Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms: Review

I've been in a reading slump lately. For about the last three months, the amount I've been reading has reduced drastically, based on the fact it has seemed like the quality of speculative fiction being released has been fairly mediocre; for what I like to read anyway. Regardless, I pop into the bookstore every couple of weeks and grabbed a couple of Tamora Pierce novels for my re-read project and a copy of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms.

And wow. Rating of 5/5 - on the shelf for re-reading.

I read it voraciously. In smoke breaks, while I waited for my computer to start up at work, when I got home, when I got up in the morning. Nora K. Jemisin has restored my belief that speculative fiction publishers believe that there is a market for well written, complex novels that fit into the feminist speculative fiction paradigm.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms revolves around the  first person narrative of Yeine Darr; the daughter of an outcasted Princess. Upon her mother's death, Yeine is summoned to the city of Sky and thrust into a battle for ascension when she is named heir to throne, alongside her two maternal cousins. To make matters metaphysical, Yeine becomes entwined in the separate but linked strivings of the gods of the realm, who are chained to the city of Sky, in subservience to the ruling class.

One of the most fascinating things Nora has done is created a character who comes from a matriarchal culture. While that in of itself isn't out of the ordinary, Nora's character construction of Yeine as a "bit of a chauvinist." She explains:

she does tend to casually assume that the men around her can’t take care of themselves, are more emotionally fragile than women, and generally aren’t much use outside of bed. This is because in her land (which has undergone changes much like our own Sexual Revolution), men have historically been valued solely for their muscles and pretty faces. They’re expected to direct their greater physical strength toward the protection of the home and children, while the women go off to war.

It is exciting to see thoughtful world and character creation. Given the patriarchal nature of society in Sky, it would seem that Jemisin decided to give Yeine a background for a matriachal society to provide a basis for the strong, female character. Yet, it is ridiculous to assume that any type of system wherein one social group is dominant based on gender will not result in some form of bigotry. Thus - we are presented with a character who makes sense in the construction of the wider world that she inhabits. That is not to say that women born into a patriarchal culture must always be submissive internally. But Jemisin recognises that nothing happens in a vacuum.

Indeed, in another score for Jemisin, Yeine isn't another one of those gorgeous, skinny, tall, white characters - who still manages to kick arse with lipstick on, wearing a corset. Yeine is self-described as dark skinned, small - and altogether unremarkable in appearance. It's great to see that publishers (and writers, of course) are releasing fiction that doesn't create female heroines that are completely un-relatable - while they are busy pushing out Joe-comely-neighboor stereotypes for male heroes.

N.K Jemisin has released a number of delicious short stories, many of which are linked to from her blog.


Anonymous said...

You know, I did enjoy the book, but I found the characters slightly flat in a way I'm not sure I can put my finger on. Maybe it's just a personal preference for more backstory, but when I am told so many times about how much a character has "changed" and how "different" her new environment is than the one she's used to, I need more show and less tell.
In other words, I would have liked more narrative from Yeine's past, rather than the flashbacks which I felt did not jive well with the rest of the narrative.
That being said, I agree with your praise of the book, and plan to pick up the other two. Also, I would recommend a few other selections involving very different presentations of female speculative fiction heroes if you're unfamiliar:

Octavia Butler-Fledgeling
My brain still can't quite handle it, man. Just wow.It made me seriously question my own taboos.

Laure J Marks-The Elemental Logic series
The only fantasy series to ever show me a picture of real, actual gender equality in a high fantasy setting.Very subversive.

Tanya Huff-the Quarters series
Genuinely weird, and pretty awesome. Very accessible and reads like butter.

All of these books read like a pie in the fridge-you keep coming back for another slice until the damn thing's gone.

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