sff she-read #4: THE HUNDRED THOUSAND KINGDOMS, by N. K. Jemisin

The original she-read post.

I came in wanting to like this book, and at times I did. Jemisin’s writing is good, her main character is well textured, her descriptions of horribly deformed creatures and gods and sex with gods and all the other crazy fantasy stuff are well done. The high-concept gloss of the book is good as well — here’s a succession drama in which it’s [SPOILERS] immediately made evident that the character we’re rooting for has no chance of winning. But the worldbuilding is thin, and most of the supporting characters are thin, and I just didn’t quite get pulled into the dream.

I’m genuinely starting to wonder whether publishers and agents are exerting pressures that work against what I like. I mean, this is the first book in a trilogy, and obviously Jemisin has more up her sleeve; but I’m trying to figure out whether she wanted to write the doorstopper that it feels like this needs to be. The book starts in an uncomfortable compromise between in medias res (which would have been when Yeine was well into politicking, one assumes) and the sort of “here’s the status quo” beginning you’d find in, say, Tolkien, that I guess is viewed, possibly rightly, as boring. But it means we begin with all the incomprehension of in medias res without the excitement that would come from actual suspense.

The book is called THE HUNDRED THOUSAND KINGDOMS but we only ever teleport once, briefly, to one or two of those kingdoms; the main sense of place we get is the city of Sky, without any of the texture of domination that we could get going through its vassal nations — which is the sort of thing one could work into a long journey narrative, if there were other ways to keep it interesting. We’re meant, I think, to appreciate the intricacies of palace politics, but there’s really only one other player in the political game and she has Yeine so far outclassed that she barely understands what’s happening as it happens. We’re meant, I think, to appreciate the multifariousness of the gods who serve the Amn people of Sky, but I don’t think we ever see a god take an order from anyone other than a main character, nor do we see more than the four or five gods who are recurring characters. We’re meant to feel the contradiction between Yeine’s concept of her mother and how her mother was (and turns out always to have been); but we have to be told, there’s no sense for it. We’re meant to be overawed at the immense weight of history behind the elder gods, but despite that weight of history, everything consequential that involves them is happening for the first time.

This is so much about texture, and my own barely-above-threshold reactions. I’ve tried to anatomize them here, but I’m not even a little bit sure I’ve done it right. And maybe really deep worldbuilding is not what everybody asks from fantasy. But I think that’s the point at which I failed to connect with this book. For better or worse, I could have forgiven the problems with characterization; Yeine, Nahadoth, Dekarta, and Sieh are drawn competently enough that Relad’s flaccidity and Scimina’s uncomplicated evil could have been forgivable, especially since the real drama is more about Yeine’s discovery of her mother. But that drama isn’t made especially trenchant. And this world that we are told is gigantic and manifold and god-infested is, to my eyes, a Potemkin village. (Which every fantasy is, in actuality — but it’s the trompe-l’oeil that seizes the synapses.)

Since it’s fortuitously apropos: For a couple of the bones of an argument against worldbuilding, see this provocative bit by M. John Harrison, courtesy of Phil Tucker. I’m not convinced about the observation, but Harrison is of course exactly right about the prescription. Note also that his argument is correlative, not causal. He describes a relationship that happens to be; he gives no account of why it is, if he even thinks it is, obligatory.

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6 thoughts on “sff she-read #4: THE HUNDRED THOUSAND KINGDOMS, by N. K. Jemisin

  1. Pingback: sff she-read 2012 « the pulchrifex papers

  2. Another excellent review.

    I briefly debated with Jemisin on her blog about Scimina’s two dimensional evil nature. I told her that she failed to work for me due to her lack of depth or humanity, and consequently ruined my suspension of disbelief. Jemisin replied that she just wanted her to be evil, and didn’t need her to serve any other purpose. In effect, she thought that her novel needed a villain, and so Scimina was crafted for that sole role and that role alone.

    I agree with you. I think the novel would have been much stronger if it had had another 15k words fleshing out the setting. A more complex court, for example, would have lent greater credibility to the scope of Sky’s rule. Glimpses of these other Kingdoms. I don’t know–despite really enjoying Jemisin’s lively style, mostly strong characters, and vivid imagination, I was left unconvinced by the world’s lack of depth.

    • I got the very strong sense (probably wrong) that some of the problem was actually not imagining the world deeply enough (the history of the gods is where this is most problematic), but most was not being able to figure out where and how to render that imagination, or possibly suppressing it in favor of commercial concerns like word count and starting with action. Leaving Jemisin in particular aside (and coming back to my ATWS review), it’s funny how we dilate time. In THE HANDMAID’S TALE or the HUNGER GAMES trilogy you see an America that’s made literally unrecognizable in a handful of decades, but then in Steven Erikson or Bear or Jemisin you see entities who’ve existed for thousands of centuries but don’t give evidence of thinking or judging things much differently than a normal person would.

      I’d be interested in the link to your conversation with Jemisin, if you’d care to post it. Thanks for the comment!

    • I was sort of hoping that your summary had glossed over some nuance, but I guess not. Huh. So, yeah, nothing insightful from me. I think it’s weird that you’d view some tic of an on-average pretty derivative, commercialized genre as a structural necessity that ipso facto mandates scanting the psychology of a major character. It’s sort of like saying “Well, I’m writing a romantic comedy, so the leads have to have a bad break about two-thirds of the way through, but my plot doesn’t really support that happening, so it’s just going to happen and later we’ll find that Jill had a brain tumor that temporarily changed her personality.”

      … OK, actually, that sounds like a kind of cool romantic comedy. I guess it’s more like saying that Jill had a super-bad PMS attack or was just in a bad mood.

      The other bizarre thing about it is that lots of very famous contemporary epic fantasy doesn’t scant the psychology of the villains. Ice & Fire, the Malazan Book of the Fallen, the Kingkiller Chronicle — there are definitely implacably evil people and entities in those books, but in general the authors at least try to sketch where it comes from. (Hmm… actually, the Cthaeh in THE WISE MAN’S FEAR *might* be an exception. But I think it has a backstory.)

  3. Pingback: what’s missing from npr’s top 100 sf picks « the pulchrifex papers

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