Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemsin

There are so many things I want to say about this book, that I am not sure where to start. Normally, I would try to come up with a clever hook for the review to sum up my feelings for the book in question. But I just can’t do it. My feelings about N.K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms are just too BIG to squeeze into a witty lead. Usually I go into a book knowing little or nothing about it. Even if it is recommended, I don’t always know why. This book was a little different because I was already aware of the racial and feminist undertones to The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms prior to reading it. I already followed Jemisin’s blog and knew some of her political views, and this awareness definitely colored my reading. Certain elements in the story stuck with me more readily than they would with someone who picked it up without prior knowledge.

To say that this book lends itself to a feminist interpretation would be an understatement. I love that the lead character, Yeine, is such a strong woman without being cruel, belittling, or manipulative (too often you see this bitchiness described as “female strength” but it rarely is). She portrays a full range of emotions from wrath to tenderness to despair without ever being diminished or weakened by them. She feels very much like a whole person rather than some idealized figurine or “pocket-sized goddess.”

I also appreciate how many of the male characters are also able to display emotion, although some are more direct about it than others. I don’t get the impression that Jemisin is into male-bashing, which is often present in feminist works. Personally, I believe that the value of feminism is advocating for women (and men) to embrace their fullest possibilities-- emotionally, socially, physically, and intellectually. I don’t think that hating men improves anything for women, and I suspect Jemisin might feel similarly.

But I digress. The most interesting manifestation of feminism in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is the theogony. For the most part, her creation mythos is an exquisitely balanced distillation of Greek, Mesopotamian, and Egyptian myth. It’s very classical. From the Maelstrom came the god of change and chaos-- Nahadoth. Then came the god of order and law-- Itempas. The two warred for ages and in doing so, shaped the universe. Eventually they came to love each other, but then the Maelstrom gave forth a third divine being-- Enefa, goddess of balance-- who interrupted the love affair of the gods. She began tinkering with the world and, in the process, created both divine children and human children.

The goddess Enefa holds sway over both life and death. She embraces change and growth, yet she also has a certain order to her creations. I love that Enefa was not some passive vessel to creation, which is where Jemisin clearly deviates from classical mythology. She actively shapes life and experiments with it, destroying creations that aren’t fit. Nahadoth supports this activity, but Itempas mostly just seems to tolerate it. He doesn’t much like her interference and is very jealous of the love Nahadoth has for her. In some ways, this reminds me of how a man desires a woman, seduces her and then gets upset when she turns out to be pregnant a month later. There is no controlling life, really. It comes where it will.

So Itempas takes Enefa out of the picture-- this has obvious patriarchal overtones. This is ultimately overcome, but I can’t go into detail on that without major spoilers. Let’s just suffice to say that I loved making all of the little connections in the book and being able to think about it on a deeper level. It’s nice to read a book that is entertaining AND philosophically satisfying. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms definitely gave me a lot to think about, and I felt oddly happy after reading it.

The book was very validating somehow.

I am eager to start reading the next book in the Inheritance Trilogy (The Broken Kingdoms), and I am so excited about the possibilities for this author.

Hachette: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin
Image Source: Scanned Cover
Review Copy: Self Purchased
ISBN-13: 978-0316043915

This review was originally published at Kawaii Writing and republished with permission.

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