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The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms – NK Jemisin

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Yeah, I know – every blogger worth their salt has already reviewed this much praised debut by NK Nemisin, but, better late than never…

And of course, the beauty of great fantasy is that it rarely dates, so, assuming the remaining books in The Inheritance Trilogy match the quality of this first novel, it seems very likely The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms will have a long shelf life.

In this opening instalment, Jemisin has meticulously created a world of complex politics and religion that is not only epic, but also remarkably original.

Yeine Darr is an outcast from the barbarian north. After her mother dies under suspicious circumstances, Yeine is summoned to the majestic city of Sky – a palace above the clouds where the lives of gods and mortals intertwine.

There, to her shock, she is named one of the potential heirs to the throne of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, forcing her into vicious power struggle with two estranged cousins and a tyrannical system she barely understands.

As she tries to unravel the elaborate schemes of those around her, Yeine draws closer to the secrets of her mother’s death, her family’s bloody history and the role she must play in the future of the world.

The religious complexity of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is one of Jemisin’s most impressive feats. In this world, the move from polytheism to monotheism has been shrouded in lies and half-truths, where the vanquished gods are now enslaved to the ruling family of Sky, and play a pivotal role in its politics.

There’s been a growing trend (particularly in urban fantasy) for young women to find themselves attracted to someone (vampire/werewolf/fallen angel) much stronger than themselves, and who may or may not want to kill them.

Jemisin creates the ultimate dangerous liaison by putting Yeine in the path of Nahadoth, the brooding Nightlord, who is among the enslaved gods. The instability, volatility and omnipresent danger of their unorthodox relationship certainly help drive the story.

Jemisin is a strong and confident writer. She brings together themes of bigotry, religious oppression, destiny and forgiveness in an intelligent, original page-turning novel.

She has a strong narrative style, a gift for characterisation and dialogue, and has created a world that – by the end of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms – is ripe with possibilities.

The extras at the end of this novel hint at a new an interesting direction for the second instalment, and the reaction from blogging world attests to the fact I’m not alone in looking forward to it.

Would you like politics with that?

There’s been an interesting discussion over at Fantasy & SciFi Lovin’ News & Reviews this week about religion and politics in fiction (Hey! Your politics got into my science fiction).

The general consensus among those who commented is that they don’t necessarily mind if the author is making a statement about religion or politics, as long as they’re not using a sledgehammer to drive home the point.

I have to agree. Blatant manipulation is annoying. It also reflects a lack of imagination on an author’s part.

While narrative is undeniably a powerful tool to shift mindsets (more so, than say, a lecture or sermon), the true test of an effective thought-provoking story should be how it encourages the reader/viewer to think about a particular topic. As opposed to being told what to think.

Fantasy and sci fi are ripe for analogy and metaphor, which is why the best stories in those genres often tackle big issues (racism, slavery, climate change, deforestation… even before Avatar…). First and foremost, though, these stories have to be entertaining and engaging, with strong story arcs, solid mythologies and believable characters.  Nobody’s going to argue with that.

But it’s easy to rail against heavy-handed narratives when the themes grate against our own religious, political or philosophical views. I’ve wondered if my objection to stories with agendas is as strong if I happen to agree with a writer’s leanings.

I’d like to think I’d still demand an open-minded approach, but I suspect I’m probably more forgiving if I think it’s a message the world needs to hear.

Anyway, it’s a worthwhile discussion…