A couple weeks late, I have another video review of one of the nominees of this year’s Hugo Awards (which, sadly, didn’t win). Specifically, the book The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. For those unable to watch the video at work, the rough script for the video is also being posted with it.
Hello, welcome to Breaking It All Down. I’m Count Zero. This week’s book review I’m taking a look at one of the novels that were nominated for the 2011 Hugo Awards, and which didn’t win. For those who weren’t keeping track, the winner was Blackout, which I reviewed previously and didn’t like. The book I’m checking out this week is The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N. K. Jemsen which not only was nominated for a Hugo for Best Novel, but also was the author’s first published novel. Before I get into this review though, I need to talk a little bit about the difference between Fantasy and Science Fiction.
The fantasy genre is something that’s a little tricky to nail down. It’s kind of like obscenity – I know it when I see it. As a general rule of thumb, fantasy stories are generally in a medieval or ancient setting, with a power in the setting described as “magic”, which operates on a set of rules different from the rules of science, though the power of magic and the rules it operates on (if it operates on any at all) varies depending on the type of fantasy story and the story’s dramatic requirements. Typically these settings will be on a different world, though if they are on Earth, it’ll be on Earth’s past.
(Voice Over – Swords and Sorcery Image)
For example, in Swords and Sorcery stories, there’s magic, but magic is generally incredibly involved, and opposed to using it to create shields or enchant swords, it summons and controls demons or other kinds of otherworldly spirits, or summon a plague of darkness or something similar. These rituals tend to be very involved and dramatic, and if something goes wrong then Bad Things Happen. However, there will be some exceptions made for pools of scrying or crystal balls to allow villains to spy on our heroes or send messages remotely for similar reasons – they’re dramatic. They let the villains be ahead of our heroes or allow them to manifest a giant face in a mirror to taunt or threaten our heroes.
(Voice Over – Heroic Fantasy Image)
Heroic Fantasy stories are closer to your Lord of the Rings fare. If you’ve watched the Lord of the Rings films, or Record of Lodoss War, or read Terry Brooks, then you know exactly what you’re getting into. To a certain degree, when we think of fantasy, this is often what we think about.
Mythic Fantasy stories are ones where the gods are much more involved in human affairs. Because of the cosmic powers involved, the plots of these books tend to focus more on the schemes and plans of Gods and Men, instead of the action of a Conan story or a Dungeons & Dragons campaign.
(Voice Over – Post Apocalyptic Fantasy, go to Dying Darth, Book of the New Sun, Thundarr, Might and Magic, and Scrapped Princess as mentioned)
As with most genres, there are exceptions to these rules, as half the fun of having rules comes from playing with them. For example, swords and sorcery or even high fantasy setting might be set on a post-apocalyptic future earth, with Magic being in the form of Sufficiently Advanced Technology, like with Jack Vance’s Dying Earth series, Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun and, yes, even Thundarr The Barbarian. Alternately, the setting could turn out to be some sort of space craft or space station, like in the early Might & Magic games, as well as the anime Scrapped Princess.
This brings me to this week’s book. While this book was nominated for a Hugo Award for Best Novel, this book is more of a mythic fantasy novel. Magic is plentiful, with uses from the catastrophic to the mundane, and not only is the setting’s mythology true, but the gods of the setting are important characters in the book’s plot.
The book focuses on Yeine Darr, whose mother was part of the royal Aramari family, before she married a commoner. Yeine is called to the floating capitol city of Sky where she is declared heir to the throne, but in order to actually become heir, she must also contend with the plans of her two cousins, who are also contenders to the throne. Then there’s the whole matter of the Enefadeh – Gods imprisoned in flesh, magically bound to serve the family, but who also strain under their yoke.
Now, there’s a lot more to this than that, in terms of various plots and counter-plots by the book’s characters, but this is a mythic fantasy novel. That’s to be expected. The question is, how well are these plots and schemes done? The answer is – very well. Everyone’s plans make sense, and fit in with their motivations and resources, which, considering the power of the Aramari, is not insignificant. It reminds me a lot of Dune, and the Thirty Xanatos Pileup that book was. If anything, its schemes don’t make up the same Gordian Knot the schemes of Dune were, which is perhaps for the best.
My only major complaint about the book is that while the story does a good job of providing a sense of place for the city of Sky, and also does a good job of fleshing out the world’s mythology, we don’t get an description of much of the world outside of Sky. In particular, Darr feels a bit iffy. Its people are described as Northern Barbarians, but we don’t really get into what that means. Is the country more along the lines of the Nordic cultures, and does their countries have the sort of harsh winters that Scandinavia has? Is slightly warmer, like southern England or northern France. Is it more of a temperate society like the Greeks? It’s never explained.
So, does this book get a recommendation? Abso-friggin-lutely. I wouldn’t say that this would have gotten my Hugo vote, if I was eligible to vote – The Dervish House still has the top spot. Still, this book was very well done, and I strongly recommend that you give it a shot.