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Review: N.K. Jemsin's The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Diverse Books Alert!

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So, along comes a fantasy novel I wish I'd written, a tale of high magic, a palace in the sky, a barbarian princess in over her head, a seductive god with many hands, who comes when you call him in the night.... It's not new, but it's new to me, so I'm going to tell you about it. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemsin is a perfect book for people who want sex, romance and full-bodied characters along with their battles and lore. I found myself marveling, as the gears started to crank and I started to be drawn into Jemsin's world, at just how well she did everything--voice, writing, plot.

The writing is moody and atmospheric: Heroine Yeine says, "I ran from the Nightlord through the halls of the light." When she escapes into a wall, and asks where she is, her guide answers, "'...dead space in the body of the palace. All these curving corridors and round rooms. There's another half a palace in-between that no one uses....'" One of the best set pieces establishing the atmosphere of the kingdom of Sky, where Yeine finds herself, describes her horror when a maid offers her a pair of human eyes on a wire frame as a fashion accessory. "But the masque itself was peculiar, seeming to consist only of a pair of bright blue feathery objects like the eyes on a peacock's tail. Then they blinked."

And, not to put the book in a niche, but this is just kind of book the #weneeddiversebooks hashtag people are talking about, since the main character is a brown-skinned woman, who is not pretty and doesn't make much of her looks, and the overall gender and sexuality in the book is fluid--something I particularly love. We do need diverse books, and this is an excellent one.

Since I'm writing a book in the same space, it's interesting to me to see what rules people can break, and which ones they stick to. I found The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms innovative in asking readers to understand a lavishly developed magical world with a lot of unfamiliar features, plus the history and intrigue of a political system, plus the active pantheon of gods taking part in affairs. That is a lot to keep straight when the task is to write a page-turner, and Jemsin pulled it off. Where she stuck with convention was in making a fairly straightforward, heroic, likeable heroine, and keeping the good guys good and the bad guys bad (with a few surprises and betrayals, naturally). I think she needed that spine of convention to tell this epic tale, and I'm really looking forward to seeing where she takes the characters in Book Two.

My favorite part was the unconventional part, namely segments, conversations, perspective-shifts dropped into the text that at first don't make sense, and then start to later, as events reveal themselves. The first few paragraphs are disorienting (and made me put this book down about five times before starting to read it), but once I got into it I flipped back to them repeatedly throughout the book, discovering new meanings and letting them create new tension. I also really loved how she playfully inserted backstory and sometimes wound the clock back to tell or explain something--Yeine's narrative voice let the writing have a lot of fun.

A last note is that Yeine, the heroine, is from a matriarchal barbarian society that historically treated men something like women have been treated in human society. Chauvinism feels sour to me no matter who it's directed at, and Yeine made a few "weaker sex"-type comments about men that made me wince. At first I was tempted to give Jemsin a hard time for this, but then I thought of the 10,000-million novels about early male-dominated societies (including all historical romance) that whitewash the chauvinism, and I decided that this way is better. It was ugly; let it look that way. All fantasy novels are better with a large dose of reality, and this one was one of the best.