The first nominee I chose to read this award season was The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, but N.K. Jemison. I chose this one mostly because I thought the cover art was cool, which is odd because I read the kindle version, which made the cover art its black leather carrying case. As is often noted, cover art tells you little about the merit of the book within, but at the very least, the cover of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms has a bearing on the story. This is not always – or even often – the case in science fiction.
The first in a trilogy yet to be completed, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms take place in a world ruled by a single family. They were the ones chosen to rule the world with an iron fist from their city in the sky after an epic battle of the gods. The losing gods were forced to serve the ruling family as slaves, using their powers to fulfill the whims of the petty aristocrats and secure their hold on the kingdoms of the world. Presumably there are a hundred thousand of those kingdoms, but the world beyond the city is vaguely drawn to say the least.
In comes Yeine, the daughter of the former heir, who left and gave up her birthright after falling in love. Yeine has been recalled to take part in the struggle for the throne against two of her cousins. She’ll have to deal with secrets from her past and about her society and navigate the complex loyalties of the gods.
While reading old award winners from decades past, I would occasionally come across one that made me cock my head and ask, “What the heck is this?” I think The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is that book for this year. In this case, that oddness works in it’s favor. The plot is actually pretty weak. The battle for the throne seems preordained for no apparent reason. There are quite a few moments where you want to ask why she doesn’t just make a different, better choice, but we aren’t given any reasons as to why she can’t.
Yeine herself is a compelling character and her relationship with the gods is extremely interesting and keeps the book moving. Jemisin doesn’t spend much time telling us what this planet is or whether things relate to the real world and that’s a good thing. Things just are and that allows the reader to hop right in from Yeine’s perspective.
All in all, I would recommend this one for the the character sketch of Yeine and the gods, although the villainous family members are a bit two-dimensional. The plot is paper-thin, and the political intrigues might be more compelling if things didn’t seem predestined. I don’t see this as the winner this year, but since this is Jemisin’s first novel, I’ll be very interested to see what she comes up with in future books.