, especially when she realises that she has forgotten something and brings the main thrust of the story to a halt while she goes back and recounts what she missed. While this approach makes a sense when you finally see what she is going through at the end, it also has the effect of occasionally derailing the plot when it starts to get interesting. Cliff hangers pop up when there’s really no need just because Yeine forgot to mention something earlier. I found myself wanting these ‘forgotten bits’ to hurry up and finish just so I could get back to the main plot.
Once you get past these issues (or get used to them?) things pick up and you find yourself with a story that demands your attention and rewards you appropriately. Given the ending, where a sequel will come from but one thing I am sure of is that I will be around to see what happens next.
The city of Sky is a place where mystery is piled on top of more mystery. Some of these mysteries are integral to the plot whilst others must be solved merely Yeine can maintain her already fragile position in the court. There is very much a sense of Yeine having to run quickly just so she can stay standing still but that is not to say that plot that the plot itself remains stationary. Things are constantly moving forwards and it’s all credit to Jemisin that you find yourself wanting to make the effort to keep up. Whether a question posed is integral to the plot or not, Jemisin makes it clear how important it all is to Yeine’s future in the city. When you’re faced with what’s at stake then you find yourself having to read on in order to find out how it all ends.
A plot such as this means that there’s a lot of politicking by necessity but, again, Nemisin saves her reader from becoming mired in machination by successfully conveying the urgency in Yeine’s need to get up to speed as soon as possible. Again, once you know what’s at stake you find yourself having to keep reading in order to see how it all comes out in the end.
The setting is lush and glorious with supporting characters displaying a refined sensuality that is conveyed in such a manner whereby it never strays into the realms of pornography. You are left in no doubt as to the intensity of Yeine’s meetings with the Nightlord but Jemisin never has to spell it out for you. I liked that, sometimes less really is more. I also enjoyed the way that the Gods were portrayed over the course of the book; both the characters themselves (Sieh was a personal favourite) and the way that they fit, albeit reluctantly, into the way that Sky runs. You can feel their resentment coming off the page, promising great things for the rest of the book...
Jemisin does well to bring all the plot strands together by the end of the book, just in time for a finale that rounds off the book in style. Like I said earlier, despite it’s early faults you wouldn’t have thought that ‘The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms’ was Jemisin’s debut. I’m looking forward to seeing what happens next.
Nine and a Quarter out of Ten