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The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms - N.K. Jemisin

This book had a lot of hype when it was first released, followed by a backlash that seemed primarily motivated by the fact there is romance in it. Now that I’ve gotten around to reading this, I did not enjoy it, but that had less to do with the fact that the protagonist hooks up with a dark god than that the story just isn’t very interesting.


Yeine is a young woman who travels to a distant land and gets caught up in court politics over her head – standard fantasy stuff. The story is told through Yeine’s first-person narration, looking back on events, and her voice is the one aspect of the book I sort of liked. On the one hand, it is strong and assured, and the digressions and circling back to add new information and asides to the reader give the sense of a person actually telling a story. On the other hand, this voice – reflective, detached, polished – clearly belongs to a writer, while our 19-year-old Yeine is supposed to be the warrior queen of a female-dominated barbarian tribe.


I say “supposed to be” not only because she doesn’t sound anything like that, but also because she doesn’t act like it. In her actions she is astoundingly passive, a Generic Female Protagonist used as a pawn by everyone around her, who spends most of the book waiting for events others have set in motion. Such passivity not only leaches interest from the story, but prevents me from even classifying it as epic fantasy. The defining characteristic of that subgenre is a struggle between good and evil. There’s evil here, thanks to the gratuitous acts of brutality that are apparently required in all fantasy novels in the Game of Thrones era (I say this as someone who loves the Song of Ice and Fire series, but could do without the often out-of-place attempts at grittiness in every other fantasy novel). But there’s no struggle. Yeine doesn't try to fight back. She's an object of others' actions, lacking goals of her own; she quickly gives up even on the modest aspiration of surviving her royal family’s backstabbing, hoping only to accomplish with her death an act suggested to her for their own benefit by some characters she’s just met, who have then agreed to assist her people, who are never even introduced. Now tell me that sounds like a rousing plot.


Other than Yeine, there are fewer than a dozen characters in the book, most of whom are plot devices with at best one character trait. And although there are supposedly a hundred thousand kingdoms, all the action takes place in the bland, white imperial city of Sky. Jemisin develops the world’s mythology, but not its present; there’s no sense of life in it. Back to poor Yeine: she’s supposed to have come from a matriarchal society in which the government and army are all female, but upon arriving in Sky, where almost everyone in power is male, has no reaction to or comment on this difference. An easy mistake to make in a setting lacking sufficient culture for anyone to be a convincing product of it.


Yes, you can find fantasy much worse than this, but I found nothing here to hold my attention: not the plot, not the characters, not the world. I’m glad other readers enjoy Jemisin’s work, but after reading a book and a half (the half was The Killing Moon, which I finally set aside because while technically better than this one, it had not inspired even minimal interest), I have to conclude that it is not for me.