I recently finished The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, by NK Jemison, book one of her Inheritance Trilogy. This was one of those books you simply cannot put down. Indeed, when I passed the first half I ended up staying up all night to finish it. If you enjoy high fantasy with characters that are as relatable as they are larger-than-life, this is a book for you.
Nearly the entire book takes place in the great palace of Sky, the home of the Arameri, the clan who, being favored of the god of light, Itempas, have come to rule the entire world through both subtle and ruthless means. Formally, they only advise the kingdoms, but since when is real power restricted to the formalities. In truth, most of their power comes from their ‘weapons’: Nahadoth, the god of darkness, and his children, who were forced into mortal forms by Itempas for their support of the goddess of Twilight, Enefa, who the Itempan priests refer to as “the Betrayer”. A large part of the main plot involves Yeine discovering Itempas’s motive for killing Enefa and imprisoning her “conspirators”.
Those earth-bound gods serve as some of the most important characters in the book, and as such they are very well written. They are not just human characters with supernatural powers. Each of the gods portrayed has a distinctive and alien perspective, shaped by their nature. Nahadoth is the embodiment of chaos, and chafes at being trapped into a single form. Sieh, his oldest son, is paradoxically an eternal child. Though their true desires are incomprehensible, we learn enough about them through Yeine to understand them in some fashion.
There are a number of social themes in the book. It seems nearly everyone in the book is a slave. Nahadoth and his children are slaves to the Arameri, bound by magic to obey their commands. The Arameri, in turn are slaves themselves, bound to serve the order set up by Itempas ‘” they even bear a mark that prevents them from acting against the interests of the head of the family. Even Itempas is a slave to his nature, though he might not see it that way. He must have order, and has funneled all his power into achieving it. It is as if the universe were run by someone with obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Racism is another important theme. Yeine is a half-breed. Her mother was one of the Arameri, and her father, a Darre, a dark-skinned race from a backwater kingdom. Fate would have it that she looks much more like her father, and strongly identifies with the Darre. When she is called to Sky by the family head, Dekarta, she is seen as a savage and a barbarian. Her race is on the bottom of the totem pole, called “darklings”, not because of their skin color, but because they were among the last to reject the dark gods in favor Itempas.
An even greater theme is the sheer cruelty with which the Arameri wield their power. At one point, one of Yeine’s greatest rivals organizes the authorization of a war against her homeland (under the order of Itempas, even war is strictly controlled by law). A large part of the culture of the Arameri encourages this kind of ruthlessness, where a “true Arameri”. Nearly all the high-ranking family are seen as conspiring and positioning themselves without regard for the lives of the people they rule. They would all kill each other if they weren’t magically prevented from doing so.
None of this social commentary comes off as preachy or overemphasized. As with any good fiction, the story is the emphasis, and what philosophical conclusions you draw from it. What’s more, the setting and characters, from the vast, unnatural beauty of Sky to the strangeness of the gods and other residents, all fit into a broad, high fantasy setting while still presenting relatable characters. If you enjoy high magic an high fantasy, you should read this book.