It’s rare that I read a book I would consider actually bad. Not trash – I read trash all the time – since that often knows exactly what it is, and is very very good at being trash. There can be a joy to it. And I think that means that, while it’s hardly exalted literature, it’s still, in some sense, good. No, I’m talking about something that thinks it’s doing one thing… but is often failing to do it, and just has no elegance or attraction in the process. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is most definitely in this category.
Which is surprising, because it got a Hugo nomination in 2011. It has overwhelmingly positive reviews on Amazon. The author got another Hugo nomination this year. All evidence points to this actually being a decent bit of literature by a decent author. But it’s not. And it’s not just that I don’t like it, thus it’s bad. I try to draw a distinction between those two on here, and I feel I’m pretty successful at it. There are plenty of novels that I’ve read that I acknowledge are excellent novels… I just don’t like them. And I didn’t even particularly dislike The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. But I was overwhelmed by the sense of a lack of… skill, I guess? You can often see what Jemisin is trying to do… but she just doesn’t succeed. I’m not sure how else I can categorise that other than “bad”. I’m just really surprised it seems so popular in spite of all that, given that what it’s trying to do isn’t all that innovative, fun or interesting either.
What particularly struck me throughout the whole of the book is how much Jemisin tells rather than showing. She tells you that a particular character is subtle and conniving… but they don’t behave that way, particularly. She tells you that one character hates another… but they never really act on it. And while the authorial voice does get to do that some of the time, when it builds up across a whole novel, it gets quite grating and, more to the point, makes everything feel wildly inconsistent. It feels like the authorial voice is unreliable… because what it’s telling you doesn’t tally with what you’re experiencing. And I can see that someone skilled could work that into something clever, maybe with a narrator like Loki or Lucifer who inherently cannot be trusted, and lots of subtle misdirection. It could be done really well, and be cool and clever and really exciting. But here it just feels like incompetence. I have zero emotional opinion on the female lead character, because I have no sense of who she is as a person. Her behaviour varies dramatically, and we get told plenty about her, but she never really behaves how the author describes her. So plenty of what happens in the book is surprising, which would normally be good, but in this case, it’s surprising just because the author hasn’t given us a firm grounding of who the character is. We can’t predict her, because we have no real idea of her personality. The author will tell us she’s from a strong, warrior people… and then the character won’t behave in the way the author describes those people… or she’ll do one brief thing to validate that description, then it’ll never be relevant again. It’s incredibly frustrating. And to some extent, it means that none of it is actually surprising at all… because if you can’t make a prediction, it can’t be thwarted by the unexpected. You don’t really expect anything that the characters do, but only because you’re never given sufficient information to form a coherent model of their behaviour upon which to base predictions. And it’s true of pretty much every character in the book, I think. One of them has an excuse for being inconsistent (it is statedly his nature to be that way) but the rest of them? I just don’t think there’s an excuse.
On top of that, the whole premise of the book is horrifically tropey. Not even just “I know exactly what’s going to happen but I’ll enjoy the ride because I like trash”. Worse than that. It’s taken all the plot and ideas of a Trudi Canavan novel, and multiplied by ten, but without the writing skills or the ability to make likeable characters. And Trudi Canavan is about my normal limit for this sort of trope. It’s the whole “young girl from poor background, suddenly discovers her bloodline/power/etc. and is thrust into the world of politics, but she’s too nice and straightforward for their upper class politicking and doesn’t do well, but then someone very important and sought after/handsome and powerful falls in love with her because of her straightforwardness”. It has been DONE. So very done. If you’re going to do it, you need to do it very very well, or add something interesting alongside it (Red Queen achieves the latter and partially the former, for instance, which is why I enjoyed it, as well as playing around with our expectations about the relationships). And this just doesn’t. And what’s worse, she can’t even write a good relationship…
That’s not a spoiler by the by. If you’ve read any of this genre before, it is blindingly obvious what’s going to happen within five pages.
So… we come to the reason I read the book at all. A friend was given it (I assume unwittingly by the giver) and found some lines so hilarious, he felt the need to share them with the rest of us:
“When heavy, thick warmth pushed into me, I had no idea whether this was a penis or some entirely different phallus that only gods possessed.”
“I suspect the latter, since no mere penis could fill a woman’s body the way he filled mine”
I’ll give you a second to dwell on that.
Now, bear in mind, this isn’t a bad female viewpoint written by a male author. It’s a woman writing this. I just… I cannot get over those lines. They were sufficiently hilarious, juxtaposed with the Hugo nomination, that I figured I had to read the book and find out more. But the romance they’re a part of just… there’s no feeling to it. No sense either. It’s that “telling, not showing” again. And it’s painful and awkward and horrible to read. Both actors are flat and lifeless, and I can see no reason for the romance on either side.
I feel bad now. She’s at least twice Hugo nominated, and here’s me declaring this utterly irredeemable trash. But, or a sort of but anyway, I will be reading another of her novels soon. As I said before, she’s been nominated again for the Hugo this year, for her novel The Fifth Season. I’m still working my way through Hugo nominations (and my next post is going to be a pause to discuss the Hugos broadly anyway) so I’ll be getting to it soon. Definitely after Seveneves, which I am currently reading, and probably after Uprooted, too. We’ll see. So she gets another chance, and maybe I change my opinion in the face of so much popular support. Has anyone else read this, or anything else by Jemisin? I’d genuinely really love discussion on this because I cannot fathom the popularity… unless her other books are startlingly better and this one’s just an unfortunate blip (which I know can happen).