As we shamble into the twenty-teens, one of the writers who can truly be said to be going places in fantasy is Brooklynite N. K. Jemisin. With Hugo and Nebula nominations already under her belt for her short story "Non-Zero Probabilities," Jemisin's enthusiastically praised first novel is, at heart, a sumptuously mounted soap opera. It's simply packed to the rafters with secrets and lies, skullduggery and betrayal, lust and anguish, all within the context of the most staggeringly dysfunctional family dynasty one can imagine. It's like Mount Olympus getting a reboot from Aaron Spelling.
On that note, I will say Jemisin sells it. She has a truly impressive skill for taking a plot so labyrinthine it would make a minotaur dizzy and guiding us through it with satisfying clarity. She knows how to time each of her story's juiciest reveals for best emotional impact. And in her heroine Yeine, she's given us a refreshingly imperfect protagonist who is neither shrinking violet nor steely-eyed Amazon avenger. Thrust into circumstances any sane human being would prefer to avoid, Yeine responds convincingly to each new surprise and setback. All too aware of the weaknesses her enemies may use to exploit her, she nonetheless refuses to let herself be stripped of the humanity she's told is the first thing that has to go if she hopes to survive the intrigues all around her. Yeine learns how to be ruthless when she has to be, but that simply bolsters her contempt for how the whole rotten system works in the first place.
The world of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms was once ruled by three gods. But one, Itempas, has deposed his siblings, Nahadoth the Nightlord, the first of the three to exist, and Enefa, who created all mortal life. Nahadoth and the godlings who are the offspring of the original three are now the slaves of the ruling Arameri family, who control the titular alliance of kingdoms from their vast aerie called Sky.
But years before, when the Arameri patriarch Dekarta chose his only daughter Kinneth to be his heir, she scandalized the family by running off with the man who would become Yeine's father. As the story opens, Dakarta is near death. But though he has chosen two other potential heirs, the ineffectual Relad and the archly nefarious Scimina, he summons Yeine — whose mother Kinneth has recently died under dubious circumstances — to Sky and makes her his third heir. Even Yeine isn't convinced he means for her to be the one eventually chosen in the upcoming succession ritual, and she vengefully devotes her energies towards learning who killed her mother. But what she doesn't expect is that Nahadoth and the enslaved godlings have their own plans that involve her, which will propel her toward a destiny she could have never imagined.
Where much epic fantasy is about spectacle, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms prefers intimacy. With Yeine as the first-person viewpoint character throughout, we see the drama unfold through all its head-spinning intricacies entirely through her eyes. It's a canny choice, because although the book's title hints at a truly vast world, we see almost none of it. The billions of mortal lives whose welfare and survival depend on how things shape up in this mother of all family feuds become an abstraction, and it allows us as readers a chilling glimpse of just how impersonal power can be.
This is one of those plots where the secrets and the hidden agendas are as thick as crabgrass. You needn't worry that I'll spoil any of them, because it all defies easy synopsis. But Jemisin has structured her story with great care, handily avoiding the kinds of logic and consistency traps that often plague novels about politics and palace intrigue. Mostly, she manages this by bringing everything down to a personal level. Once Yeine realizes she is the fulcrum of events that are far more vast in scope than she ever anticipated (plus the alarming fact her mother may not have been the woman she thinks), her very determination to learn all she can and survive the machinations of the Arameri drives the narrative.
Jemisin's supporting characters are certainly colorful, even as the whole point of the story is to keep you guessing as to who's really likable and trustworthy. Scimina has the least sophisticated development of any of them, but then I think Jemisin's point is to have at least one character represent just how hollowed out a person can become when pure narcissism and lust for power becomes life's sole ambition. Still, her Cruella de Villishness is often overcooked. I kept waiting for her to throw her head back and cackle. Sieh, a godling whose developmental defects are reflected in his assuming a child's form, gives Yeine an outlet for some maternal affections, though she remains well aware that among the godlings, he's the trickster.
As for Nahadoth, he's the book's richest personality apart from Yeine. But Jemisin disappoints in the way she lets him too often lapse into the standard romance-novel bad-boy forbidden-lover stereotype. There's a narrative purpose to it all, but as inventive as the rest of the story is, it's a frustratingly banal trope for Jemisin to fall back on. (Then again, the Greeks were all about mortals boinking Zeus, so I suppose there's a fine mythmaking tradition being served here.) Still, Jemisin builds a palpable tension between Yeine and Nahadoth that goes far beyond the sexual. We are never quite clear what he eventually intends, a dilemma magnified by his divine reputation as a source of pure destruction, and the frightening changes in his persona from day to night and back again. Together they give the story a strong dramatic core.
There are precious few books in the fantasy genre that can be said to be as refreshingly original in their approach as this one. Yes, it's less great literature than glorious and glorified soap opera. But it's a haunting and heartfelt one, born of a fecund imagination, that will doubtless launch N. K. Jemisin's career towards a hundred thousand greater things.