I think I’m a well-intentioned person. But we all do, I suppose. I try to read more books written by women. But I often don’t. Since I started reviewing books for CBR, I’ve reviewed 91 stories written by women, which is a hair over 20% of everything I’ve read.
CBR07: 2 (7%)
CBR08: 32 (29%)
CBR09: 20 (26%)
CBR10: 6 (11%)
CBR11: 5 (18%)
CBR12: 16 (26%)
CBR13: 9 (18%)
CBR14: 1 (8%)
That’s abysmal. There’s no two ways about it. And that’s after some years (CBR9 and 12, specifically) actively trying to read more women. For CBR8 I re-read all the Harry Potter books and the Robert Galbraith series, so that one is a bit of an outlier.
As the guy who keeps the CBR database, I can confidently say that this isn’t simply because everyone reads more men than women. I randomly sampled 88 reviews from badkittyuno, and she read women exactly 50% of the time. A sampling of 82 reviews by narfna shows she reads women 56% of the time. Randomly sampling male users shows the opposite (I won’t name anyone, because I’m not trying to call anyone out). Men tend to read more men, and women tend to read more women (or at least closer to an equal amount). I guess this probably isn’t surprising.
Anyway, this is all a long way of saying, I try to read more women, but I usually fail. I either don’t get into the books (for whatever reason), or I have trouble finding ones that interest me in the first place. And, since I haven’t been reading much lately, it’s been really hard to focus on anything.
I got this book from Audible…..maybe four years ago? I’ve tried listening to it two or three times, and struggled each time. Not because the book is bad in any way, it’s because of something I’ve talked about before. In any speculative fiction, when you are thrown right into the middle of the world at the start of the book, it can be a little daunting trying to figure out what’s going on. There are different rules, the names are alien, and you don’t really have any idea of where you are, or who you’re dealing with. In my opinion, the best authors give you a period to adjust. Robert Jordan (for all his faults) starts you off in the Two Rivers, and some of the characters have names that at least feel familiar: Rand, Mat, Tam, Lan, Thom….these are at least sounds that are echoed in our own language. George R.R. Martin does an even better job at this with his characters and places. Even Tolkien – for all his time and effort creating novel languages – starts off in the Shire with names like Frodo and Sam. Though Frodo isn’t a real name, it’s easy to wrap your mouth around those sounds.
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms starts off with Yeina Darr. Here’s the first sentence of the plot synopsis on Wikipedia:
Yeine Darr was born to Kinneth Arameri, who was heir to the Arameri throne but abdicated twenty years before the start of the story to marry Yeine’s father, a Darre man.
Maybe this is a me problem – but that sentence (with the understanding that Jemisin didn’t write it) is kind of a mouthful. Other names in the book: Nahadoth, Itempas, Sieh, Dekarta, Semena…. Which isn’t to say that the book isn’t worth tackling – but I always find this to be an imposing thing about fantasy. It’s a big ask, sometimes, to dump a bunch of unfamiliar sounds on me. That’s why it took so many tries to actually get into this book. I mentally check out when there isn’t much to tie me to the world.
But…..this is N.K. Jemisin. I only know a couple things about her. One is that she won three consecutive Hugo Awards for best novel, and the other is that she’s a master builder of made up worlds. I can’t not give her a shot, right?
So, I muscled through the beginning of the book and found….exactly what you should expect to find: a well constructed, well written world with an engaging story and interesting characters.
Yeine is our protagonist here, and she’s also thrown into an alien world: the royal court of Sky, where gods roam the halls, imprisoned by the royal family following a war amongst the gods thousands of years prior. Granted power over these gods by the Skyfather, Itempas, the Arameri family have become their slavemasters, which has allowed them to rule over the rest of humanity. Yeine is the granddaughter of Dekarta, the uncrowned king of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Her mother, and Dekarta’s favorite, Kinneth, fled Sky decades prior to marry her father. The Darre people have been punished ever since. Yeine is ordered to come to Sky following the death of her mother, because Dekarta has made her an heir. She is now forced to compete with his other heirs, Semena and Relad. The winner becomes the next ruler. The losers die.
The thing that sets this book apart, for me, is the role the gods play in the story.
For me, there’s something that makes the best fantasy series stand out. They have something about them that sets them apart from everything else. For The Lord of the Rings, it’s the vast depth of the world. For A Song of Ice and Fire, it’s the complex machinations of the rich characters. For Mistborn it’s the highly realized magic system. For this series, the Inheritance Trilogy, I think it may be the role the gods play in the story.
I’ve read books where gods play an active role in the story – but not with deities this well integrated or fully realized. In a way, they reminded me of Madeleine Miller’s books, A Song of Achilles and Circe.
With all of that said, I don’t know if this rises to the level of all time great fantasy books. I enjoyed it, but was still left a little underwhelmed. Maybe that’s just because it’s not really epic. Much of the real action takes place off-page. This is, fundamentally, an individual story of Yeine coming to terms with the position she’s been forced into. This isn’t about wars and conquests and epic battles. Character is a bigger focus than action. And for all that, it’s very well done. But it didn’t really scratch an itch for me.