I’ve encountered many reviews of The Hundred-Thousand Kingdoms, the first volume of N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy. Most of them start with the reviewer claiming that they hadn’t expected to like the book but then found out they loved it. The same goes for me: I did not expect much from this book. To be honest, the blurb sounded a bit boring. The only reason I read it anyway was all of those reviews that told me to ignore the blurb.
This isn’t a mistake on the reviewers’ behalf. The problem isn’t that our judgment has failed us. The actual reason is quite simple. Just read the blurb for this book:
Yeine Darr is an outcast from the barbarian north. But when her mother dies under mysterious circumstances, she is summoned to the majestic city of Sky – a palace above the clouds where gods’ and mortals’ lives are intertwined. There, to her shock, Yeine is named one of the potential heirs to the king. But the throne of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is not easily won, and Yeine is thrust into a vicious power struggle with a pair of cousins she never knew she had. As she fights for her life, she draws ever closer to the secrets of her mother’s death and her family’s bloody history. But it’s not just mortals who have secrets worth hiding and Yeine will learn how perilous the world can be when love and hate – and gods and mortals – are bound inseparably.
This suggest a book about politics and about an ignorant, naïve girl who finds herself in the middle of a dangerous power struggle, where she has to find a way to win the hearts of the people and ultimately, the throne of the kingdom. It sounds more like speculative fiction set in a fantasy world, with some gods as an afterthought.
What the blurb didn’t say
A lot was left out, however. These gods aren’t an afterthought. The Hundred-Thousand Kingdoms is a true gem of epic fantasy with amazing world building, an expansive history and many different forms of magic. It is a story of political intrigue, but more than that, it is a story of mortals trying to find a way to live with the constant scheming of gods.
The role of magic
All of this is set in a world of hundreds of kingdoms, ruled by one family, who inhabit the city of Sky. Though the reader immediately feels the sheer size of this world and its many nations, almost the entire book is set in Sky, thus perfectly balancing the amount of world building against the pace of the story. At the time of this book, Sky is a city in a golden age of magic. Magic doesn’t require learning; people grow up with it and it’s everywhere in the city, implemented in Sky’s technology. As such, magic isn’t the main focus of the book, and it takes quite a while to comprehend what this magic is all about. This will not be confusing, however, as you won’t need to know much about magic because of the role it plays in the story.
Foreshadowing and pacing
First and foremost, The Hundred-Thousand Kingdoms is the story of Yeine, a strong but naïve girl you will instantly identify with, who is trying to find her way in a new life. There is, however, the sense that this story is about more than just the tale of one girl. This novel is written in first person and is the account of Yeine. The account includes significant foreshadowing, as Yeine talks about things that happen later on in the story then interrupts herself to continue the story. There is a danger in employing such a writing style, as it could become quite a cheap way of setting up a story. However, Jemisin has done this in a very skilled, almost artful way, giving away just the right things to give this novel an instantly epic feel.
That’s right, instantly. From the first 20 pages onward, I knew this would probably be one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. It never disappointed me. From the very start, Jemisin took me along on a roller coaster ride with twists and turns, building her world around the story in such a way that she never compromised its breathtaking pace, and eventually leading towards an ending I never expected. The characters I met along the way all felt right to me. Though I must say it took me a while to like the way the immortal gods were pictured, by the end, this too felt right.
Why should you read this book?
If you love epic fantasy, you should definitely read this book. I want to compare it to other great works of fantasy, but I simply can’t. Reading The Hundred-Thousand Kingdoms will be a truly unique experience that I can recommend to any fan of the genre, and I can’t wait to read its sequel, The Broken Kingdoms, which was also released this year.