The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin
In the best traditions of The Archers, a nightly radio soap much loved by the British, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin is an everyday story of godfolk. As creation myths go, this has an inner circle of three gods, their children and all the worlds they brought into existence. Except, to keep the whole story-telling thing manageable, we are only on one world (almost all the time). Anyway, these gods had a war. Somehow, gods never seem to be able to get on. All that power and still no interpersonal skills. They fight even though it never solves anything and leaves worlds in ruin as collateral damage. Except, in this war, there was a resolution of sorts. One god reigned supreme, one god was imprisoned in human flesh, and the third was disincorporated — since gods are kinda unkillable, this is a process whereby the body is destroyed but the spirit (or soul, if you prefer) lives on.
Time passes as it must and a balance emerges. The losing god and immediate children are physically limited and under the control of the “humans” ruling this world. Rather in the same way Isaac Asimov’s robots have literal minds and like to play games with the three laws of robotics, so these gods are prone to “misunderstand” commands given to them. This is not always fatal, but usually involves serious destruction, albeit on a limited scale. Think of these beings as weapons available for use by the inner circle of the ruling elite and you have some idea of how the system is supposed to work. Remembering, of course, that the surviving god from the trio (now a solo act) has a local agent to keep them from running amok.
An outsider is summoned into this court of elite rulers. Her destiny was shaped before her birth. This makes her an innocent pawn in the renewal of the “human” political system. On a regular basis, the surviving god’s direct agent ages to a point when he or she is of little further use. At this point, the successor must be chosen. Our heroine, Yeine, in this first-person narrative is the current agent’s granddaughter. She is to have a pivotal role in the process of succession. That means everyone is out to manipulate her. As a political novel this works quite well. Jemisin has produced a series of different structures within the elite itself and in the surrounding kingdoms. While by no means original, the overall view of the society fits the need. Anything more complicated and the novel would get too bogged down in the detail.
There are, however, three problems with the resulting novel (the first part in The Inheritance Trilogy). The first is one of tone. I find the style of writing curiously flat. Although there’s a lot that is potentially exciting, I never found myself involved. In part, because I never had the sense our heroine was ever in serious danger. It’s always a problem with books when you know the heroine must persist through to the end. But there’s no real effort here to “sell” the story. We know she’s a warrior princess but, allowing for the fish-out-of-water, thrown-in-at-the-deep-end of court life, she’s remarkably uncertain for someone so obviously destined for greatness.
The second problem lies in the mystery element to work out who killed her mother and why. This could have been a major plot hook but, in the end, it’s all rather thrown away, being left as a kind of footnote to what has been a revenge motif running through the narrative. This is somewhat ironic because, in the best tradition of all country house murder mysteries from the Golden Age, all the suspects are gathered together for the succession ceremony. The moving finger does go round pointing at the candidates, but the revelation is swamped by the broader canvas of the succession itself. In a sense, everything must be subordinated to picking out who will lead — and, surprise, it’s not going to be who you guess.
Finally, there’s the reason for her ultimate success. The two-souls-in-one-body trope has been done so much better by others. While making allowances for this being the first novel, I can’t suspend disbelief at the arc of growth from barbarian clod (with the clod uppermost) to the superhuman able to survive sexual intercourse with a god in human form. It seems their activities can reduce the bedroom to a shattered wreck but leave her relatively untouched. How come the two-souls thing protects the physical body? Worse, it’s unprotected sex! Not the kind of role-model message authors should be sending to their readers. Just think what would happen if a godling baby is conceived and develops in a human womb. What will the first kick feel like?
So The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is mildly interesting, but not that exciting. Nevertheless, I have ordered the next in the series called The Broken Kingdoms. Hopefully, N. K. Jemisin can pick up the pace a bit.
For the record, this book is one of the 2010 Nebula Awards, 2011 World Fantasy Awards, and 2011 Hugo Awards nominations for Best Novel. It’s also a finalist in the 2011 Locus Award for Best First Novel.