This post makes reference to events throughout N.K. Jemisin's The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. If you haven't read it yet (and plan to), I recommend skipping this!

(For my spoiler-free review of the book, click here.)

Jemisin is clearly trying very hard to write a story with a feminist angle to it--the world is imbalanced largely due to the death of the only goddess; Nahadoth, our love interest, was a gender-fluid deity; most of the major players are female; Yeine comes from a matriarchal tribe of warrior-women—but in none of these cases does she take the story quite far enough. In falling short, she actually draws attention to these flaws, causing great irritation in those of us who care about this sort of thing.

First, the issue of the gods. To understand this, I’ll restate: when Nahadoth was a full deity, ze was entirely gender-fluid, taking male and female forms in equal shares; when Yeine first finds an old statue of hir, she is surprised to find that ze is depicted with a bared breast, a physical illustration of this. However, when Itempas trapped Nahadoth in a mortal body and forced hir to settle on one form for eternity, Nahadoth chose to be male-bodied. This strongly implies that ze identifies more as a man, and not, for example, hermaphroditic. Therefore, in these arguments, it seems fair to treat Nahadoth as male.[1] 

So, bearing that in mind, Jemisin’s world-lore is that the universe was created by a pair of male gods, until a goddess was born and started creating life. As Itempas evaluates this, “Enefa was a plague, Nahadoth. She took the pure, perfect universe that you and I created and fouled it” (373). Now, as someone who’s read Plato’s Symposium, I hear this as ringing a bit too close to classical theory of sexuality wherein love between men is “noble” and “heavenly” and that love with a woman is “base” and “common.” If a goddess had been involved in creating this “pure, perfect universe” (or if I could believe that Nahadoth might have played the role of goddess), then it might not have felt that way, but as it was I got some serious old-school sexism vibes, and I didn’t appreciate them.

 In the case of most of the major players being women, yes! This is true and good. Not good was the fact that all of those women played roles as rivals—from simply giving Yeine the cold shoulder to outright trying to kill her. Throughout the book, Yeine has no female friends. Let's do a rundown, shall we?
  • Her grandmother is described as not ever really liking or trusting her; 
  • Ras Oncha, the elderly representative, needs Yeine to prove herself before she’ll consider her an ally; 
  • Zhakkarn, goddess of war, never warms to her, even when they are allies (and despite the fact that Yeine comes from a race of warrior-women who would logically be some of Zhakkarn's  most adamant worshippers); 
  • Kurue, goddess of logic and justice, keeps her distance before revealing herself as a traitor; 
  • and Scimina, the lead candidate for the head of the family, is never anything but a crazy bitch (as in literally insane). 
This becomes even more obviously problematic when contrasting those characters with their male counterparts: 
  • Relan, the other candidate for family head, is shown as a pitiful alcoholic who allies with Yeine in the end; 
  • T’vril, head steward and a half-blood like Yeine, identifies with her immediately and does his best to help, despite minor betrayals; 
  • Nahadoth, god of night, is wary of her but is her lover by the end; 
  • and Sieh, god of mischief, latches on to her immediately at their meeting. 
None was much of a struggle to win over, and each is painted in sympathetic lights—as opposed to the women, who are never fully won, nor are they ever seen in any depth.[2] Yeine is a classic case of the girl with no female friends.

Finally, we have Yeine’s matriarchal warrior society—a straight barbarian-stereotype gender-role-swap, in which the women are all soldiers[3] and the men raise babies, with no consideration for the deeper impressions on a culture that’s supposedly been run this way for millennia. Would the hierarchy have been structured differently? The ideal personality traits? Superstitions and traditions? Architecture and symbolism? None of these is developed, and there is no sense of culture shock when Yeine is first in Sky—she never questions Dekarta’s ability to rule, despite being raised to believe that that is a woman’s position, and neither is she surprised at any of the other men in positions of authority (Varraine, T’vril, etc.). Most clashing of all is that she says in the beginning (and is later shown) that she is sometimes mistaken for a boy, but she doesn’t seem deeply offended at being mistaken for what her culture considers the lesser sex—applied to our societal norms, a woman mistaken for a man is only passingly hurt, whereas any man who’s mistaken for a woman is likely to blow a fuse

So, those are all my feminist complaints. Jemisin seems to have worked hard to build a story of strong lady-characters, but the execution simply fell short—gender-swapped societies and hermaphroditic-souled love interests are wonderful in concept, but if they aren’t there in practice, they’re hugely problematic (though still better than not at all).

Nahadoth also doesn’t read as having many traditionally feminine traits, except for his beauty: he is physically large and domineering, often angry and violent, and emotion-ally challenged—all stereo-typically masculine. This is a case where showing (Nahadoth’s actual behavior) doesn’t match telling (who Jemisin says 

Nahadoth is), which is a craft issue.

[2] This is particularly noticeable in the scenes where she’s interacting with the Enefadeh—Sieh and Nahadoth are portrayed very actively, Zhakkarn is glossed over as a disap-proving glare, and Kurue is cryptically angry all the time.

[3] Yeine herself doesn’t even feel like a warrior—she isn’t particularly fit or active, and there’s no mention of her muscles or physical build (even in contrast to with willowy Amn women). She keeps a dagger on her, sure, and behaves as if she’d be ready for a physical fight, but there’s no evidence of any training.
Again, if you want to read my spoiler-free review of this book (I really did love it, promise) and see which similar texts I recommend, you can find it over here.

Leave a Reply.