Customer Review

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Original and thrilling fantasy debut, 26 Feb 2010
This review is from: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (Inheritance Trilogy 1) (Paperback)
OK, first off it's really hard to tell anything about this book without spoilers! I can't tell you much more than what you can read on the cover: Yeine is the outcast granddaughter of the emperor and within ten pages she finds herself trapped in the very teeth of a familial power struggle that will rock the foundations of the world. Her life is at stake; her peoples' lives are at stake; the nature of the universe itself is at stake. And not for the reasons we first think. Even in the early chapters, there are reversals and surprises at frequent turns, and there are multiple layers of significance, too. The moves being pulled off here are not typical first-novel maneuvers. Do not try this at home unless you really know what you are doing (Jemisin does).

The protagonist is instantly sympathetic because she is an outsider, an underdog, and pretty much clueless and doomed in the midst of a case of sibling rivalry of epic proportions. Yeine really doesn't stand a chance, but she holds her head up and goes forward anyway, never leaving her integrity behind. Her canny social skills, wry observations, honestly-confessed emotional wobbles, her loyalty to her people--and certainly her courage--all carried me along, made me care about her.

From the very getgo the author cultivates a habit of interrupting the narrative to interject bits of history, fragments of stories, information and memories. At first I wasn't sure of the wisdom of this decision, but I changed my mind. As the story begins to gather momentum these digressions actually serve to create an economical narrative architecture that saves reams of intricate worldbuilding. The structure of tell/interrupt/tell is simple enough, but it lends a slightly elliptical quality that, like the rooms-between-walls in Sky itself, adds dimension to the world, significance to the events, and tension to the main storyline. Not to mention surprises.

It has to be said that nothing in this book is understated. And near the end the drama goes so far over the top that it actually comes round again the other side--this seems inevitable given the sheer audacity of the story's emotional scope and the way the characters are pitted against not only one another, but the changing metaphysics of their cosmos. What grounds the story is Yeine's down-to-earth observation of even the most outrageous events. She remains stubbornly human and herself.

The book can be read as a young woman's initiation; it can be read as a spiritual treatise; it can be read as political commentary. But for all its overt concern with the twists and turns of a familial power struggle--its outer coating of political saga--for me the book is most successful as a story about the nature of the human psyche. I found much to consider in terms of archetypes, the Shadow, the coexistence of more than one aspect in a single body, and so on. Don't know if I read it as it was intended, but I found a lot of interesting implied material about identity and the impact of the collective on the shape and health of the soul. There were a number of power relationships that were eventually subverted in interesting ways. There were buckets of ambiguity and irony. Gotta love that.

Two quibbles:

1) I loved it that so much of the book centered on Yeine's quest to solve the mystery of her mother's life and death and the deep questions of her mother's love, but I never really bought into the Darren women-warrior matriarchy as depicted here. To be fair, it's not been deeply explored in this book, and moreover I'd rather see matriarchy being explored in a way that doesn't work for me than (as is usually the case) not explored at all.

2) There were times when the constant questioning of motives, the he-said-she-said, the 'what shall I do now that I know X is this and Y is that?' of Yeine making her way through the shifting loyalties and startling revelations of past events in Sky...some of this was a little unwieldy. That's just a quibble. Generally speaking, the action and the plot reversals (the latter of which there are plenty) move along at quite a clip, and always the characters are vividly portrayed.

But you know what? Quibbles aside, here's the thing that counts. Jemisin is not afraid to think big. She is bold. She not only takes the bull by the horns but judo-flips it for good measure. This is such a great thing to see, especially in a new writer. I would so, so much rather read a book that takes risks and breaks the mold than--well, than just about anything else, really. Scintillating 'perfection' isn't what it's about. Rather than being carried in a vehicle that corners perfectly and gleams from polish, I'd rather get taken offroad and really go somewhere. This book is going somewhere new, and the author is to be welcomed as a bold and strong new voice in fantasy fiction.
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