No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Monday, April 30, 2012

2012/12: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms -- N. K. Jemisin

There were once three gods. The one who matters killed one of the ones who didn’t and cast the other into a hellish prison. The walls of this prison were blood and bone; the barred windows were eyes; the punishments included sleep and pain and hunger and all the other incessant demands of mortal flesh. (p.24)
Yeine Darr's mother was murdered: now she's been summoned to Sky, the god-built city in the clouds which is the stronghold of her mother's people, the Arameri. Yeine, who's of mixed blood and dark-skinned, is treated like a barbarian by her cousins, and isn't entirely comfortable with her maternal heritage. The Arameri are the chosen people of Bright Itempas, the victor in the Gods' War two millennia ago; they are also the gaolers of Itempas' defeated foes, the Enefadah, who built the city and are forced to obey the Arameri.

Yeine's grandfather Dekarta is the current ruler of the Arameri, and may have been responsible for the death of his daughter Kinneth. ("Murdering those we love best is a long tradition in our family.") He wants Yeine as his heir, which does nothing to endear her to her cousins. The political intrigues, decadence and game-playing of the Arameri court would give Yeine plenty to deal with, even if she weren't also drawn into the schemes of the Enefadah.

There are four Enefadah ('those who remember Enefa', the goddess of life and death who betrayed and was killed by Bright Itempas). Nahadoth, the Nightlord, ruler of darkness and chaos and change; Sieh, the Trickster, an eternal child with all the cruelty and playfulness that implies; Kurue the goddess of wisdom; and Zhakkarn the goddess of war. Imprisoned in mortal form, they are as much weapons as slaves; and Yeine is the unknowing bearer of a secret that might free them.

There's a great deal going on in this novel. On one level it's a traditional story of an exile recovering her heritage. On another, it's a post-colonial narrative that discusses race, gender and class. It's an epic romance, an exploration of theology (Jemisin's gods are more reminiscent of the Greek pantheon than of Christianity: they are petty, vengeful, jealous and playful), and a murder mystery.

Yeine's first-person narrative (or possibly narratives) allows Jemisin to show us Arameri culture from the outside without long-winded expository passages. I'm not entirely sure I like Yeine: she's (understandably) somewhat humourless, and very much the tool or weapon of those greater than her. But I find her sympathetic and interesting, even if she's not the character who most intrigues me.

After all the hype about The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, I was prepared to be disappointed. Instead I was enthralled, and promptly (ah, Kindle, so easy to succumb to temptation) bought the other two novels in the series. Of which more later.

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