Around three-quarters of the way through the fantasy novel The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, the protagonist complains “I’m tired of being what everyone else has made me.” It’s a valid sentiment from a character who’s theoretically the center of the plot, but whose main purpose seems to be to narrate the deeds of the far more powerful forces acting on and around her.
A weak central character can make a book hard to get through, but there’s nothing disagreeable about Yeine, a barbarian warrior princess who has been named a prospective heir by her grandfather, the ruler of the most powerful nation on the planet. She’s simply a generic element in an otherwise refreshing book. Throughout Kingdoms, Yeine’s rivals mock her for being weak; fortunately the rest of N.K. Jemisin’s debut novel is commensurately strong.
Kingdoms is almost entirely set in Sky, a floating palace where an elite bloodline rules the world with the help of four captive gods. Prisoners of an ancient war, the enslaved deities strike a bargain with Yeine, promising aid in exchange for their freedom. The book is set not only within narrow physical confines, but within a period of just a few weeks, and there’s a constant air of urgency as Yeine does her best to learn about her new surroundings and the merciless intrigue she’s been thrust into. The peeling away of secrets and lies makes for a compelling page-turner. While it has its own satisfying conclusion, Kingdoms is the start of a trilogy set in the same world with reoccurring characters, but different narrators.
As with any new fantasy series, an early chunk of Kingdoms is devoted to laying out the world’s rules and a bit of its history. But once the framework is established, Jemisin skillfully fills it with strange societies, explaining their beliefs and traditions in a way that makes them seem real rather than fantastical. At its heart, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is a story about love and forgiveness, and even hateful characters tend to have moments of human vulnerability that make them sympathetic. But the stars of the novel are the gods who come across as genuinely amoral and alien, capable of emulating humanity but never really a part of it.