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"What's Past Is Prologue." - William Shakespeare

Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms - World-Building and Structure

SPOILER ALERT! If you have not read The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms there are spoilers in this essay.

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The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms was a great dark epic fantasy that kept me turning the pages to find out what happened next. N. K. Jemisin did an excellent job with world-building, and the structure she used was a nice addition which added a whole new layer to the story.

I admit, I initially had a difficult time getting into the novel. Near the beginning, we get more of a world-building info dump, instead of story progression and characterization. I honestly think this was one of the drawbacks of the novel. Too much backstory and world-building right at the beginning has a tendency to drag the narrative down. The true pull into Yeine's world didn't come for me until she first meets Nahadoth, at the end of chapter three. "The black-haired man lifted his head to look at me. He was smiling. I could see his face now, and his mad, mad eyes, and I suddenly knew who he was. What he was" (23). Those words sucked me in, and I was lost in Yeine's world for the rest of the novel.

Nahadoth is a god, a fallen and imprisoned one, but a god nonetheless. He and the other gods who appear in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms are not only well-rounded characters, but the best vehicle Jemisin uses to expand the world-building. It's through the false and true stories of the gods, along with their previous war, that we truly learn about this world and how things work in it. Even though the entire novel is told from Yeine's point-of-view, we still see things from the gods' perspectives, either through her interactions with them or through strange dreams that visit her, dreams she has because within her is the soul of a dead goddess.

The structure Jemisin uses deviates a bit from the norm, but it all makes sense in the end and fits the story well. There are two main types of interruptions in the narrative. First, there are asides from Yeine, commenting on something she remembers, things important for the story. Second, there are small conversations between Yeine and who we eventually find out to be the goddess Enefa--the soul that shares Yeine's body. Even right at the beginning, we know Yeine struggles to remember. Almost the entire novel, until the very end, is her remembering the events that lead up to her death. And it's no secret that she's going to die at the end. "I am not as I once was. They have done this to me, broken me open and torn out my heart. I do not know who I am anymore" (1).

These interjections that Jemisin uses demonstrate how much Yeine tries to remember, and how hard it is for her to do so. When we reach the end of the novel, when Yeine's soul is hovering over the scene and watching things unfold, we understand she had been piecing things together all along as she told her tale--her death jarred her senses, and she had to remind herself of who she was and the events that led up to her death. In truth, the novel begins when she dies, and the entire novel is her putting the puzzle pieces together.

The interruptions also serve another purpose, though. It avoids an info dump at the end of the novel. Yeine's soul hovers in space, alongside Enefa's soul. And they talk, they communicate. If that entire conversation was at the end though, showing how Enefa encourages Yeine to remember, it would have brought the action of the novel's end to a grinding halt. By weaving in the conversation throughout the novel, we have the sense at the end, when Yeine rises again as a goddess in her own right, that so much more had gone on between Yeine and Enefa before Yeine was restored to her body. It also gives that disembodied feeling of how time is nothing to the gods, their conversations seemingly lasting for a long expanse and a short moment all at the same time.

Aside from my initial issues near the beginning, Jemisin successfully immersed me in the world of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. It comforts me to still see great dark epic fantasy written today, since it's my chosen genre. I look forward to reading the next book in the trilogy.


Jemisin, N. K. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Orbit: New York, 2010.

NEXT UP: A guest blog post from J. Gunnar Grey!

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