Saturday, 5 January 2013

Review: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I don't give five stars out very often. I save them for books like this: beautifully and fluently told, with depth of character, setting and plot.

If I did ding it a star, it would be for the fact that I sometimes wasn't sure what was going on. I feel like I need to go back and read it again, because it had so many threads being subtly interwoven, and the young narrator was just a touch unreliable. But somehow or other, the author made the occasional apparently irrelevant infodump into part of the narrator's storytelling style, and not a fault. I wish I knew how she did that.

The young barbarian, who's been raised to do what's right, coming to the heart of the corrupt, cruel empire and becoming caught up in its politics is hardly a new idea (it's practically Epic Fantasy Plot #2), but it's rarely done so well. I felt the claustrophobic sense of the schemes of the imperial family closing in around the unfortunate young woman, leaving her seemingly without options, and yet she managed to remain a protagonist. I liked how she did it, too: she treated oppressed people decently and fairly. The fact that the people were gods was irrelevant to her decision to treat them that way, but not, of course, to the outcome.

For this is what you might call "theological fantasy", in which the gods are characters. Lois McMaster Bujold has done it equally well in [b:The Curse of Chalion|61886|The Curse of Chalion (Chalion, #1)|Lois McMaster Bujold||1129349], and maybe a touch better (for my taste) in [b:Paladin of Souls|61904|Paladin of Souls (Chalion, #2)|Lois McMaster Bujold||819610], but then Paladin of Souls wasn't her first novel (or even her twelfth). A debut novel this good definitely makes Jemisin someone to watch.

The main characters don't always act consistently, and in this they're like real people. The protagonist is capable of decisive action, of bouts of helpless weeping, of outraged compassion and of cruelty under the press of necessity. One of the gods is the god of change, another is a trickster, and they are unpredictable, as they should be.

The minor characters show less depth. The cruel cousin is only ever cruel. The drunkard cousin isn't just a drunkard, but he's not much more. The harsh old emperor is harsh and old and distant. A couple of the gods don't have much to them. The palace administrator is efficient, the creepy sorcerer is creepy. Not every character can have the same degree of depth, I suppose, and not everybody changes in the course of a story. These are minor quibbles.

I wasn't completely surprised by the resolution, but that's all right. It was a good resolution.

The next book in the series is definitely going on my reading list.

One thing about the ebook edition: there are some formatting issues, which from a major publishing house is disappointing. There are often spaces in the middle of words (sometimes after ligatures, but not always), and often missing spaces after italics (again, sometimes but not always). This is distracting in an otherwise excellent book.

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