One Hundred Thousand Kingdoms Review (Hugo Reading)

Posted by Unrepentant Escapist

July 21, 2011 -- 1:35 p.m.

I just got cool news. I signed up for the writing workshops at Worldcon and one of my workshop leaders is going to be N.K. Nemisin, which makes the timing of this review fun. It will be interesting to see what she has to say about my work, because while she's an awesome author, from what little I've read of her work, our styles will be completely, entirely different. It made me wish I'd submitted something a little more surreal/descriptive than Skin Farm, which is fun but very...well, plain-spoken. Purposefully so, since the main character is illiterate.

The other writer working with our group is Louise Marley, who I've never heard of before, but her body of work looks interesting. I'll have to pick on up before I go.

Anyway, onto The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms: (shouldn't be any spoilers)

HTK came out with more hype for any debut fantasy novel I've seen than Name of the Wind. Because of all the news swirling around it (and because the name made me expect Hundred Thousand Kingdoms = hundred thousand potential novels...), I was expecting some new sword and sorcery along the release of a new NoTW or a new Scott R. Bakker series sort of thing.

What I got was entirely different.

From the get-go, there's conflict. A child whose own mother even never wanted her born. A dangerous new world floating above the crowds, full of people who titter behind their hands at the protagonist, Yeine, who seems to have been brought only to serve as a sacrificial lamb on a chain. A lamb who might not even survive the day, for as night falls, she's being chased by a ravenous half-man, half-beast through glowing corridors, some of which will respond to her very thoughts.

In the back of the book, Nemisin lists her influences. Octivia Butler is among them, which doesn't surprise me, because this book reminds me of Butler's Patternist series in terms of style. The plot also strikes me as Butler-ian. Black girl from 'barbaric' (ironic air quotes applied) matriarchal backwater gets invited to rich white people's court by her maternal grandfather after her mother (who fled the court to marry the protagonist's mother) is murdered.

I point it out the race because it's there, but it's subtle. It's more about the characters than race/class politics.

I like how Nemisin manages to blend a lot of elements into one, not-too-big book. There's a mystery (who killed the protag's mom and why?) politics (need to manipulate one faction against the other) and religion. That last is especially intriguing, and builds the backbone of the work. If John Milton's Lucifer and a few of his angels were kicked out of heaven, confined inside mortal bodies and given to one hierarchical family to be used as weapons, it would be a bit like this book.

Since family conflict and religious conflict are two of what I love to see most in fantasy literature, this one hits most of my sweet spots. My only quibble was that I'd like to see more try-fail from the protagonist, who has gods at her beck and call. It seems like, with all that power, she could try to do something more. I understood that she was a) in a new place, b) limited by the fact everyone else around her also could command the gods and c) that none of her scurrilous family could be fatally harmed by said god-weapons, but still, I would have liked to see her try more, even if it meant failing. One scene in particular would have resonated more if the villain had caught a god-weapon spying on her instead of just singling him out because she wanted to hurt someone.

That passivity reminded me a little of Butler as well. In books like Dawn, she'd put the characters in situations where they were completely helpless (or only had the illusion of free will) and make her readers squirm. I loved that style when I first read it, but am a little less enamored of it now, maybe because I feel far too helpless sometimes in my own life and I read (like the blog says) for escape. For the belief/illusion that one person can be powerful and potent. And the protagonist in this book is powerful--but not because of her choices, but because of what others made her.

The obligatory romance also wasn't my cup of tea. Since being sexually assaulted, I don't have much truck with women falling in love with men who could violently hurt them even if, theoretically, the men 'didn't mean to.' But I understand that my taste is not everyone's. Also, I wished I could have seen a little more of the female gods.

That said, this book was tremendously awesome. I enjoyed the book a lot and thought it was beautifully written. The setting was fantastic fun. From the first pages, I was hurtling through, hungry for more. I almost started reading it again from the beginning as soon as I put it down.

The style is definitely on the literary side, which I love to see in fantasy, because as much as my own style is pretty simple, I like to see variation in a genre. One of the interesting things Nemisin does is, instead of a straight narrative, the character is constantly engaging in asides--sometimes from her present self, sometimes from her future self looking back--very complicated, but it never lost me as a reader even though Nemisin's juggling so many balls.

I especially enjoyed the conversations the protagonists had with 'herself.' You'll understand what I mean if you read the book.

For a sample of her style, take this excerpt from one of my favorite scenes (Minor spoiler, naturally. Well, kind of, since it's out of context):

[I]n that sliver of time, I felt the power around me coalesce, malice-hard and sharp as crystal.
* * *
That this analogy occurred to me should have been a warning.
* * *
Rish swung. I held still, tense for the blow. Three inches from my face Rish’s fist seemed to glance off something no one could see—and when it did, there was a high hard clacking sound, like stone striking stone.

Rish drew his hand away, startled and perhaps puzzled by his failure to put me in my place. He looked at his fist, on which a patch of shining, faceted black had appeared about the knuckles. I was close enough to see the flesh around this patch blistering, beading with moisture like meat cooked over a flame. Except it was not burning, but freezing; I could feel the waft of cold air from where I stood. The effect was the same, however, and as the flesh withered and crisped away as if it had been charred, what appeared underneath was not raw flesh, but stone.

If that bit made you want to read more, go pick up Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. I don't think you'll be disappointed.

I can tell already that choosing Hugos is going to be like picking teeth out of my spine. I also watched Doctor Who's version of the Christmas Carol, nominated as a short, and loved it, even though the science was complete bunk. (Proper frequency, my foot...) I thought it was a new twist on an old classic, and who doesn't like seeing Dumbledore as Scrooge? Or a shark pulling a sleigh? This is must-see Christmas watching, along with Futurama's X-mas episode and the Grinch Who Stole Christmas (the cartoon, not the Jim Carrey version).


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