Right from the start I had trouble with this book. The story is told by Yeine, in a chatty but disjointed style, which hops here and there, jumping back from the here-and-now to fill in some backstory, sometimes abandoning the diversion. I can live with the erratic timelines, although it seems more of an authorial conceit than anything else, but the odd tone is grating. A slightly formal construction will be disrupted by a seemingly modern word, like ‘savvy’ or ‘sicced’. It’s very jarring, and rocks me out of the story at frequent intervals.
And then Yeine herself is an odd sort of character. Her mother, from the ruling Arameri family, married into the northern family of Darr, so-called barbarians, although it isn’t obvious what they do that is any more barbaric than Arameri ways. But when Yeine is summoned to Sky, the seat of the Arameri family, and made an heir and told to fight the other heirs to the death to become ruler herself, she… well, she just seems to shrug and accept it. And in her interactions with other characters, she veers from diplomatic silence to open rudeness, and from violence to meek submission. I couldn’t make her out at all.
The Arameri family have four gods at their command, and they, too, take an interest in Yeine. Again, she simply accepts everything they do. She seems oddly passive for a barbarian girl. And ignorant. She seems to know nothing at all about Sky or its occupants. Did her mother tell her nothing? Do they have no books or other means of education in the barbaric north? Didn’t she want to know?
The big attraction here is the presence of the four captured gods. Jemisin makes them very alien and ‘other’, and I’m a sucker for that kind of skill. The father, Nahadoth, is frightening-alien. Man-child Sieh is creepy-alien. With these two, the male gods, there are strong sexual undertones to their dealings with Yeine right from the start. The two female gods, Zhakkarn and Kurue, are less well-developed initially, although they become more important later.
The plot is minimalist. New heir, finding her way around the city, steering through the choppy waters of family politics, and finding out who killed her mother and why. So lots of ambling around, chatting to this or that courtier or cousin, just happening to stumble onto secrets (yeah, right) and avoiding the amorous intentions of Nahadoth.
I haven’t read as widely in the genre as many reviewers, but even so I found resonances of familiar books here. The three heirs fighting to the death for the right to rule is reminiscent of Daniel Abraham’s Long Price Quartet. The gods embodied but captive, living amongst mortals, reminded me of Brandon Sanderson’s Warbreaker. And the whole business of the orphan who becomes heir, transposed into a new environment, discovering family secrets, feels like one giant fantasy trope.
I understand why people rave over this book. The writing is confident, the plot is not entirely trope-bound and several of the characters are compelling – Nahadoth, for instance, and Dekarta, the current ruler. But so many aspects failed to work for me. The world-building is sparse, for one thing (what are these Hundred Thousand Kingdoms anyway, apart from a striking title?), the disjointed writing style and the contrived seepage of information is irritating, and having gods conveniently to hand means that the magic has virtually no limitations. You want to nip to the other side of the continent for a quick chat with someone? No problem. Worst of all, none of it convinced me.
Yeine herself, drooping her way through her new life, manipulated by everyone and rarely even bothering to put up a fight, was just too stupid for words. And how many times did she find out (too late!) some crucial piece of information that a few simple questions might have unearthed. So basically, the book failed on that point alone: the plot would simply have unravelled like a ball of wool if the characters had just talked to each other. Add in a hefty dollop of tearful angst, villains without a single redeeming feature and a bad-boy love interest who’s quite deliciously dangerous, and this boil down to nothing more or less than a standard romance. It’s very well-written romance, and there are some interesting ideas here, but a little bit of gratuitous torture doesn’t make it any less of a romance.
I didn’t mind the romantic elements at all; Nahadoth was a thoroughly compelling character, and the sexual tension was nicely done. I also loved Sieh. But I hated the overwrought villains, the implausibly violent world, the contrived drip-feed of information, the silly murder-of-the-mother mystery, the eye-rollingly over-the-top god-sex and the ease with which problems could be solved with limitless magic. And despite the difficulty of her situation, Yeine never really sprang to life for me. She was just too placid to be interesting. I really wanted to love this book, but it made me cross too many times. It rates three stars because, despite all the irritations, I kept turning the pages.