At first I could not help but think of N.K. Jemisin‘s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms as a fantasy prime time soap opera – addictive and dangerous like Revenge meets…well….uh…there you go. I can’t invite any mashups or comparisons, because there aren’t any. Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy (of which The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, published in 2009, is Book One) takes place in a thoroughly developed and unique world. So on second thought – maybe this isn’t soap opera but autobiography: a heady, twisty-turny memoir from another realm. This is a story of political and magical intrigue told in first person, after all. But is our heroine Yeine a reliable primary source? She is intrepid, candid and determined, but she also exhibits memory lapses and bouts of disorientation.
Yeine was born of a mixed marriage: her mother was Kinneth Arameri, of the unofficial ruling elite, and her father hailed from the Northern lands. As the novel opens, Yeine, who is in her own words, “short and flat and brown as forestwood,” travels from her homeland to the magical palace above the city of Sky. She comes to Sky ostensibly because she has been summoned by her grandfather Dekarta Arameri to take part in an inheritance game. The reader knows that Yeine, who is looked upon as “a barbarian warrior from the north,” has also come to solve the mystery of her mother’s death.
I found Yeine’s story to be a thriller in the way that a fascinating biography is suspenseful. There is so much detail to be absorbed, so many layers and nuances of the kingdom Yeine inhabits, with its gods and magic, with all the characters’ lies, manipulations and contradictions. Even Yeine fights to remember all that has happened to her – on the page, those holes in her memory often appear midchapter, and she tends to digress, to interrupt her own narrative, and to converse with herself rather cryptically.
Casaundra Freeman reads the audiobook version, and her interpretation of Yeine is a marvel. It’s a rare audiobook experience where I can finish the last chapter and know that I will forever hear that narrator’s voice so clearly as the voice of a character – or even more remarkably, as all the characters distinctly. There are other key players in the Kingdom of Sky – the haughty throne contender Scimina, the mysterious and lusty god Nahadoth, the child trickster god Sieh. Freeman inhabits each of them – and many others – with effortless fluidity. I didn’t hear a voice actor “reading” these parts – I heard individuals, period. So very well done.
In a novel of complex worldbuilding and political machinations, it’s easy to become bogged down in endless infodumps. Jemisin keeps things rolling with Yeine’s canny awareness of her volatile and vulnerable position at court, and her willingness to take risks and act on instinct. Yeine seems doomed from the start, set up to lose not only the throne but her life, yet that doesn’t stop her from jumping into the game, and although she has much to learn, she is no fool. The reader – or the listener – has much to learn as well, about the history and the people of this kingdom. It’s such a gift that Freeman is able to clearly articulate Jemisin’s rich details without sacrificing the pace of the story – and without turning an intricate backstory into a long monotonous lecture. Her voicework is as captivating as the tale.
Freeman’s voice – with its astonishing emotional range – conveys so much about Yeine: her calm, her fears, her anger. Hearing her embody Yeine’s pain and fury with a trembling voice, there were definitely moments that gave me chills. I appreciated the way she interpreted Yeine’s interjections of memories outside the narrative stream, with subtle modulations in her voice to convey Yeine’s different states of mind. Only once or twice did I feel tripped up by the recording – the occasional emphasis on a word or phrase that seemed awkward, but to me those instances are due to misguidance from the director. It’s good to know that the next book in the series – The Broken Kingdoms – is also narrated by Casaundra Freeman. There’s simply no one else so perfect for the job.