[TW: mention of rape. incest, pedophilia]
Most of the time I can pick up a book, read a few pages, and know if I like it or don’t like it, sometimes it takes a chapter or two, but usually by at least chapter three or so I’ll know if it’s the kind of book I like. I’ve read good books and bad books and books that are so bad they’re good and books I shouldn’t like but do for a reason I can’t name.
And then there are books that are just plain weird.
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is like a new shirt, you try it on in the store and it seems to fit, but you’re just not sure about it, but then you take it home, throw it in the wash, and suddenly you find that you liked it and it fits better than it did in the store.
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is set in a world where defeated deities are enslaved by the ruling class. It stars Yeine, a woman from a “barbaric” Northern people who is summoned to the great city of Sky and named heiress to the king. Unsurprisingly, she is thrust into the struggle for ultimate power, and her only hope of survival may rest with the deities turned slaves themselves.
That synopsis (and every other synopsis of this book that I’ve seen) makes it sound like the book will be rife with political intrigue and subtle power plays and all that fun stuff, and the fact that it isn’t is both a strength and a flaw. Don’t get me wrong, there is an element of intrigue, but it’s not nearly as prominent as the synopses would have you believe. Rather, this book focuses on the world and the relationships between characters (the deities especially) than whispering and backstabbing.
The characters are kind of a mixed bag. Yeine herself is likeable enough, but Scimina and Relad, her political rivals, come across as very one-note (Scimina being conniving and obviously evil and Relad being an apathetic drunk), the real interesting characters are the deities themselves. Sieh is probably my favourite, a trickster and perpetual child who is actually much, much older than he appears to be, and the palace servants, and then there’s his father, Nahadoth, one of the three deities who created the world, who is….complicated….let’s say. Other godlings are Kurue, goddess of wisdom, and Zhakkarn, a war deity, who don’t really get as much characterization as Sieh and Nahadoth.
Another thing I liked about this book was the narrative style. The narration is from Yeine’s perspective and it very much reads as if she is actually telling you a story. Sometimes she goes off on tangents, other times she forgets something and says “wait, let me go back and tell you about this” although some people might find it annoying (and I found some sections very confusing at first) I actually found it quite refreshing and a nice change. Through the narration, Yeine feels less like a character and more like a person. It’s also a pretty diverse book. Near as I can tell, the ruling class seem to be mostly white (Yeine’s mother is referred to as a “bone white bitch”) but Yeine herself is biracial (although she has dark skin like her father) and many other characters are also POCs (also the author is a WOC). There’s a bit of queer representation but that would be spoiling everything. Unlike many other fantasy worlds, the world in the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms doesn’t seem to have a huge sexism problem, with both men and women being eligible to achieve the highest office in Sky (and Scimina is the obvious favourite to win) and many women acting as diplomats and emissaries. The one exception is the Darre, who previously had a much more matriarchal society before the Amn colonized the shit out of them (although they still have traditions like all female military units). It’s nice to see a work that does one or two areas well and completely fails on the third, you know?
That said, I do have some issues with the book. I felt like the political intrigue was played up a lot (both in reviews and from the book’s description), and the fact that it is pretty cut and dry was kind of disappointing. The Amn are essentially decadent and depraved (with a couple of exceptions) at times it seems like the Amn are playing a game of limbo: how low can they go? So if you’re looking for complexity there you won’t find much. There were a couple times where I was a little confused by what was going on, and it wasn’t until much later that something was actually explained.
In terms of potentially triggering content, there’s a brief mention of rape and creepy not really pedophilia but actually it is (it involves a deity who is actually very, very old). There are a couple sex scenes, one (between cousins) is a very brief “we had sex” kind of thing and the other is a bit more explicit (TBH, I found it awkward and kind of hilarious) and one torture scene.
In short, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is a very weird book. It’s a very weird book that will probably confuse you at first, but as you read it will grow on you until you find yourself loving it or you fling it across the room in frustration. There’s a lot of stuff that’s good about this novel (stuff that I’ve tiptoed around because spoilers) and what I didn’t like about it wasn’t terrible enough that I lost interest in the book. Personally, I wasn’t sure about it at first, but now that I’ve read the whole thing I can’t wait to read the next book in the series!