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!)
- N.K. Jemisin’s “The Hundred-Thousand Kingdoms”: Tuesday Book Reviews Weblogging (delong.typepad.com)
- Do You Like First-Person Narration? (occupiedandpreoccupied.wordpress.com)
- Malin’s #CBR5 Review #113: The Broken Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin (cannonballread5.wordpress.com)