The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
"The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms" by N.K. Jemisin was a great read. I gave it a solid 4 star rating.
In my book, 4 stars means that if I lend you a physical copy of the book, then I expect to get it back so I can read it again in the future.
The book has as a central premise that one of the universe's three gods has been forced into service for one group of humans. There are also a handful of lesser godlings that were created by the three gods that have also been forced into serving the same group of humans.
This small group of humans in turn uses the divine power at their disposal to dominate the rest of the nations of the planet; hence the hundred thousand kingdoms in the book's title. It appears that they use this divine power sparingly, preferring instead to act through a sort of massive parliament that gives some measure of representation to each nation.
The division of divine power harkens back to morality in the early days of Dungeon & Dragons in gaming. D&D began with the idea that being good equated to being lawful. Similarly, being evil equated to being chaotic. Neutral was in between as one might expect.
Later editions of D&D introduce the concept of being "chaotic good" and "lawful evil".
The one area where the rulers do lavish a bit of divine power is in the construction and maintenance of their castle/city that is located in the sky. Ms. Jemisin had a very complete vision of such a city and shares it with the reader in loving detail.
The thumbnail sketch of the plot is that there was a war. The now ruling group of humans aided one of the gods in the war. As a result, another of the gods was killed....or so we think...and the rest were subjugated and sentenced to serve the humans that had been so helpful.
The daughter of the king falls in love with someone from one of the outlying nations. Apparently such things are rare but do occur on the fringes of the noble family. It was unheard of for someone so close to ruling to divert away from ruling.
The daughter leaves to marry and live in the remote nation. She in turn has a daughter who ends up leading the remote nation. Throughout her existence, this granddaughter has only known that her people suffer because her mother left the capitol to be with her father. An embargo of sorts was placed against her homeland. She presumes that the embargo was the will of her grandfather.
Eventually, she is called to the capitol. She is recognized as a member of the royal family and declared to be one of three family members who will become the next monarch after her grandfather's impending death. The other two candidates are an aunt and an uncle. As you might imagine, there are some politics involved in just about everything that happens after that point.
Ms. Jemisin tells an intriguing and entertaining tale in a fully developed fantasy world that is imaginative and largely functional.
If this review has raised your interest, then please go borrow or buy this book and enjoy the read. Nothing that follows will enhance that experience. There aren't any spoilers, but I'm using the spoiler space just to save folks the trouble.
What follows is tangentially related to the Hugo kerfuffles that have been growing recently. You have been warned.
There is one defect to the plot. It isn't fatal, but it is there.
One of the issues that has been discussed with respect to the Hugo awards is the nomination of works based on the message/politics contained within those works. As a lot of science fiction/fantasy/speculative fiction contains overt political messages, the primary complaint is actually two-fold.
1. That less than superior writing has been promoted for the Hugos primarily based on the message within the writing.
2. That the messages in the promoted pieces has largely been leftist/socialist.
I have read more about this issue than I care to admit. I have read far more about this issue than any sane person might, but I care about the genre as much as I care about individual liberty. I have read from some of the genre's luminaries such as Eric Flint and George R.R. Martin. I have read from many lesser lights as well. I think the following is a pretty reasonable summary of how we got to where we are.
A. The field of science fiction and fantasy has grown tremendously over the last 50 years. That is good in that we have vastly more good things to read. That is bad in that there are so many good things to read that it is impossible for any normal reader to have a complete grasp of the entire genre. There are going to be factions.
B. There has been some preference for works with leftist messages. It has not resulted in anything close to a total blackout of non-leftist fiction. It has not resulted in a blackout of "fun" fiction. I believe it is safe to say that on a continuum, there has been a perceptible shift at the least.
C. Part of the reason for the perceived shift has more to do with the promotional efforts of publishing houses than it has to do with politics. There is largely two "teams". Team "Tor" which allegedly promotes purely leftist message fiction and team "Baen" which publishes authors from a variety of perspectives including a socialists. The Tor folks have not done themselves any favors by having some of their senior executives cast aspersions towards authors that do not toe a fully leftist line. But I think that part of the issue is that the Tor folks seem to do a pretty good job of behind-the-scenes networking to promote the authors in their stable.
A side note on this is the apparent fact that independent publishing houses have seen their sales grow significantly which has made the traditional publishing houses less influential.
D. And lastly, different people are going to have different preferences. I think sometimes that fact gets forgotten.
Ok, so what the heck does all that have to do with "The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms"?
One major plot point is that the kingdoms are all kept in line by the gods working at the direction of the royal family. There are some observations about the control of wealth, but there is also the presence of free trade. There are some observations about eons old grudges between nations being unresolved, and here it is the monarchy that willingly uses those divine powers to stop all wars.
So we have a world where nations must live in peace with one another, negotiate, respect each others' borders, and a world that prospers as a result of free trade.
Within the context of the book, why is this a bad result? It is never really explained.
One example of the imposed restraint is presented in the back story of the king's granddaughter. Her nation is a sort of matriarchy; political power resides with women. There is no explanation as to why this exists. It is implied that they are largely either stronger or more adept at combat than men. Yet it is implied that the army of this one outlying nation is mostly male; or at least men do most of the fighting against the armies of other nations.
Part of the ritual of passage into adulthood in that nation is that women must fight and beat a man in single combat. Formerly, men would be kidnapped from a neighboring nation. Those men could then be killed as part of a girl's ceremonial transition into being a woman.
So absent the central authority, not only will the various kingdoms be at war with one another, at least one will be kidnapping boys/men for use in the ceremonial rite of passage for women.
Again, why is that central authority such a bad thing?
Perhaps this is where I am bringing something to the book that the author did not intend. It has become increasingly fashionable to criticize American influence in the world. We are broadly accused of enforcing a sort of hegemony that is not terribly different from that in this fictional world. That criticism of American influence is akin to the criticism of the fictional monarchy; something is identified as bad without an adequate explanation.
We are just supposed to accept that hegemony is a bad thing. Why? Because, hegemony!
Again, I give this a solid four star rating. It was definitely a page turner as my family can attest; I ignored them a lot while I was reading it. Spend the money (or visit your library). You will not be sorry.
The only way to make it a better story is for the control of the central government to be genuinely oppressive to all of the nations. As presented in the book, it is only bad for one nation for reasons that have little to do with the function of the monarchy and a great deal to do with petty individual politics. Give it a read to find out more.
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The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin