In The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, we have an inventive reworking of some excellent themes of political fantasy. It’s not cliché, but there are pieces and scraps of it that indicate a long and cozy relationship with the genre. There’s a young warrior-woman out to get revenge. There’s a corrupt ruling class ripe for the toppling. There’s a battle for the throne. There’s a religious order hiding a Deep Dark Secret. But out of these familiar elements, N.K. Jemisin makes something entirely her own.
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (those who fear drowning in dozens of made-up country-names can relax. We never really interact with more than three of the supposed hundred thousand nations) are ruled by the corrupt and all-powerful Arameri family. The Arameri were the lucky beneficiaries of the Gods’ War, which left several gods enslaved in almost-human form under Arameri control. Enslaved gods turned out to make very handy weapons of war.
Yeine is half-Arameri, but lives in the barbaric north as a young warrior-leader of the Darre people. After her Arameri mother’s mysterious death, Yeine is abruptly called to the capitol. Congratulations, says the supreme ruler, you’re now engaged in a vicious battle to the death for my throne! And so Yeine spends the next weeks vying for power with her seriously sick cousins, flirting unwisely with the enslaved gods, and pursuing her mother’s suspicious death. Excellent plot-twists ensue.
Overall, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is engaging, vivid, and inventive. My qualms are less like Critical Concerns and more like individual preferences. For instance, I generally struggle with first-person narration. It jars me. It tends to make the climactic scenes less legible to me, because I’m used to a slightly-omnipotent voice telling me what the hell is going on. But Yeine has a forceful personality, and I mostly stopped noticing the awkwardness of first-person. My second complaint is a very rare one, for me: I wanted it to be longer. It’s a very complex story, with a large cast and a lot of wonderfully strange relationships. I wanted to get to know everybody and then let them simmer for a while. I wanted expansiveness, where usually I want everything trimmed the hell down (why are fantasy epics a trillion books long. Why are they allowed to have such massive plot-diversions that they end up entirely outside the narrative flow of the book, like an oxbow lake.).
I also disagreed with Yeine’s taste in men. I loved the ambiguity of the romance-plot, and the complete absence of Judeo-Christian sexual mores, but something about the power dynamic between Nahadoth (an enslaved god) and Yeine made me squirm. If you’re a reader of romance, I suspect it’s fairly air-tight: strong, independent woman meets dark and dangerous bad boy, and they proceed to get it on. It’s just that I never liked bad boys. In my experience, dangerous and sexy are mutually exclusive categories. It’s like the girls that are always falling for vampires — ladies, that is a predator, and where is your wooden stake.
But, again, these are personal-level critiques. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms moves beyond my quibbles, and delves successfully into the politics of race and gender. It feels a little absurd to isolate the political aspects, because it implies that the little-p politics that define our beliefs and social values could ever be separated from our writing. In an interview with the International Socialist Review, China Miéville was asked how Marxism shapes his fiction. He answered, perfectly:
“…it’s simply not something that I’m conscious of. I never think, “As a Marxist, how do I construct this fantasy world?” I never think of this stuff at all, I just sort of get on with it…It’s not an optional add-in in the sense of thinking, “Oh! Got to bring in class into this!” It’s how I see the world.”
I suspect the political aspects of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms are just how N.K. Jemisin sees the world, too. At a fundamental level, the book is about the sickening and dizzying nature of power. The Arameri, the ruling family ensconced in the top of their floating city-castle, are deeply twisted folks on a violent mission to ‘civilize’ the world. They have a lot of racialized notions about savagery and barbarism, and spend some time exploiting the servant class and abusing the enslaved gods (which is… not super smart). Yeine herself is familiar with strength and power, as the ruler of her own small kingdom, but Darr seems to be a more straightforward, honor-bound sort of place. And the gods themselves, of course, are rather fascinating combinations of all-powerful and enslaved.
The gender politics might seem less inventive, at first glance. Yeine is from a matriarchal society in which leather-clad women warriors run about spearing things. But this is a matriarchy with rare depth. Yeine’s self-identity has been shaped by it — she worries that Darre men will have to fight, when their physical strength should be used solely in protecting the home and family. A man stalks towards her menacingly and she is unmoved; their aggression is “an animal trick” they use, and a woman’s job is to know when it’s threatening or posturing. She proved her right to lead her people in a (fairly startling) battle to defend her sexual agency. It’s not merely a matriarchy-as-symbol; it’s a matriarchy as a real and complex political-cultural body.
I can only assume that Jemisin’s work has deepened and grown even more confident since this first book. I look forward to the rest of the THE INHERITANCE TRILOGY, and to the DREAMBLOOD books.