Debut novel The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (2010), by N.K. Jemisin, has been getting quite a bit of love around the blogosphere of late, attracting praise for its characters, unusual secondary-world setting and polished prose. It's a book I've been looking forward to reading for a while; I've enjoyed Jemisin's thoughtful and forthright blogging, at The Angry Black Woman and elsewhere, for a few years now. She very kindly gave me an ARC when I met her, briefly, in Montreal last year; I waited to read it until closer to the release date and then, of course, failed to make the time to write my review. (I am one of life's great procrastinators.)
While I don't quite share the rapture expressed about the book in some quarters, I found it to be an assured and very accomplished debut: a fantasy fish-out-of-water story, set primarily in a floating city called Sky, with a war between gods for a backdrop. This is large canvas stuff.
The story is told, retrospectively, by its central character, a young woman named Yeine, who opens the book with some evocative lines:
I am not as I once was. They have done this to me, broken me open and torn out my heart. I do not know who I am anymore.
I must try to remember.
While the style of what follows is neither as fragmentary and unreliable, nor as conversational, as I'd hoped - there remain plenty of long dialogue scenes that are presented straightforwardly - Yeine is nevertheless cagey on some issues, and given to interrupting herself. She pauses to query her memory of certain details, recount snatches of folk tales, or digress into episodes from her youth, and that of her parents; sometimes she interjects lines that she wishes she had said. At times, she second-guesses her own gloss on things, and reflects on the way she is depicting her world:
Not the gods that remain in the heavens, who are loyal to Bright Itempas. There are others who were not loyal. Perhaps I should not call them gods, since no-one worships them anymore. (How does one define "god"?) There must be a better name for what they are. Prisoners of war? Slaves. What did I call them before - weapons?
First-person narration and narrative tension always make somewhat uneasy bedfellows. On the one hand, the writer is tempted to lay on the foreshadowing (and thus we get "It was not the worst of the days to come" and so on); on the other, the reader can be fairly secure in the knowledge that no day can be that bad, or else the story would not be being told at all. The former remains a slightly clunky device even when the narrator has a habit of jumping around in her story; but, thankfully, Jemisin demolishes the latter hurdle by having Yeine note, casually, around 150 pages in, "and that is how I ended up here, dead".
By that point, as it happens, I was already sold. Yeine is an appealing lead: bitter, yes, and (in the events she's recounting) often out of her depth, but also outspoken and capable and unhesitating in her willingness to help and protect others. There are several layers of duality to her. She is the daughter of a very much frowned-upon relationship between a scion of the Arameri imperial elite and a 'barbarian' Darre tribesman from the subjected northlands. She is thus of two races, two social classes, and two cultures. Raised in the north and summoned south to Sky, as the story opens, by her maternal grandfather, she is of both worlds and neither; her whole life is centred around continual negotiation of her self, her status, and the prejudices of others (notably physical: being short, dark-skinned and curly-haired, she is not only far from Arameri standards of beauty, but instantly marked out as different, not-belonging). It's a conflict that becomes much more acute once she is in the floating city, but it isn't new to her.
Yeine has some prejudices of her own. Her antipathy to the Arameri is not without justification, as I'll discuss in a moment, but it does alienate her from a part of herself, and hamper her interaction with the less objectionable members of the Sky elite. In addition, Darre society is matriarchal. "[I]n my land, only weak women allowed men to protect them", she notes; Darre men are "our last line of defence, their physical strength bent toward the single and most important task of protecting our homes and children". As a result, Yeine has some trouble taking men entirely seriously:
I took his hand and held it while he bowed his head and trembled and fought to keep control of himself. He led and protected the servants here; tears would have made him feel weak. Men have always been fragile that way.
Jemisin never explores this quite as much as she might, though, and doesn't weave it into the story as comfortably as some of the other character and thematic elements - such as Yeine's duality, and her identity as someone beyond that duality, who combines both worlds and yet is distinct from them. This theme is echoed in the event that kicks the plot into motion. Yeine has been summoned to glittering, decadent Sky ("the Arameri's home; business is never done there. This is because, officially, they do not rule the world") not because her ailing grandfather her some grand reconciliation in mind, but because Arameri succession operates on a sort of survival of the fittest principle. As he explains:
"It is very simple. I have named three heirs. One of you will actually manage to succeed me. The other two will doubtless kill each other or be killed by the victor. As for which lives, and which die--" He shrugged. "That is for you to decide."
It is also there in the book's central mythology:
There were three gods once.
Only three, I mean. Now there are dozens, perhaps hundreds. They breed like rabbits. But once there were only three, most powerful and glorious of all: the god of day, the god of night, and the goddess of twilight and dawn. Or light and darkness and the shades between. Or order, chaos, and balance.
The aftershocks of the war between the three gods is still felt in Yeine's time. Itempas, the god of day, reigns supreme; those on the losing side were - as the quotation at the header of the post describes - trapped in human bodies and given over to the Arameri. They eke out an existence in Sky, as prisoners of the Arameri and the keys to their imperial power. They must obey every order given by an Arameri - although, in true mythic style, they don't always interpret said orders quite as the people who give them might wish. They are, as Yeine says, weapons:
But sometimes, sometimes, their masters call them forth. And then there are strange new plagues. Occasionally the population of an entire city will vanish overnight. Once, jagged steaming pits appeared where there had been mountains.
It is not safe to hate the Arameri. Instead we hate their weapons, because weapons do not care.
They are also the Arameri's playthings, as Yeine discovers when she befriends the child-god Sieh. The Arameri - most of whom will never be in contention for the throne, so voluminous is the family tree - have had many years to devise elaborately cruel ways to relieve the boredom of being two steps away from absolute power. They abuse their human servants - who are, without exception, minor members of that same family tree, in a subtle commentary on the way power operates hierarchically and oppressively even with an elite group - and they abuse their immortal ones:
"I could be older," [Sieh] said softly. "If you'd rather have me older, I mean. I don't have to be a child."
I stared at him and did not know whether to feel pity, nausea, or both at once.
"I want you to be what you are," I said.
His expression grew solemn. "That isn't possible. Not while I'm in this prison."
The gods heal quickly, but are not immune to pain, and some characters - like Scimina, one of Yeine's opponents - take considerable satisfaction in exploiting this.
This exploration of the dynamics of power and the allure of having power over others was, for me, was the most interesting (and disturbing) aspect of the book. Even Yeine, although she resists the slaver's mindset as far as she can, because of her revulsion for everything the Arameri stand for, comes to understand the desire:
Consider: An immensely powerful being is yours to command. He must obey your every whim. Wouldn't the temptation to diminish him, to humble him and make yourself feel powerful by doing so, be almost irresistible?
I think it would be.
The Arameri are who they are, and their culture is as oppressive and arrogant as it is, because they've grown accustomed to having this power over others; degrading others has become central to their identity and self-worth. The more they feel their power and status threatened - and among the Arameri, as I've said, there are many who are a long way from the top of the heap - the more they seek security in reinforcing the hierarchy. Beating their slaves reminds them that at least they're not at the bottom. (Oh, so many real-world parallels...)
The central figure among the enslaved is Nahadoth, the Night Lord, fallen counterpart to Itempas and the embodiment of a host of dualities - not least, male and female (although in practice we largely see 'him' as male, here, and Yeine uses male pronouns for him). In his human shape, he has two natures, which manifest at set times: by day, his power is masked and he is rational and tender and vulnerable; by night, his power is unleashed in callous violence.
His hands released me, but he did not move away. I danced away instead, and hated myself for it when I turned to face his smile. It was cold, that smile, which made the whole situation somehow worse. He wanted me - I could see that plainly enough now - but sex was the least of it. My fear and disgust pleased him, as had my pain when he'd bruised my arms.
It was with Nahadoth, however, that I parted ways with the book, or more accurately with the story that Jemisin wants to tell within this world: namely, the developing relationship between Yeine and Nahadoth, which begins as an intriguing and attractive thread in the tale, but gradually overwhelms the rest of the plot and characters in a welter of scenes in which our heroine moons over the hot, brooding immortal guy. (I gather that the original title of the book as The Sky-God's Lover, which in retrospect might have been more appropriate.)
Thematically, it's still interesting, and it does accompany at least one quite fun further layer of Yeine's duality. And there were still some nice touches that transcended the immediate love story, about the way gods and humans relate to each other:
He laughed softly; the bitterness had returned. "Oh, Yeine. You really don't understand. If mortals were truly nothing to us, our lives would be so much easier. And so would yours."
But it was no longer (quite) the same story I'd been enjoying; where did all the court intrigue go?
Not quite for me, then, but very well done nonetheless. I look forward to the next book. In the meantime, Jemisin's official site is here, and you can read her Nebula-nominated short story 'Non-Zero Probabilities' here.