Some of the best fantasy epics involve political intrigue, mingled with the immanence of all-too-flawed gods. If the gods themselves connive too, so much the better. N.K. Jemisin's Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is a wonderful example of this type of epic.
And there will be some spoilers in this review, because the gods ordered it.
In The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, there are three main gods, vaguely resembling Freud's three aspects of the psyche. (In the supplemental material following the book, Jemisin gushes about her love of Freud.) The universe was created by Nahadoth, who's the god of night and seems distinctly Id-like. Then along came Itempas, the control-freak god of daylight, who's definitely the Superego. (And the two brother gods became lovers.) Finally, they were joined by Enefa, the god of dawn and dusk, an Ego-like presence who created all life in the universe. (I may be oversimplifying here. Feel free to jump in and tell me so.)
Anyway, the three gods had a falling-out, and Itempas killed Enefa and chained Nahadoth, leaving Itempas as the sole supreme god. (The three gods also have a bunch of kids, some of whom are chained with Nahadoth.) A human ruling family, the Arameri, are assigned as Nahadoth's custodians and masters, and Nahadoth and his offspring are forced to obey the Arameri – allowing this clan to become the rulers of the entire world. Into this world comes Yeine, the disowned Arameri heir who's suddenly named as one of three possible successors to the Arameri throne.
Yeine winds up having to navigate a double layer of court intrigue, as the other heirs to the throne try to undo her, and she discovers the gods have deep schemes of their own. Raised among a barbarian matriarchal culture, Yeine has to master the intricacies of the Arameri civilization before it devours her. Adding to the fun, the captive gods are required to obey any direct command she gives them – but they take commands very literally, and a carelessly phrased command can be the death of you.
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If the words "warrior princess," "corrupt empire," "mortals having sex with gods" or "clever underdog" make your page-turning hand twitch with excitement, then The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is well worth checking out. (And if none of those things appeals to you, then I can't help you.) Jemisin's world-building is a delight to unfold (and I've only scratched the surface here.) You're left wondering if her world is another planet entirely, a far-future Earth, or a different universe, but either way it's a very different world than our own.
Ultimately, the saga of a complacent/ruthless family that keeps the creator of the universe on a leash is very transparently about the abuse of power, and the ways in which dehumanizating other people can become second nature. The saga of Itempas and Nahadoth, too, becomes a neat case-study in myth-making, as the Arameri spread the misconception that Nahadoth is a kind of Satan to Itempas' God. (We quickly learn that it's by no means that simple.) The harshest, most brutal punishments are reserved for those who insist on worshiping all the gods, not just Itempas.
Thank goodness The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is the first book of a trilogy – with such rich world-building, and the hints that tons of diverse cultures lurk out there beyond the city of Sky, where the Arameri live, it would be a shame not to revisit this setting. My copy of the book includes the first chapter of the second book, which is intriguingly weird and very different from the first.
The one big disappointment in Jemisin's debut novel is Yeine herself – at first we seem to be heading towards a storyline in which she has to kill the other heirs to the Arameri throne, but the novel quickly takes a different path. And that other path leaves Yeine much more of a passive spectator as her fate is tossed around. People, at various points, refer to her as a pawn, and they're not wrong. Even when Yeine triumphs, it's mostly thanks to others, including the gods and pure chance. The novel's ending feels like a little bit of a letdown, although the other two books of the trilogy could easily change that.
And yet, for all that, Yeine is fiery and perceptive, and she does face a series of impossible situations with amazing poise and resolve. She can't be bullied or overawed by emperors or gods, and she's willing to risk a terrible death to pursue an amazing intimacy with Nahadoth, who's danger and darkness incarnate. The scenes where Yeine comes to know Nahadoth better — and she discovers they share more than just their weird captivity — are thrilling and tender. Their growing love story becomes the most fascinating part of an already multi-faceted novel.
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, out Feb. 25, is an impressive debut, which revitalizes the trope of empires whose rulers have gods at their fingertips. It feels suitably big, and yet incredibly intimate as well. And we can't wait to read the other two volumes of the Inheritance Trilogy.