Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

One-star/five-star reviews, and The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, by N.K. Jemisin

I'm curious to know how many of you have had the experience of reading a book, deciding you love/hate it, and then reading a highly critical/laudatory review and thinking, "You know, they're right, I didn't think of it that way before," and revising your opinion? Do you actively seek out negative opinions, even of a book you like, to find out why some people didn't like it?

Thing to keep in mind about reviews, whether on Amazon or Netflix: most of the reviews will be positive. This is for two reasons. First, most people don't care enough to trash a book or movie they really hated; in fact, if they really didn't like it, they probably didn't even finish it. Second, most people won't start reading a book or watching a movie that they don't expect to enjoy, and assuming you are a good judge of what you'll like, that means most of what you read/watch will be something that you at least found okay.

I usually don't read reviews before I read a book, for fear of spoilers; just summaries and maybe some of the general "buzz" about it. But after I read it, I'll go looking for reviews. I'll skim some of the positive reviews, but then I'll specifically seek out the one- and two-star reviews.

I've never actually been moved from hatred to love or vice versa, but I have certainly revised an opinion downward or (much more rarely) upward, after thinking awhile on others' criticisms.

I had this experience with Deathly Hallows, for example. After first reading it (bear in mind, I read the entire Harry Potter series in a month, knowing very little about it before I started), I liked it very much. It wasn't perfect, but overall I considered it a satisfying ending to the series.

After I started reading critiques of it, however, particularly Daniel Hemmens's very snarky chapter-by-chapter review, I realized that there were in fact a lot of flaws that I hadn't really noticed before. I would now say that I still like Deathly Hallows, but it's not a really great book and I can definitely understand why so many of Rowling's fans hated it, even discounting the shipping nonsense. (Again, since I read the whole series at once, I had built up no expectations regarding the ending and couldn't care less whether Harry got with Hermione.)

Anyway, that's the prelude to my review of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin. My first impression as I was reading it was, "Damn, this is good!" By the end, a little of the luster had worn off. It's still a good book, but after I finished it, I went trawling for reviews. It's been getting mostly excellent reviews and it's all over the fantasy blogosphere as the hot new book for 2010, but I did find a few reviewers who picked up on the same problems I had with it.

I still liked it, but I think I'm going to give it 4 stars, rather than the 5 I initially thought.

Review below the cut; only very minor spoilers.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is set in an (unnamed) fantasy world ruled by the Arameri, a royal family who maintains power over the hundred thousand kingdoms thanks to their enslaved gods. Over the course of the book, you learn more about the gods, and the Gods War, and how they came to be enslaved.

The main character, Yeine, is the ruler of a small, backwater kingdom in the far north. (She's also dark-skinned, in contrast to the fair-skinned Arameri, which isn't a huge part of the story but it does get mentioned quite a lot, the fact that she's a "barbarian" from a "darkling race.") But her mother was in fact an Arameri heir who fell in love with a dark, northern barbarian (Yeine's father) and left her homeland, thus being cast out of her family.

Yeine's mother died recently, and Yeine is unexpectedly summoned to Sky, the floating city on another continent from which the Arameri rule. When she arrives, her grandfather, the current head of the Arameri, names her as a prospective heir. This means that in theory she has a shot at becoming the defacto ruler of the world. Unfortunately, her two cousins are already prospective heirs, and three heirs is two too many. Cue succession politics, palace intrigue, lots of strange and disturbing magic, mortals using gods as pawns, gods using mortals as pawns, Yeine trying to find out who killed her mother and why her mother left Sky, and of course, a climax involving lots of god-powers being unleashed.

It's written in lush, descriptive prose, and the characters are emotional and have passionate relationships (loving and hateful), something I found quite lacking in my most recent read, Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn. There is some subtext about class and race and the exercise of power, but it's not really a metaphor for anything specific. If anything, it's a bit cliched: the ruling family is arrogant and cruel and treats everyone else like disposable playthings (as you'd expect from an aristocracy that's had pet gods on a leash for two thousand years), and Yeine's rival cousins are almost cardboard in their villainy. Her grandfather is a little more interesting, though only towards the end.

Yeine is a character we've seen before: the fierce but naive, essentially good-hearted person who's suddenly thrown into a shark tank. She makes friends with subordinates who will later be important, largely by acting like a human being instead of a sadistic monster like they're used to.

There is a bit of a whodunit to go with the palace intrigue: who killed Yeine's mother? Of course this turns out to be part of a much larger conspiracy. Any more details would be spoilers, but I'll say that I guessed most of the major twists well ahead of time.

One thing I really liked about the book was the gods. They feel and act like gods. They're powerful enough to literally destroy continents (there is a scene where one of the gods actually does this, and no, that's not a spoiler!), despite being enslaved by mortals. They act inhuman and unknowable, and then suddenly very human and flawed. Humans really are made in their image in this world. The cosmology bears certain similarities to Hindu mythology, but I got a strong Milton/Paradise Lost vibe towards the end. (The difference being that a couple of characters seem to exchange roles as Lucifer.)

What I didn't like:

The world is very interesting, but there really wasn't much worldbuilding. Most of the book takes place in Sky, so Yeine's homeland is the only one of the hundred thousand kingdoms that gets more than a passing mention.

Yeine and the gods were interesting characters, but practically no one else was.

Yeine's romance with Nahadoth, the god of chaos/darkness/change got a bit tiresome, especially the sex scenes. Yes, yes, he's so hot and dark and brooding and godly, and having sex with a god is awesome but dangerous. The author writes a whole flying-through-the-universe-amidst-the-stars sequence, ending with them plummeting back to earth like meteors and literally smashing the bed... Groan.

The denouement was muddled and lost me a bit.

Finally, Jemisin did another thing that Sanderson did, but in an even more annoying way: inserting exposition into the story. Sanderson did this in the form of excerpts from journals and the like, but at least they were limited to the beginnings of chapters. Jemisin has Yeine frequently inserting asides to herself, or internal dialogs with a yet-to-be-identified interlocutor, between paragraphs. This is okay as an occasional writing device, but she way overused it, and it gets distracting and annoying, especially as it becomes increasingly unclear who the hell Yeine is talking to.

So, overall, this was a good first novel, but very much a first novel. I'm not entirely sure I'll follow the rest of the series; the excerpt of the first chapter from book two seems to have an entirely different tone and storyline, and while I liked Jemisin's writing, I'm not so in love with it that she's joined my small list of authors from whom I want to read everything.
Tags: books, fantasy, harry potter, n.k. jemisin, reviews

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