Book Review


Stormwinds over a cardboard world:

Nebula-nominated first novel is epic failure

By Geoffrey Dow
Managing Editor, True North Perspective
Originally published at Edifice Rex Online
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms
By N.K. Jemisin
(Orbit), March, 2010
Paperback: 410 pages
ISBN-13: 978-0316043915

I opened N.K. Jemisin's (now Nebula Award nominated) first novel, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, having occasionally read the author's blog and commentary elsewhere on the internet, and was well-aware the book had been getting a lot of positive attention since it was published last year. In other words, I was looking forward to reading at least a very good debut novel and hoping for even more than that.

Instead, I find myself obliged to discuss a first novel about which I can find almost nothing good to say whatsoever — except to note that, on page 222, the author offers a striking and (I think) original metaphor for the female orgasm.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is a novel remarkable only for the lack of detail and verisimilitude of its world-building, the droning sameness of its characters (god or human — you can't tell them apart), the thoughtlessly anachronistic dialogue and banality of its prose.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is not the worst novel I've ever read (there are lots of bad books out there), but it might be the worst highly-praised science fiction novel I've ever come across (I say "might" because it has been many years since I read Lord of Light).

The basics include a number of standard fantasy tropes. A world not quite our own, shared by humans and a more ancient and powerful race; a heroine with a Special Destiny; a society with a pre-industrial technology (plus magic) and a feudal political order with a cruel and corrupt extended family at the top of the heap.

There's nothing inherently wrong with re-using the familiar to tell a story, but there is a lot wrong with using those tropes so badly the reader never feels they are looking in on another world, let alone that they have actually entered into what Tolkien called a secondary creation.

For a fantasy to succeed, it must convince the reader of not only the reality of its narrative but of that narrative's background. The author must pay attention to such things as his or her world's history and culture, to its tools and technology, as much as to character and psychology.

To my ears, neither Jemisin's world-building nor her character-building convince, let alone provide cause to care. Worse, her prose is sophomoric and her dialogue painfully melodramatic.

I did not answer, and after a moment Scimina sighed.

"So," she said, "there are new alliances being formed on Darr's borders, meant to counter Darr's perceived new strength. Since Darr in fact has no new strength, that means the entire region is becoming unstable. Hard to say what will happen under circumstances like that."

My fingers itched for a sharpened stone. "Is that a threat?"

"Please, Cousin. I'm merely passing the information along. We Arameri must look out for one another."

"I appreciate your concern." I turned to leave, before my temper slipped any further ...

One hundred thousand kingdoms?
Not even  one convinces

The world of the hundred thousand kingdoms is one ruled by a small family through the help of a pantheon of enslaved gods who can be made to serve, and are sometimes referred to, as weapons.

No surprise, the gods are not happy with the situation.

Enter Yeine Darr, barbarian warrior chief from an obscure northern tribe, a blooded killer and leader of her people, despite 19 years. An unlikely heroine perhaps, but not too outlandish for an epic fantasy. Unfortunately, Jemisin writes Yeine as if she were a liberal arts graduate, not a knife-wielding barbarian warrior.

The evil Scimina
(not exactly as shown).

Her nemesis Scimina is an "evil bitch" (page 164) who delights in torture and who chortles like a villain from a 1940s-era superhero comic in anticipation of the enslavement of our heroine's people. The blatant sadism is all that makes Scimina memorable — and that is enough to make her the novel's most fully-realized character.

Beyond the nanometre characters, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms suffers from a number of structural problems as well. Foremost is the fact the story takes place over only two weeks.

During this brief period, we are expected to believe that Yeine visits her world's capital for the first time and masters its byzantine politics well enough to establish herself as a major player; that she is so wonderful at least one man and not one — but two! — fully-fledged gods fall in love with her (one of which habitually kills his lovers during sex, but who only treats Yeine to a rollicking S&M session); and finally, that by the time those two weeks are up Yeine threatens to overthrow both a two-thousand year old human civilization and to put an end to the balance of power among the gods themselves.

Mary Sue much?

All that would be a tall order for the most accomplished novelist; and first-timer Jemisin is certainly not that novelist.

As for those gods, when they aren't explaining their feelings to one another like celebrities discussing their therapy on Oprah, Jemisin's gods and goddesses bicker like teenagers on a network sitcom.

And sometimes, they hang with the (special) humans. Below, Yeine and the trickster-like god Sieh discuss the vast differences between mortal and immortal kind.

He glanced at me, and for a jarring, painful instant I saw confusion on his face. Enefa. He had spoken as if I was Enefa.

Then the confusion passed, and he shared with me a small, sad smile. "Sorry," he said.

I could not feel bitter about it, given the sorrow in his face. "I do seem to look like her."

"That's not it." He sighed. "It's just that sometimes — well, it feels like she died only yesterday."

The Gods' War had occurred over two thousand years before, by most scholars' reckonings. I turned away from Sieh and sighed, too, at the width of the gulf between us.

"You're not like her," he said. "Not really."

I didn't want to talk about Enefa, but I said nothing. I drew up my knees and rested my chin on them. Sieh resumed stroking my hair, petting me like a cat."

"She was reserved like you, but that's the only similarity. She was cooler than you. Slower to anger — although she had the same kind of temper as you, I think, magnificent when it finally blew. We tried hard not to anger her."

"You sound like you were afraid of her."

"Of course. How could we not be?"

I frowned in confusion. "She was your mother."

Sieh hesitated, and in it I heard an echo of my earlier thoughts about the gulf between us. "It's difficult to explain."

I hated that gulf. I wanted to breach it, though I had no idea if it was even possible. So I said, "Try."

His hand paused on my hair, and then he chuckled, his voice warm. "I'm glad you're not one of my worshippers. You'd drive me mad with your demands."

"Would you even bother answering any prayers that I made?" I could not help smiling at the idea.

"Oh, of course. But I might sneak a salamander into your bed to get back at you."

If you find that kind of dialogue insightful, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms has lots of passages just like it. If you don't find that kind of dialogue insightful, well... The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms has lots of passages just like it.

So what is it that makes this novel such a critical hit? Since it's not the prose or the characters, is it the depth of the world-building? Well, no. Not that, either.

Jemisin's world-building and mythologizing are as slipshod as her characterizations and plotting. Allow me to quote an early scene which manages to bring together almost all of the book's flaws at once.

And then the session was over, as the Overseer rang the chime that closed the day's business. I tried not to exhale in relief, because the whole thing had lasted four hours. I was hungry, in dire need of the ladies' room, and restless to be up and moving about. Still, I followed Dekarta's and Scimina's lead and rose only when they rose, walking out with the same unhurried pace, nodding politely when a whole phalanx of aides descended upon us in escort

"Uncle," said Scimina, as we walked back to the mosaic chamber, "perhaps Cousin Yeine would like to be shown around the Salon? She can't have seen much of it before."

As if anything would induce me to agree, after that patronizing suggestion. "No, thank you," I said, forcing a smile. "Though I would like to know where the ladies room is."

"Oh — right this way, Lady Yeine," said one of the aides, stepping aside and gesturing for me to lead the way. — [Page 62.]

"Ladies' room." Ladies' room. Ladies'. Room.

If fantasy is intended to convince the reader they have arrived in another time and another place, this sort of anachronism utterly shatters the illusion. In fantasy, arguably more than in any other kind of writing, language makes the world go round.

That a barbarian warrior would, first, complain about the rigours of(horrors!) a mere four hour meeting is not psychologically credible. That Jemisin has her speak like a secretary stretching after a long session of minute-taking left me feeling I had turned to page 131 of Pride and Prejudice only to find Elizabeth Bennett going out to the woodpile to find an axe while loudly proclaiming, "Well, I'm off to kick that Mr. Darcy's sorry fucking ass!"

Only in satire, in allegory or in very bad novels do barbarian chiefs from the northern wastes of a world not our own speak of ladies' rooms or talk about their feelings as if they had spent their college years in weekly sessions with a therapist.

I spluttered. It took me several tries to muster a coherent sentence through my fury, and when I did it was in Darre. I only realized it when Dekarta looked more confused than offended by my curses. "I am not Arameri!" I finished, fists clenched at my sides. "You eat your own young, you feed on suffering, like monsters out of some ancient tale! I will never be one of you in anything but blood, and if I could burn that out of myself I would!"

"Perhaps you aren't one of us," Dekarta said. "Now I see that you are innocent, and by killing you I only destroy what remains of her. There is a part of me which regrets this. But I will not lie, Granddaughter. There is another part of me that will rejoice in your death. You took her from me. She left Sky to be with your father, and to raise you."

"Do you wonder why?" I gestured around the glass chamber, at gods and blood relatives come to watch me die. "You killed her mother. What did you think she would do, get over it?"

For the first time since I had met him, there was a flicker of humanity in Dekarta's sad, self-deprecating smile. "I suppose I did. Foolish of me, wasn't it?"

I could not help it; I echoed his smile. "Yes, Grandfather. It was." [Page 362.]

Nothing about The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms convinces — not social background or the economies (what economies? Oh, never mind) or the societies that presumably make up the "hundred thousand kingdoms". What politics there are beyond the arcane rituals of succession — the invasion of Yeine's homeland — has all the verisimilitude of a round of Risk and what little we see of and hear about Yeine's matriarchal society itself is so thinly painted as to be beyond either criticism or belief.

What about location, then? Fantasy often provides the reader an exotic world in which he or she can loose their imaginations. And indeed, there is a remarkable structure that ought to provide some relief from the trite tediousness that is the rest of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms.

No prizes if you've guessed there's not much joy here, either.

With the exception of a brief and (unsurprisingly) a pointless visit to Yeine's home up north, the novel's action occurs in a single, enormous city/palace, Sky, a structure housing tens of thousands that rises a full half-mile into the air on a single, magical pillar.

Sky should be a memorable, an organic part of the story; think of the bucolic majesty of Middle Earth, of the decaying senility of Gormenghast, or even of the stolidly bourgeois edifice that is Hogwarts.

Gods and humans, living together in the sky ... the image should tower over the story, informing its atmosphere, shaping the lives of those within it, and indelibly stamping itself upon the imaginations of Jemisin's readers.

But here too, Jemisin seems not to have really thought things through. In the end, the image I came away with was of nothing more inspiring or terrifying than a second-hand report of someone who had visited the the corridors of a mid-rise office building in downtown Ottawa.

On page 226, Jemisin has her heroine portentiously proclaim, "There are things I know now that I did not know before." Having read The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms in full (you'll forgive me if I admit to having skipped the appendices), I can honestly say, There's a book I've read now that I had not read before.

I wish I could say otherwise.