The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is the first novel in The Inheritance Trilogy by author N.K. Jemisin

Yeine Darr is an outcast from the barbarian north. But when her mother dies under mysterious circumstances, she is summoned to the majestic city of Sky, seat of the ruling Arameri family. There, to her shock, Yeine is named an heiress to the king. But the throne of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is not easily won, and Yeine is thrust into a vicious power struggle with a pair of cousins she never knew she had. As she fights for her life, she draws ever closer to the secrets of her mother’s death and her family’s bloody history.

With the fate of the world hanging in the balance, Yeine will learn how perilous it can be when love and hate — and gods and mortals — are bound inseparably.

I have been following the career of author Jemisin for a few years now, even though I’ve only just gotten around to reading her debut novel. I’m a big fan of her short stories and when I heard she had a novel coming out, I very much hoped it would reflect her other writing which I very much enjoyed.

As a whole I remain undecided. There were a lot of great things about The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, and there were several things that irked me or that I disliked.

First off, I enjoyed Jemisin’s choice in writing her novel from a first-person point-of-view in the main character of Yeine. Her voice was very real and had a lot of individuality and personality–always ideal in a protagonist. I was on her side and I rooted for her, and even though this was a fictional character in a completely different world, I feel like if I met her I would have no problem talking to her about anything. Jemisin’s descriptions of the world of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms was also vivid and engaging–I appreciated her world-building and I am interested in reading more about it.

However, aside from our protagonist Yeine and maybe 2 other major characters, I wasn’t a big fan of her cast. Most of them were merely 2-dimensional, flat, and stereotypical, with only a couple traits that the author emphasized over and over again. The biggest problem with characterization came in the gods of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Sometimes I thought Jemisin was really going some place good with these gods, and other times I thought it was ridiculous, or I didn’t care for them at all (a problem, as most of the main characters are these gods). As well, the climax of the novel was not especially surprising or even a big deal to me as a reader. I wasn’t floored, or impressed by the plotting; I wasn’t emotionally involved enough.

All fantasy novels must have some aspect of, of course, fantasy, which usually manifests in the form of some kind of magic in the world of the novel, something that doesn’t exist in our world. It is up to the author to make the reader believe in the rules and the form of this magic. It must make sense, it must resonate with people, it must remain constant throughout the story. I can usually tell by the time I’m a quarter of the way into the book whether or not this “magic” is working for me. Most often it fails when the author introduces too many rules, then breaks them as an “exception” for the protagonist, and then remakes the rules, over and over again. There’s no continuity or believability in that. Unfortunately I felt that Jemisin’s brand of fantasy didn’t really work out for me. I didn’t feel it, or believe in it (in the context of the story) and therefore I had a hard time staying interested in the novel at times.

I had high hopes for The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, but in the end it wasn’t as good as I had been expecting. I’m still a fan of Jemisin’s, especially her writing style, and I think I will continue to read what she publishes. As this was her debut novel, I think she has a lot of room for improvement and I’m sure it’ll happen.

Note: I became a fan of Jemisin’s after the first time I read one of her short stories, titled Cloud Dragon Skies, which you can read here at Strange Horizons.

How did I get this book? I purchased it from Amazon.
Genre: Fantasy, Epic Fantasy
Author Website (including excerpts): www.nkjemisin.com

Ice Land by Betsy Tobin

COVER ice land by betsy tobinRating: 8 out of 10

Ice Land combines the gods of Norse mythology with the everyday lives of ordinary humans living in Iceland around 1000 CE, and the story itself was just as lovely as the paperback cover.

Fulla is coming into her own as a young woman living on her moderately wealthy grandfather’s farm. She’s pretty and she knows the practical things like making a meal and riding a horse. Looming in her near future is a betrothal which, as Icelandic society dictates, will be decided by her grandfather, since both her parents are dead. But this isn’t what Fulla wants.

She craves the unexpected. Each day, she rides her horse across pock-marked fields of blackened lava to the hot pool, her servant Helga two strides behind. And each day, she prays her life will somehow burst its narrow banks.

But the gods do not listen

Her future was set out long ago, like runes carved in stone. She will reach the age of consent, marry a man of her grandfather’s choosing, and bear him as many sons as she can endure. She will watch her boys grow into stout young men, learn to wield the sword and axe, and die violent deaths. Just as her father did.

Her father, Jarl, died in a land dispute against their neighbor, another large farm-owner named Skallagrim. This fighting and dueling has been going on for as long as Fulla can remember, and her grandfather, Hogni, has become bitter about the conflict, wishing only to enjoy his dwindling days as an old man.

Fulla encounters Vili, son of the enemy Skallagrim clan, through several escapades and a bond forms between the two young people, an impossible bond because of their shared history and the fact that Fulla will soon be betrothed and married to a man of her grandfather’s choosing.

In an alternating narrative, Freya, the famous Norse goddess of love, hears a prophecy and travels to the land of the dwarves in order to search out a mysterious golden necklace which will supposedly help her with a looming and deadly catastrophe: the volcano Hekla has been rumbling and causing earthquakes in the land of Asgard, and promises destruction in the near future. Freya has loved and lost in her own time, and knows that her race, the race of the “gods,” is a petty, jealous, and shallow group. Christianity is growing on Iceland, and the old gods are getting pushed backed.

I wasn’t entirely sure what exactly Ice Land would be all about–the summary provided on the back wasn’t very descriptive–and I admit, shallowly, that I picked it up because the cover was pretty, and also because I haven’t had much exposure to Norse mythology and I thought it would be interesting to learn something about it.

I feel like, all in all, the plot itself wasn’t spectacular–not particularly adventurous or exciting, but the characters themselves and Tobin’s writing created a different world. Tobin follows that writer’s maxim, “Show, don’t tell,” perfectly. She didn’t have to say “Fulla is a teenager and can be a little bit rebellious, but she’s also fairly intelligent and practical, she observes the world around her and understands a lot.” Tobin showed it through her narrative which allows the reader to get to know the characters as people, and not as little bits of text printed on a page. She did this with all the characters, and also with the way she described Icelandic culture and life.

Sometimes the alternating narrative thing doesn’t work out too well for me–usually I become more interested in one than the other. But in this case I enjoyed how everything was very balanced and and came together really well. Fulla and Freya both kept me interested.

Here was a great bit from Freya, Norse goddess of love:

Cats, I decided, had certain advantages over men. They were loyal without being sycophantic, independent without being absent, and affectionate without being rapacious. That they choke up balls of fur and leave dead rodents at my feet is unfortunate. But it is not grounds for divorce.

I was very engrossed by Ice Land, it was beautiful and mythical and I will be reading more from Betsy Tobin in the future.

Ever by Gail Carson Levine

Rating: 6 out of 10
Summary: (from BN.com) Kezi is the only daughter of a wealthy, devout family in a vaguely ancient, vaguely Middle Eastern city, where the established religion revolves around one god, Admat. When Kezi’s mother falls deathly ill, her father vows to sacrifice the first person who congratulates him on his wife’s recovery, if only Admat will let her live.

Through adroit plotting, this person turns out to be Kezi, who has 30 days before she must be delivered to the sacrificial altar. Meanwhile, Olus, the god of wind from a family of Greek-like deities, has been watching the horror unfold; out of loneliness (the brother closest to him in age is 412 years older), he has disguised himself to mix with mortals and fallen in love with Kezi.

Braided throughout the well-paced action are doubts raised by Kezi’s new-found knowledge of Olus and his clan: “How can Admat be the one, the all, if Olus is a god too?” Is her sacrifice without reason?

Commentary: I was pretty big on Gail Carson Levin a couple years ago, especially with Ella Enchanted and The Wish and The Two Princesses of Bamarre. Ever sort of surprised me (in a good way) because the style of this novel is so different from Levine’s previous writing. It’s a little more like poetry… short, clear, kind of ringing. Hard to explain, but I liked it. It fit well with t he interesting set-up and the topics that the novel dealt with (religion, creation, love). It did seem like it was aimed towards a younger audience, but I still enjoyed it.

The setting reminded me or an ancient Sumerian or Mesopotamian city in the fertile crescent or something, probably right after agriculture was developed and became a lifestyle. I liked the world Levine built and her family as characters.

The topic of religion was one of the main themes, as Kezi discovers that the One God she’s believed in all her life isn’t actually the only god… I thought this could have been further developed by the author because it was such an interesting idea. Kezi explores the underworld (reminded me of the ancient myth of Innana/Ishtarr) and has all sorts of adventures with her budding romantic interest, the wind-god Olus.

Cute, brief, engaging.