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

The Chart of Fantasy Art: Urban Fantasy

I’m not the biggest fan of Urban/Paranormal fantasy, save for a few great exceptions, mostly due to the deluge of completely incompetent writers in the genre who repeat the same old tired cliches and plots over and over again. 98% of these books feature the same kind of cover, featuring a “sexy, tough heroine” on a dark background, looking mysterious, sexy and tough, often with some kind of werewolf, vampire, or weapon in hand. All of these women have the exact same “ideal” body type, almost all wear some kind of skin tight leather clothing, and have faces that are considered beautiful by usual media standards–as well, all of them are light skinned. But that’s really something for a separate post.

Yeah, yeah, I know, don’t judge a book by its cover, but when I see a cover like that I automatically pass it over and assume it is badly written. Just carbon copies of the same old, same old. It’s kind of depressing what the Urban/Paranormal Fantasy market has become, especially when it used to be the domain of authors like Emma Bull and Annette Curtis Klause; quality writing.

From Orbit Books this week (I find it fairly humorous and interesting):

Here’s another comprehensive chart of cover trends (I assume Orbit is only looking at their own published novels) in pdf form. Also informative.

Cold Magic by Kate Elliott

Once in awhile, you finish reading a book, you set it down, you contemplate how you’re going to write a review for it, and you know that it will be pretty much near impossible to be coherent at all, because all you want to say is stuff like “Wow–that was awesome, I can’t really explain why–forget that, I can’t even talk or think clearly right now because I haven’t come back to reality yet–you, over there, read this book, now.” The last time this happened to me was 6 months ago after I finished reading Fire by Kristin Cashore. And now, it’s just happened to me again with Cold Magic by Kate Elliott.

Catherine has been raised by her Uncle Jonatan and Aunt Tilly ever since she was orphaned as a small child. Her life is familiar, normal, and easy to understand. She is best friends with her cousin Beatrice, who is only two months younger than her; the two young women attend school at a select academy, where they learn about science and the new technology that is revolutionizing their world. Brand new machines like airships, printing presses, and factories run by combustion are just now emerging in a world previously dominated by feudal-type Princes and Mage Houses where magic, specifically cold magic, has held sway over Europa ever since the Roman Empire was defeated and shunted from the icy northern continent.

Catherine’s world thus consists of lessons at school and teasing Beatrice about her latest crush on the young men at the academy, until one day everything changes. Forced in to a magical contract contrived many years ago by her family and the cold mages of Four Moon House, Catherine, as the eldest daughter in her family, is married essentially against her will to a cold mage so vain, so egotistical and full of his own superiority that he barely seems to acknowledge her presence in the carriage that takes them both away from the only home and family Catherine has ever known. What follows is nothing Catherine ever could have imagined happening to her. Abandoned by everyone she has ever loved, Catherine must set out on her own and discover the truth about her heritage and the rapidly changing forces surrounding her world.

Okay. I thought that was a sufficiently epic and interesting summary. Even so, I haven’t even mentioned half of the well-written characters and twisty plotty adventures that are included in Cold Magic. In an interview with Elliott, the author describes her novel as “an Afro-Celtic post-Roman icepunk Regency novel with airships, Phoenician spies, and the intelligent descendants of troodons (which were a small, intelligent, and agile species of dinosaur)”. An incredibly disparate disarray of ideas and genres you say; however, it works so well and is very much held together by a strongly written heroine in Catherine.

I was definitely pulled into this novel by our protagonist. As well, her sisterly/best-friend relationship with her cousin Bee was a very realistic, believable, and enjoyable dynamic that I actually haven’t seen all that much of in young adult novels that aim towards a mostly female demographic. I think a lot of people assume that girls don’t want to read about friendships with girls, which is “booorring”; they want to read about infatuating romances with cute boys. Untrue, I think. Or at least for this girl. So Elliott’s take was very refreshing. Catherine was put into a lot of new situations and I enjoyed how, even though she pretty much had no idea what was going on half the time, she was intelligent and able to use what skills and knowledge she had to pull it together and stand up for herself. Also refreshing; too much of the time I think we get heroines that are annoyingly deer-in-the-headlights at the beginnings of adventures. Even after all the horrible things that happen to her, Catherine is rarely whiny and I very much liked her voice in the narration.

The plotting and total changes in scenery and surroundings that Elliott put Catherine through was also very impressive. Catherine basically begins in a lower-middle-class home in the city and travels through countryside and is even pulled into an alternate world (the spirit world, as they call it) at one point and meets a very diverse cast of characters. The universe that Catherine lives in is essentially an alternate history version of our own with a bit of fantasy tossed in; after the Roman Empire sank into itself, the majority of the European continent (or Europa, as they call it) came under the power of petty, feudal-era-type Princes and Lords, who were balanced by the respected power of the magical Houses. A lot of the geography is the same (there is a map included at the beginning of the book) but countries like England, France, and Spain don’t exist, and people of different ethnicities and different cultures have mixed together in new ways, creating a brand-new history.

With the introduction of combustion technology and steam-driven mechanics, Cold Magic is a new addition to the growing genre of “steampunk fantasy,” which I, before this novel, didn’t find particularly enticing. I’ve read Leviathan (Scott Westerfeld), Clockwork Heart (Dru Pagliassotti) and The Gaslight Dogs (Karin Lowachee) but I only had lukewarm experiences with books in the genre. Ah, Mortal Engines (Philip Reeve) was good. But Cold Magic is definitely the best example of the genre I’ve read so far.

Along with the personal journey of our heroine, the reader is basically immersed in a very fluidly changing culture that includes ideas about socio-economic divides, power and how it should be wielded, democratic representation, revolution, and the role of science and technology in a changing society. A lot of really interesting ideas, and I am really so impressed by how Elliott wove it all together. This is the first book of hers that I’ve read, and I’m really looking forward to checking out her other books. I think she also phrased the little romance perfectly, in an understated, kind of wistful way that I really enjoy and not all authors can do well. No bodice-ripping here, sorry if that’s your thing.

In every aspect–adventure, fantasy, characters, and romance–Elliott hit all the right buttons for me and I am only sorry that I will have to wait so long for the sequel. I believe it’s going to be a trilogy, and the ending of Cold Magic and the happenings within have set us up very nicely for a long arc of adventure. I am really just so impressed and floored by Elliott’s writing and storytelling abilities; I have found a new favorite author to follow and I really can’t wait for what she comes up with next.

How I got this book: The author, Kate Elliott, provided me with an Advanced Reading Copy.
When does it come out? September 9, 2010
Genres: Fantasy, Steampunk, Alternate History, Young Adult Fiction, Adventure
Publisher: Orbit Books, I first heard about Cold Magic through this publisher’s website; I basically want to read every book they have on their publishing schedules.
Author Website: www.kateelliott.com
Also, her blog, where you have the chance to win an ARC of Cold Magic: http://kateelliott.livejournal.com/

Lord of the Changing Winds by Rachel Neumeier

Kes has lived her whole life on her older sister’s farm in the small riverside town of Minas Ford. Timid and shy, she has a hard time fitting in with the other village people, and prefers to be alone most of the time. She has basically accepted a quiet life in her village as the local herb woman, until the day the griffins come flying over Minas Ford, bringing hot desert winds and uncertainty and fear to the people of Minas Ford.

Then a strange man shows up, a man who is not a man, and takes Kes away to the mountains and the desert of the griffins. There she learns that she has a singular power: she can heal the griffins, who are unable to heal themselves from fatal wounds inflicted by human mages. She delights in her newfound power, in new companions, and in a place where she belongs more than she ever did with humans. However, not all is well. King Safiad is determined to drive the griffins and the desert they have created from his kingdom. First he sends an envoy in the form of his trusted advisor and childhood friend Bertaud–when that fails, he sends an armed force against the griffins. As humans and griffins come to blows, Kes and Bertaud must both make difficult choices about where they stand in this war.

I finished this Lord of the Changing Winds in a few hours, that’s how much I enjoyed it. I was actually very surprised and impressed by the depth of Neumeier’s plotting–from reading the back summary (which was shorter and less detailed than the one I just wrote for you) I thought it would be a fairly simple, predictable story in the traditional vein of “young girl finds powers, experiences new world, fights climatic battle, has happy ending,” a la The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley (another one of my favorites). However Kes ended up being only one of several important characters, each with their own individual, engrossing story. Like Bertaud, who isn’t even mentioned on the back cover summary.

The conflict became much larger than just Kes and her dilemmas, and the transition and slow growth of the story was handled very smoothly by Neumeier. It never got overwhelming, and it was always unpredictable. Neumeier took several traditional fantasy elements and put a new twist on them, and generally avoided being cliche about it. I also loved the way she described Kes’ world and surroundings–Neumeier made the desert seem beautiful and mysterious, and painted a great picture in my mind of all the scenes and emotions that were happening in the story. I really enjoyed her writing style.

Unfortunately I wasn’t the biggest fan of Kes as a protagonist or heroine. She seemed fairly static for 99% of the novel and suffered a bit from damsel-in-distress syndrome. While I understand that her personality was written to be extremely quiet and shy, it was a little too frustrating for me as a reader to engage with. She didn’t grow or do very much as a character and I became more interested in other individuals within the story. She came into her own near the end but it was a long time coming.

It looks (after a bit of searching) that this is Neumeier’s first novel and I will definitely be following the rest of this author’s career, starting with the sequel, Land of the Burning Sands. I picked Changing Winds up from my local bookstore after perusing the Orbit Books website. I’m very interested in reading more of their novels, the website has a publishing schedule and list, lots of interesting titles there. I first heard of this publisher because they published Karin Lowachee’s The Gaslight Dogs, and I’ve been a fan of Lowachee for awhile.

Highly recommended, great way to escape and go on an adventure for a few hours.

Author Website (still under construction): www.rachelneumeier.com