Review: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and The Broken Kingdoms, N.K. Jemisin

I hate reviewing sequels. Once I have reviewed the original volume in a series, I have a hard time motivating myself to review the subsequent ones, even if I really, really liked them. Patrick Ness was an exception to this, probably because his books were so insanely good and rich and full of themes to see and tell, and because I so desperately wanted you all to trot out and read them tomorrow. Which some of you did, so goody, mission accomplished. I will not gush quite that much about the first two books in N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy, but I may gush a little.

The premise of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is that there was a war between the three original gods of the world, culminating in the imprisonment of all gods but one, Itempas, by the ruling Arameri family. Yeine, estranged half-blood granddaughter of the current Arameri king, is summoned to the Arameri ruling place, called Sky, to be named as a potential heir to the throne. She becomes unwillingly enmeshed in the plans of frightened mortals and imprisoned gods, and there is all sorts of plot-thickening and god-on-mortal sexy time.

(Sometimes I start a plot synopsis sentence with really good intentions, where I am all “unwillingly enmeshed” and “imprisoned gods”. But then I don’t know where to go with it because I’m afraid of giving too much away to the spoiler-hating crowd, whom I try to respect but whose parameters for spoilers are never quite clear to me, so it all falls apart in the second half of the sentence. Hereafter I shall call this phenomenon a duned sentence. This is clever on several levels, which I will enumerate for you so that you can praise me in the comments. First, it is a reference to Frank Herbert’s sci-fi classic Dune, which is awesome until about halfway through and then becomes desperately lame (I decided on a camping trip a few years ago, and then I read Sunshine instead). Second, the analogy to Dune continues to work even if you push at it a little bit, which my analogies don’t always do (like, if I continued to press on after my plot synopsis sentences had already fallen apart, things would just get worse and worse but I’d be committed by then and unable to stop and neither would my heirs) (shut up, it works). Third, it is a pun because it sounds like “doomed”. Fourth, I thought of it on the spot without giving it any thought at all. That doesn’t make it funnier, but it makes me feel good about myself. I like it when my immediate response is exactly what I would want my measured response to be.)

I can’t describe the plot of The Broken Kingdoms very well without getting into spoilers for The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, so I will just say that it is set in the same world, but has a very different setting and protagonist. Blind artist Oree Shoth is scraping a living in a touristy area of the Kingdoms, until she takes in a dying man with strange abilities. Meanwhile someone has begun killing gods, and the powers that be are none too happy about it.

The narrative voice in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms was the first thing I liked about it, lo these many years ago (or, like, maybe a year and a half ago) when its first chapter was promotionally published online. Yeine is brave and angry and muddled, and she keeps interrupting herself to explain things that need explaining. The reason this works instead of becoming annoying is that she also interrupts herself with seeming non sequitors. My toes? I was kept on them. I feared that Jemisin would not be able to recreate the feat in The Broken Kingdoms — that Oree would be too much like Yeine — but I shouldn’t have worried. The narratives are structurally similar, with the asides, but the narrators are such different people, with different perspectives and backgrounds, that it doesn’t matter.

As the world-building goes, I was very impressed. Not because we saw a wide variety of the eponymous kingdoms — we didn’t, really, in either book — but because Jemisin wove world-building and character-building together so seamlessly. Yeine is an outsider, and the strangeness of Sky contributes to her feelings of being an exile and outcast. When Jemisin describes Sky, she describes how it touches Yeine, makes her life easier or harder. The same goes for the backstory about the gods: it’s relevant because the gods are all up in Yeine’s business, untrustworthy and wanting things from her. You won’t find out what their behavior means for Yeine until you know a bit more about the world of the book, so you have an emotional stake in finding out the backstory.

Plus, I liked the gods. It’s always fun when the gods and the mortals start interacting all over the place.

The plot of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms was, I felt, stronger than the plot of The Broken Kingdoms. With the latter, I started feeling a bit the way people seemed to feel about the seventh Harry Potter book: she’s in jeopardy, she’s been saved, she’s back with the bad guys, she figures out a way to get free, the gods are doing this, the gods are doing that. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms knew all the steps between Point A (Yeine’s arrival in Sky) and Point B (not telling), whereas The Broken Kingdoms sometimes felt like it was killing time and pages until we could hit the conclusion. The plot of The Broken Kingdoms was more interesting to me in theory, but not paid out nearly as well. Minor gripe. I am interested to see how the third book compares.

I have another minor gripe, but it’s mad spoilery, so I will spare you. Instead I’ll tell you that in the first draft of this post, far from inventing the world’s most ever brilliant word that works on so many levels, I made a joke about waiting a hundred thousand years for my hold on The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms to come in at the library, and then mysteriously The Broken Kingdoms was just checked in at the library with no problem, leading me to believe the hold system was broken. Don’t judge.

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