The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N. K. Jemison

ImageI’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: first-person narration just turns me off. Add dialogue-driven plot movement to that and you get a pretty weak story.

2011 Hugo nominee The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin has so much neglected potential for a great story. A story about a diverse world of people who have enslaved their gods, set in an expansive fantasy world of medieval style monarchies.

Enslaved gods? I love blasphemy. Sign me up.

But then you get the whole story told from the point-of-view of a sullen nineteen-year-old monarch from a matriarchal warrior clan who is summoned to join a contest of power in the most powerful kingdom, by virtue of her dead, mysterious mother’s family relations. And, predictably, the girl gets a crush on the dangerous and brooding Darklord. And, of course, he likes her, too, but only when he’s not trying to crush her throat during foreplay.

What is it they say? Great idea, but poorly executed.

This is what went wrong with this book:

1. It’s an epic story that’s never fully-fleshed out. I blame the point-of-view narration. I can’t understand the popularity of first-person narration. It’s such a limiting feature. This is an epic fairy-tale set in an epic world, so the scope of this story should require an omniscient, distant narrator who can shape and hint and reveal. It’s a story about gods, so let’s give the narrator some god-like authority, and not some snarky-assed teenage cynicism. Speaking of which…

2. The characters are cardboard. Despite the “hundred thousand” emotions that the narrator/protagonist Yeine manages to observe on everyone’s faces, I never got any sense of depth from the characters. They are all cookie-cutter images of common archetypes: the bitter, sarcastic protagonist teen; the brooding, dark being who is dangerous, yet sexy and lonely; the evil antagonist who is cruel just for the sake of being cruel; the conniving politician who is blindly loyal to traditions that make little sense and have little payoff. It’s just not enough to make me care about these people. (spoiler alert: I was rooting for the Darklord to betray Yeine at the end. “Ha, ha! I don’t love you! I’m a freaking evil god, you stupid mortal woman!”)

3. The plot is carried by lame, trite dialogue and internal observation. There is little discovery through action or contextual evidence. Instead, it’s a lot of expository talking, often in short, clipped statements that work well in graphic novels or on procedural television shows, but not in literary epics. It’s a condition with which I struggle in my own fiction writing (I think from watching too much Buffy), but it’s a condition worth fighting. Lame dialogue sucks. Lame dialogue on which the plot is dependent sucks even more.

Thank goodness it was a short read, but that’s part of the problem. I think if I was Jemison’s editor, I would have required her to draw out a few hundred more pages with some subplots that would allow the reader to experience more of her potentially rich world. Let’s get some background on Scimina. Why is she such a bitch? And why is her brother an alcoholic? And what do the servants make of all this? I bet they have better stories.

But you can’t do that with a limited first-person perspective. And when you put that perspective in a lusty teenager you get exactly what you deserve: a self-absorbed, over-dramatic rendition of a love story, that completely neglects the fact that other people are involved and/or affected by said teenager’s actions.

I can’t believe this book was nominated for the 2011 Hugo. So far, I’m glad Blackout by Connie Willis won. (Interesting tidbit: four out of the five 2011 Hugo best novel nominees were women! SF is no longer a predominantly male world. Way to go, ladies!)

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12 thoughts on “The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N. K. Jemison

  1. Agreed. I recommend avoiding the other books, too.

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  2. I just got this book in the mail and I’m pretty excited about it (for all the reasons you mention–gods, politics, diversity in SFF? SOLD)…Maybe I’ll slightly recalibrate my expectations?

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    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      I hope my review doesn’t color your expectations, but I have a feeling you will find the same flaws. If anything, Jemison is pretty creative in her architectural designs– they still stand out in my mind weeks later. I look forward to your review!

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  3. I’m I right in concluding that this book is aimed at the Young Adult demographic, rather than adult readers?

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  4. “Enslaved gods? I love blasphemy. Sign me up.” Ha. Favorite moment of this review. After reading this I feel like I need to rethink my own thoughts of this book. While reading I felt like “this is well done, I think” the whole time. But I also didn’t love it because it isn’t really the kind of fantasy I like. I don’t know, gods doing stupid shit and ruining people’s lives just really doesn’t do it for me. But none of these occured to me as further reasons that I might not have been enjoying it, thus me feeling like I need to re-examine my thoughts on it. I think I might have been too distracted by not liking the gods thing.

    So did you ever read the next book? I assume not? Im still thinking Ill try it, particularly as it sounds like it is about a totally different set of characters. Hmm. Anyway. Have you noticed I am all clicking all around your archives today reading shit? Yup. *waves*

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  5. fromcouchtomoon says:

    Lol, so embarrassed that you’re reading these ancient posts. I feel particularly uncomfortable with this one because I think Jemison was under a lot of undue criticism and bullying at the time, but I had no idea. I just didn’t care for the book. I really wanted to like it.

    I have no interest in reading the next novel, but I might one day because writers do change with every effort, and maybe I’ll enjoy it more.

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