Tuesday, January 4, 2011

N.K. Jesmin - The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

“We don’t call them gods,” Viraine smiled faintly. “That would be an offense to the Skyfather, our only true god, and those of the Skyfather’s children who stayed loyal. But we can’t call them slaves, either. After all, we outlawed slavery centuries ago.”

That was the sort of thing that made people hate the Arameri – truly hate them, not just resent their power or their willingness to use it. they found so many ways to lie about the things they did. It mocked the suffering of their victims.

“Why not just call them what they are?” I asked. “Weapons.” (p. 44)

The story that we start with seems fairly standard. Yeine is an out of the way heir to the empire’s throne, and she’s thrown into the battle for succession. The fact that she’s a barbarian to boot just adds another touch of familiarity. When she gets there, we meet the scheming, evil sister and the nonchalant brother, and we’re introduced to the various nations and various plots.

All of that, however, soon becomes almost a side story. Intertwined with the main story and buried under the various political machinations is a drama on a far greater scale. The Arameri have three enslaved gods in their palace, the super weapon that’s given them their preeminence, and those gods are planning to make a bid for freedom and strike back at the god who betrayed them. And Yeine is their key to freedom and the vengeance that goes with it.

The mortal and immortal dramas play off one another brilliantly, and the dichotomy between them is reflected in the prose. Jesmin’s writing is clear and fast paced, but, for all that, it’s got a twisting, digressive quality that hides greater depths than are at first apparent. Yeine’s narration is always factually accurate, but she plays with chronology and the difference between the Yeine narrating and the Yeine of the novel is a stark one, felt strongly as the prose debates with itself:

In a child’s eyes, a mother is a goddess. She can be glorious or terrible, benevolent or filled with wrath, but she commands love either way. I am convinced that this is the greatest power in the universe.

My mother –

No. Not yet. (p. 90)

For two plots to play off of one another, both have to succeed. As such, it’s a shame that the politics in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms fails to live up to the grand backdrop that it’s been given. Towards the beginning of the novel, Yeine asks another character:

“It might be wise for me to meet with others in the palace who are influential. Who would you suggest?”

T’vril considered for a moment, then spread his hands. “You’ve already met everyone here who matters, except Relad.”

I stared at him. “That can’t be true.”

He smiled without humor. “Sky is both very large and very small, Lady Yeine.” (p. 64)

That sentiment sums up the politics of the novel fairly well. The important players are brought on stage quickly, and everything else is glimpsed from such a distance that it might as well not exist. Of course, it’s fine to have a more focused novel; there’s no city state minimum requirement to be considered an epic fantasy. 

But the small feel of the world hampers Jesmin’s themes. She tries to show us how the Arameri are so dominating, how they trod across other cultures without even being properly aware of it, but those other cultures are so one dimensional that it’s hard to really care.

The disconnect between theme and content is most apparent with the Darre, the barbarian people that Yeine comes from. The Darre are set up as a fiercely matriarchal society. We are told that females fulfill the important and dangerous roles and that men are weak and to be protected. And yet, with the Arameri, Yeine surrounds herself entirely with men. She references Darre and compares the Arameri to it constantly in her thoughts, yet her actions don’t seem even remotely traceable to that background.

Of course, what we know about the Darre feels like enough to fill an encyclopedia when you compare them with their neighbors. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is a title that makes you think of a vast world, but what we actually see of it is so small that the novel could have been written about two cities without much loss of content. We hear of the city’s politicians ordering vast territories around at a whim, but the game has no more weight than a game of Risk. This was, perhaps, intentional – it would, after all, be a powerful image to see the society’s leaders bossing around whole cultures like they did not matter. But, without first having gotten a sense of the nation’s they’re leading, it’s hard for the reader to humanize them any more than their rulers do.

In the end, it’s simply hard to care about the politics when there are gods on stage. At one point, Yeine goes to try and stop a war with the night god, Nahadoth, in tow. In the process of intimidating them, Nahadoth kills half of their delegation in a horrifying, effortless, and incomprehensible way. From that point on, it’s a it hard to be terrified of the soldiers.

Still, the gods stealing the show has some advantages. The various gods are a joy to read about, and, for all that they’re immortal and all that, they’re the most comprehensible and sympathetic characters of the cast. The trickster god, Sieh, is as adept at inserting himself into the reader’s confidence as the characters, and the others are all as vibrant on the stage as he is.

Of course, with the gods we come to the book’s biggest point of controversy: the romance. From the first time we see Nahadoth, the relationship can be seen coming. Now, it certainly is a tad (or more than a tad) over the top, but I think it’s relatively believable that a love affair involving an all powerful deity might be a bit melodramatic at times. But as the book continues and Nahadoth’s character grows more multifaceted, his relationship with Yeine remains shallow. Whatever genuine chemistry there might be between them is so buried by Bad Boy clichés that it’s hard to see their romance in any other terms, and it doesn’t help that it’s all capped off with a sex scene that involves potentially supernatural genitalia. 

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms tries to accomplish a lot. It delves into the history and metaphysics of its world to a degree that you’d think impassable in a novel so (comparatively) slim, it parallels two larger than life conflicts, and it’s got (some) fascinating characters. A good many of those interesting ideas fail to reach their true potential, but enough do that Jesmin’s debut is interesting overall. How much you’re willing to forgive for ambition is, ultimately, up to you; for myself, I’ll be reading another of Jesmin’s books at some point, but I’ll be hoping that she manages to match her aims with her ability more closely next time.

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