Every month I watch Geek and Sundry/Felicia Day’s Vaginal Fantasy book club hangout — basically a romance book club that focuses on urban fantasy, epic fantasy, and science fiction. Sometimes I actually read the books. January’s main pick was The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin, which I did read and which has become one of my favorite fantasy novels of all time. (It was also a Sword and Laser book club pick a couple of years ago, I believe…)
The most striking thing about the book is how unique it feels in the world of fantasy. It takes place in a city called Sky, where the noble Arameri family has enslaved powerful gods, abusing and controlling them for centuries. Pureblooded nobles of this family mark themselves with special sigils on their foreheads, which allow them to command the gods. They have to be careful what they say; the gods will take the slightest statement as a command if it’s worded as such, even accidentally. And the gods have enough power to do almost anything imaginable; they’re considered by some to be the Arameri’s “weapons.”
The protagonist is a 19-year-old woman named Yeine, who arrives in Sky because her grandfather — a man she doesn’t really know — has named her a potential heir to his throne. Dekarta is the ruler of the known world, and Yeine is to compete against two of her cousins for his title. She’s not interested in any of this, but Dekarta is too powerful to ignore or disobey.
It’s dangerous. Her cousins were born and raised in Sky; Yeine is from a backwater country called Darr with very different traditions. The nobles of Sky consider her to be a barbarian.
Her grandfather puts it bluntly right from the start:
“It is very simple. I have named three heirs. One of you will actually manage to succeed me. The other two will doubtless kill each other or be killed by the victor. As for which lives, and which die… That is for you to decide.”
Yeine has to adapt fast as she learns her way around Sky — not just the city, but the lifestyle of these nobles who mostly despise her. She decides that while she’s there, she will try to solve the mystery of her mother’s recent murder. She thinks Dekarta may be behind it, and later suspects Viraine, the court scrivener. So in addition to the unique worldbuilding, the book is now part murder mystery, too.
All of this originality makes The Three Hundred Kingdoms much more flavorful than your traditional epic fantasy. It all comes together to form a peculiar combination, but I loved it.
Meeting the Gods
The gods — or the Enefadeh, as they are called — are easily the most fascinating characters in the book. Although there are about a handful of them, the two who get the most screen time (er, page time) are Nahadoth and Sieh.
Nahadoth is known as the “Nightlord.” He’s the god of night, chaos, and change — and he’s very dangerous. Yeine’s first encounter with him involves him chasing her through Sky; at night, he’ll kill anyone in Sky who doesn’t have the Arameri sigil. He can be terrifying, but he also plays the seducer. Because of how dangerous it is to actually sleep with him, Yeine only does so when she thinks she’s going to die anyway and figures it’s not a bad way to go.
Sieh is a trickster godling who appears as a nine-year-old boy, even though he’s really billions of years old. His playfulness adds humor and warmth to the story, and he takes a liking to Yeine from the start. In fact, on Yeine’s first night in Sky, Sieh saves her from Nahadoth. Yeine comes to love him very quickly; she can’t help it. And what’s great about him is that in the midst of all the political scheming and Yeine’s despair that she may die, Sieh is a light… so as a reader, I felt like I loved him a little bit too.
Language is Magic
The magic in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms has an old-fashioned flair. Scriveners study the gods’ language and can perform supernatural actions by writing in it. They’re the ones who mark people’s foreheads with sigils. As Yeine explains:
“Scriveners learn several mortal tongues as children, before they begin learning the gods’ language. This helps them understand the flexibility of language and of the mind itself, for there are many concepts that exist in some languages that cannot even be approximated in others. This is how the gods’ tongue works; it allows the conceptualization of the impossible. And this is why the best scriveners can never be trusted.”
But as court scrivener, Viraine is essentially staff… so the Arameri nobles can request that he do whatever terrible things they want him to. Normally, the Arameri would just command the gods to do things, but scriveners are the only ones who understand language enough to overpower the gods. That’s one way they’re useful to the Arameri; there’s a heart-wrenching scene that involves Yeine’s cousin Scimina ordering Viraine to torture Sieh and Nahadoth.
I’ve always been interested in language and how we define things, so the idea that words are power in this world is fascinating to me. Writing sigils may have been done before, but it fits well in the seams of the world that Jemisin has built here.
Desire is Always Biased
My favorite thing about the gods is that they can shapeshift. They can take any form they desire — but what would they desire? Desire is a human feature (or weakness). There are forms that are more comfortable for them and others that require more concentration and stamina. However, what really matters is how the people they are with want them to appear.
When he is with Yeine, Nahadoth assumes slightly darker skin than usual, because that is what she desires. She doesn’t say so; Nahadoth just naturally assumes that form around her. He knows what she wants — what she finds attractive — and so he changes form to please her.
This could be a way of getting what he wants — a spectacular form of manipulation — but it often feels less like a choice for him and more like a chore. There is also an element of emotional instability there. Nahadoth’s form is constantly changing shape before Yeine’s eyes. She talks about the tendrils of his cloak moving; I pictured the edges of him like wisps of black smoke.
And after Scimina and Viraine have physically tortured him, Nahadoth has little energy to control himself or heal around humans. When Yeine tries to go see him, Sieh warns against it:
“You can’t… Yeine, Naha needs to heal, just as I did. He can’t do that with mortal eyes shaping him… When he’s weak, he’s more dangerous than ever; he has trouble controlling himself.”
Similarly, the goddess Kurue (goddess of wisdom) says that mortals’ “expectations, your fears, your desires” cause Nahadoth to become a monster; that’s what humans want him to be, so that’s what he becomes.
Against the wishes of both Sieh and Kurue, Yeine goes to visit Nahadoth in his weakened condition. She says she will control her thoughts; she will want nothing so Nahadoth can heal instead of conforming to her secret desires. But it’s hard to turn off that part of her that’s human, the part that desires and gets angry and wants – even for one conversation with someone in hearing range but out of sight, as Nahadoth is during their talk. It’s like humans can’t control their desires, and the gods reflect those desires back at them.
Both Sieh and Nahadoth appear in other forms, but Yeine doesn’t like it. She especially dislikes Sieh appearing as a teenager or young man; she’s used to seeing him as a child, and that’s what she wants him to remain. Meanwhile, Nahadoth at one point disguises himself to attend a ball with Yeine, and he appears with lighter skin when he’s chained in human form during the day with Scimina.
Throughout the novel, Yeine seeks to understand these gods who are now part of her life. As an Arameri, she can control them — command them to do anything she wants — but she prefers to give them free will and asks rather than demands. When Nahadoth ends up helping her, it’s his choice; the other nobles are surprised to hear that Yeine didn’t command him to help her. This is Yeine’s way of denying her desires to let the gods have their own, to whatever extend it’s possible. When she does at one point command Sieh to tell her something about her mother, she can see the pain on Sieh’s face; she’s betrayed him by commanding him. However, most Arameri don’t give their commands a second thought, believing it’s their right to do as they please with the enslaved gods.
Of course, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms isn’t a perfect book. The main problem for me is that Scimina’s “evilness” isn’t really explained. If a story has a villain, the villain needs to be well-rounded, with realistic motivations; the lack of that here weakens the overall story.
The other issue for me is that the writing feels stilted at times. Some of this is because it jumps around; Yeine is telling the story from some point in the future, and she seems almost to interrupt herself or to be interrupted by someone else right in the middle of scenes. I don’t mind this being slightly confusing — it makes sense later in the book — but the fact that the language itself clunks in the way of the story sometimes hurts the book, in my opinion.
But overall, I love The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms for its spectacular characterization. There’s a fantastic scene toward the end of the book in which Sieh kisses Yeine to truly know her. Yeine tastes him as “a sudden burst of something refreshing,” while Sieh then describes Yeine as “soft, misty places full of sharp edges and hidden colors.” The gods Nahadoth and Itempas are described in similar ways; each has a unique flavor.
It’s also refreshing to have a small cast of characters. Though this fantasy feels epic, it’s much more focused than those epic fantasies that have dozens of characters and storylines threading together. I love the intimacy of the first-person narration, too.
I’m moving on to the second book in the series now, which so far gives off a slightly different vibe than The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms – but I’m getting used to it. Even if you only read the first novel as a stand alone, it’s worth it, and it goes by way too fast.