For the record, my copy of N.K. Jemisin's The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms came courtesy of a contest conducted by the writer Tricia Sullivan, whose novel, Maul, I read a few years back and which which has since stayed with me far more strongly than most. I wish I could say the same about The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. (Edited to fix typos. Thanks to shanaqui for the head's up.)
Stormwinds over a cardboard world
Nebula-nominated first novel is epic failure
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, if 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 ...
These are not words that sing, nor dialogue that breathes. Is there anything in this book that does? There is more on my website.