Reading

First Impressions Book Review: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

I never thought there would come a day when I wouldn’t make time for reading. It seemed like it would always be part of my daily maintenance, like showering, eating meals, or snacking on gummy vitamins because they’re delicious and good for you and there’s no such thing as too many… right? RIGHT?

The thing is, once you have a baby you sort of forget to do all of those things. Your attention funnels into keeping this one, demanding little blob alive, and everything else blurs away.

I have had to claw my way back to reading (and showering, and eating, etc.) over the past couple of years, which renders this type of me-time even more valuable. It also makes it more difficult to decide what to read because I want it to count. I want it to be something that is equal parts thought-provoking, escapist, funny, romantic, exciting, and lovely.

I realize I’m asking a lot.

Oh, and it needs to prove it will be all of these things within the first chapter. When you’re short on time, you can’t wait around for a book to “get good.”

And I’m not the only one who needs to be wowed quickly — agents and editors rarely read beyond the first page of a manuscript if it’s not immediately snagging them in some way.

With that in mind, I present my First Impressions series: book reviews based on that pivotal first chapter — what it does well, what might be slowing it down, and whether it does enough to keep this busy mom reading into chapter two.

The first installment will be N.K. Jemison’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, an epic fantasy novel that, as an NPR article promised me, contains one of the best romances in modern literature.

The book starts:

“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. I must try to remember.”

These lines set the scene for the type of narration we’re going to see throughout the book; a character looking back and narrating her life after a series of monumental events. I don’t typically mind this style, but it bothered me that it kept inserting itself into the narrative.

On page two, she writes, “But I forget myself. Who was I, again? Ah, yes.”

It takes me out of the story and makes me wonder where in time this person is. And who this person is. We still haven’t learned her name (Yeine) at this point.

Yeine proceeds to explain her background and engage in a lot of world-building through our good old friend “telling rather than showing.” There are people who love this sort of thing. Give them all the details up front about the kingdoms and the maneuvering lords and ladies, and they’re set. I prefer a scene, particularly one that displays what the main character wants, and what’s keeping her from getting it. Stakes are so important, and they need to be clear up front.

The scene we’re eventually ushered into is the declaration by Yeine’s grandfather, high lord of Arameri, that she will battle her cousins — to the death — for the title of heir. To be fair, these are very high stakes. Still, I don’t get the sense I know anything about what Yeine really wants or cares about, apart from not dying. Is there something else she wanted to do with her life, is there someone at home she loved and now may never see again?

We get lots of background about her mother, who is now dead and who fled this kingdom to be with a man she loved (Yeine’s father). And this, to me, is the most interesting aspect of chapter one:

“My people tell stories of the night I was born. They say my mother crossed her legs in the middle of labor and fought with all her strength not to release me into the world. I was born anyhow, of course; nature cannot be denied. Yet it does not surprise me that she tried.”

This is a gorgeous paragraph. There is so much history and emotion packed into these few sentences, and it shows off Jemisin’s skill as a writer. These little moments pop up every so often in the course of the first chapter and they do the story many favors.

But I’m still left feeling at the end of chapter one that I don’t really know Yeine, and by know, I simply mean grasping what motivates her. She’s a bit of a mystery, and I do want to know more, but also… I’m starting to struggle to care about her.

My conclusion? I did read beyond chapter one. But not beyond chapter three. The pace picks up and an exciting event transpires (Yeine must run for her life from a god/monster/unclear). But I still don’t get a sense of Yeine’s personality. Perhaps she’s meant to be an everywoman character. Perhaps I’m missing some truly stunning character development by not continuing. But like I said above, that time investment is a gamble I don’t wish to make anymore.

I get the sense that someday I might like to return to this series and give it another shot, maybe when Project Toddler is grown enough to stay out of my hair on the weekends, or at least when she’s old enough to wipe her own tush. I think I’d probably like Yeine a lot once she fights for herself and for any new friends she’ll make in her new home, or once she gets sassy towards grandpa. And the promise of a good love story is always the right hook for me.

For now, THTK stays on the shelf, but if any readers can convince me I simply must pick it back up, I’m open to revisiting it sooner rather than later.

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