Owing to sudden insanity in my school and work schedule, I finished this book on November 3, but I only had time to finish the review now. As a result, the first three paragraphs of this review were written at the beginning of the month, and the rest is more recent. So I apologize for any discontinuities.
My first real experience in epic fantasy was David Eddings’ Belgariad series, the first three books of which I devoured in grade seven at the insistence of a friend, who thumped the omnibus edition on my desk one day. Although I had read The Lord of the Rings previously, I call this my first real experience with fantasy because it is the book (or books, more properly) that hooked me on this genre. I've since gone on to read bigger and better fantasy books, but you always remember your first.
Among the more memorable aspects of the Belgariad is the way Eddings handles his gods. As soon as I began reading The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, I was reminded of his personification of a pantheon. I thought back to the conflict between Aldur and Torak, the departure of the other gods, and the eventual arrival of Eriond. I find novels that personify the gods very interesting, especially when they allow those gods to die. There is a vast difference between a god who is invincible and one who is vulnerable in some way; despite both beings having virtually limitless power, and perhaps being creators of life or the world as we know it, one is eternal and the other is not. And exploring the vulnerability of a god fascinates me, as someone who grew up in a society dominated by a single all-powerful, all-knowing, eternal deity.
The eponymous Hundred Thousand Kingdoms nominally worship one god too: Bright Itempas. I kept wanting to foist a Yahweh-like mentality on him, if only because of his role as a somewhat oppressive, singular deity, but I'm not sure this is a valid interpretation. Let's move on: there are two more deities in the pantheon, and then their children form a kind of sub-pantheon of demi-gods, if you will (though Jemisin does not use the term herself). The remaining Big Two are Nahadoth, the Night Lord, and Enefa, stylized by the Itempas supporters as "the betrayer" but known to us mostly as the goddess of life and whatnot.
So the epic backstory, if you will, deals with the conflict among these Elder Gods. After the death of Enefa, Nahadoth and all their children were imprisoned in mortal forms and bound to obey the commands of the bloodline that helped defeat them. Of course, as with any semi-omnipotent being on a leash, that sort of power comes with a caveat, and all commands get obeyed literally.
As far as mythology and worldbuilding go, Jemisin has managed something that, while original, still feels very conventional. Nothing in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms quite jumps out at me and screams for my attention. When I glanced at the Library of Congress classification and saw that it was "Gods—Fiction," I correctly guessed the direction the plot would take. Now, my accuracy in such premonitions is surprising, but it's not a dealbreaker. Originality in story is overrated, or at least, it isn't a problem if the rest of the book delivers a satisfactory experience.
I really loved the magical transportation system Jemisin has set up in the palace-citadel of Sky. Instead of elevators, everyone uses teleporters navigated by thought—which requires a certain amount of concentration to get you where you want to go. This might not be entirely original, but it's certainly uncommon enough to be notable. And Jemisin incorporates it smoothly without much fanfare and minimal exposition, creating a sense that this is just normal, and we have to deal with it that way. I love it when authors incorporate magic into the quotidian operations of their alternate world—if magic really is that common, it should be harnessed for normal activities, like getting around.
Similarly, Jemisin takes the "word is magic" approach, where the language of the gods allows its speakers to shape creation. In this way, scriveners who learn that language can create persistent enchantments based on the gods' alphabet. It is a nice twist on rune magic. On the verbal level, this forms an important part of Yeine's journey of self-discovery as she explores the fundamental differences between the mortals and the gods.
Also, Yeine's persistent powerlessness perplexes and irks me. Jemisin establishes her as a capable and competent heroine who is determined to escape the trap into which she has been thrown by her family members. Yet her she spends most of the novel unable to do all that much except wander around Sky contemplating her doomed fate and conversing with various gods and servants. I don't mind it when a novel is mostly meditative, but there is much less political intrigue here than I was expecting—and what little intrigue we get is uninteresting and unengaging. It's not for Yeine's lack of trying, but she doesn't do much until the climax and her literal apotheosis. By that point, however, some people might have stopped reading.
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms has a lot of interesting elements to its story. Jemisin's take on the incarnation of gods in the mortal world is, if not unique, handled very well. The story begins with an interesting set up, and the resolution is intriguing even if it wasn't what I expected. Unfortunately, it meanders from the former to the latter as if its obligation to maintain my interest is a formality, not a necessity. The book simultaneously promises the epic, political conflict implied by its title and a personal, family conflict. With the emphasis on the latter, the former gets lost in the shuffle. The resulting book is more of a series of conversations between Yeine and other people, with a little suspense thrown in for good measure. It's a good effort, and other people might enjoy it, but for the most part I was underwhelmed.