The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin.
First read / library book: 410/410.
Warnings: violence, death, gore, torture, implied pederasty, other types of rape
It is awesome to read more fantasy by Black authors and N.K. Jemisin personally seems like a pretty cool character. This is her first novel, although she has a whole bunch now.
It’s tricky to elevator pitch this book–okay:
In this world, one family rules a massive empire, perhaps literally the entire world? and their ruler is about to die. Yeine, who is the denounced half-blood daughter of the woman who would have been heir, is taken to the capital city to choose between her siblings. The reason this city has all this power? They have the favor of Bright Itempas, one of the first three gods, murderer of the goddess Enefa, and he has given this family power over the semi-mortal lives of the gods who remain. Surprise for Yeine, and
SPOILERS FOR YOU: Yeine also contains the last living piece of Enefa, and the gods want to pal up to her long enough to cut Enefa free, and in the end bit-of-Enefa dies and Yeine is a god. Right on. MORE OR LESS THE END OF THOSE SPOILERS.
I didn’t love it. I had a hard time following the structure, but also I didn’t get a good enough grip on the human characters to feel fully attached to the backbone of the story, the plot of backstabbing familial politics. I would have liked a stronger sense of that place; she manages to avoid interacting with anyone but gods most of the time, and I think its nature, on a family and global level, would have been better explored if she had been trapped in more of its tedious daily intrusions. There’s a lot of heralding language in cut scenes, but the heralding didn’t all seem to land on anything, and I wasn’t entirely sure where Yeine drew some of conclusions. I also wasn’t entirely sure where some of her choices came from. Basically I would have liked a somewhat tighter script.
The expository cut scenes between Yeine and–well, I thought I could say, at the end, but the language has not entirely sorted out their audience, for me, even by the end. Part of the time they seem to be written to the reader, and part of the time to a floating bit of god; part of the time I am really not sure who’s saying what to whom. They are only kind of expository, anyway, since on a first reading at least they often do more to obfuscate than clarify, and that seems largely to be deliberate.
The gruesomeness in the book is, let me be clear, really gruesome. Since I don’t do well with that, I spent most of the book on my toes in a bad way, and I think that really interrupted my enjoyment of the story. Even when I find gore not to be triggering, as turned out to be the case here, I find that the more frequent and visceral written violence is–especially torture and punishment–the less emotional effect I get from it. This might be specifically a me-thing, but it was the same problem I had with The Lies of Locke Lamora, another book containing many of my absolutely favorite elements that was just too nasty a little too often for me to enjoy it. (Or finish it, in that case.)
Here is what I liked, which are substantial parts, which is why I read the whole book:
THE GODS. Their weird family unit, their shiftingness, their dangerousness, their age, their selfishness. The gods are great.
YEINE. Yeine is great. She is scary as heck and her personality (despite how she “changes,” according to everyone, even before the big change) manages to survive intact in a poisonous place. (Although, again, if the place had been a stronger character, her character would have been even more satisfying.)
THE ENDING. The story finds some serious clarity in the ending, and it’s also massively satisfying. I won’t actually spoil that part. It was GREAT. [NOTE: I did spoil it. Up there in the spoilers. I forgot already.]
If you do not mind the violence and the intrigue part of court intrigue is not that important to you, you will probably love it. What is left is these parts, and there is some really interesting stuff in there.
ON AN UNRELATED NOTE: In my last post about Kelly Link I used the phrase “middle-class malaise” and then realized I lifted the heck out of that phrase from the current prompt at First Line Magazine. THAT WAS BAD. I AM SORRY. IT IS A GOOD PHRASE, THOUGH, SO WELL DONE, FIRST LINE.