WARNING – Spoilers
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is a tricky book to review.
Like Sorcerer To The Crown, which I reviewed earlier, I first heard of it being mentioned by the social justice crowd, which was a little off-putting. My opinion of social justice is not high; it overrides real justice by focusing on groups, rather than individuals. But as Sorcerer To The Crown was a better book than I expected, I decided I’d give The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms a try. Overall, I rate it 3.5/5.
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms follows the adventures of Yeine Darr, the daughter of a woman who ran away from her aristocratic roots to marry a barbarian man from a barbarian tribe. After her mother’s death, Yeine is summoned to Sky – the home of her Grandfather, who is effectively the ruler of the world – and declared his heiress. Or, rather, one of three potential heirs. As may be expected, Yeine is promptly drawn into a maelstrom of family secrets that may save her – or damn her forever.
The secret of Sky – the power that makes its ruler the ruler of the world – lies in a number of captive gods. These gods, the losers of a war fought in heaven, were bound to human service, making them both powerful weapons and jackass genies. (They have to do what they’re told by their masters, but they are perfectly capable of interpreting a careless command to suit themselves.) Using the gods, Sky has become the master of the world and one of the most hideously corrupt governments in history or fiction. Everyone in Sky is part of the family, but those who are pure-blooded are more important than those who aren’t. This should probably have tipped Yeine off, right from the start, that her promotion to heiress comes with a nasty sting in the tail.
At its core, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is a story of two families; a human family and a god family. Yeine finds herself digging up the secrets of both as she struggles to make sense of her new surroundings, then discovering how she fits into a scheme that goes back millennia. It’s a tangled backstory that doesn’t quite make sense – Yeine, the narrator, is keen to point out that she’s explaining things in human terms – but it holds together reasonably well. Both families are reflections of one another, each influencing the other. There’s a great deal of very good world-building within the story.
And Yeine herself is a very likeable character. The conflict between the two sides of her nature – the highborn aristocrat and barbarian warrior woman – is very clear. She’s a child of both worlds and belongs in neither, which gives her insights that are not shared by either. On one hand, she understands the burdens of power; on the other, she understands the frustrations felt by those who are more capable, yet pushed down by people with better breeding. This is hardly a unique insight, but it stands out here.
At the same time, Yeine actually has very little agency. She is strong and determined, but she only makes one real decision in the whole book. It’s probably the best choice she can make, under the circumstances, but it is still odd. Honor Harrington has much more agency than Yeine ever shows in her first five books.
That said, there are several points that should be addressed.
Yeine does show, at several points, what I would call moral myopia. On one hand, she’s horrified at the treatment meted out to everyone who isn’t on top of the social order; on the other, she doesn’t seem to be aware of how barbaric the other side of her family is, with crimes ranging to an innition rite that boils down to ‘rape or be raped’ to a nasty habit of stealing men from other tribes and forcibly bringing them into the tribe. This may be deliberate, but it’s odd that it doesn’t get lamp-shaded in the text. (But it does get acknowledged on the author’s blog, so it’s probably just a case of unreliable narrator.)
Her main opponent, her cousin, is also stupid. This, again, may be deliberate – she’s pretty much the archetypical spoiled rotten bratty princess – but it’s irritating. It never seems to occur to her that Yeine can throw the succession to her rival, even though (or especially because) her rival is a drugged-up broken man. Would it not have been better to make a deal rather than engaging in pointless spite and puppy-kicking? (I was expecting the rival to reveal himself as a faker, but he didn’t – Jemsin surprised me there.)
Finally, the romantic aspect of Yeine’s relationship with the gods is quite annoying. On one hand, it has airs of forbidden or grossly unwise love; on the other, the book includes a number of scenes of divine lovemaking that are awkward to read. (This book is probably not suitable for anyone under 16.) Yeine even admits, at least to herself, that her mortal lover cannot compete with a god. Sexual betrayal is one of the themes driving the whole backstory, along with many other points.
Overall, there’s a lot to like in this book. The conclusion wasn’t exactly a surprise – I saw where it was going a long time ago – but it seems to work fairly well, following the book’s logic.
I’ll keep an eye out for the sequel.