Well, I stopped reading Dust
-- it's in the bathroom, just hanging out; maybe I'll try to pawn it off on some poor unsuspecting soul -- and picked up The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin
. I bought this book mostly because a crapload of people on the internet were talking about how great it is and how much they love the author (who, as far as I can tell, sometimes says smart things about race and the way people interact).
My relationship with this book started out really strong -- I was on the subway, coming off Dust
and feeling like I was never going to read an interesting book again. When I opened it and saw that at the very least the world-building and narrative were going to be interspersed, not completely separate things, I was so relieved! That relief drained away as I read more and more, until finally I tucked it inside my messenger bag, and every time I think about finishing it, I cringe.
There are a bunch of things in it that niggle at me, and then there are a few pretty huge problems -- and right now, my time for pleasure reading is so limited that I feel like it's a real, serious waste of my time to read books that aren't fantastic.
I'm not saying that I'm looking for perfect books -- just ones where when I put them down, I don't dread picking them back up again.
Then, the other day, eruthros
posted a mini-review
. Suddenly I felt much less alone, and much more comfortable discussing (in public) my problems with this book. (And, later, I will talk about why I am definitely not going to read the rest of the book.)
My biggest problem is the characters. They are uniformly boring. They are one dimensional. We know that the evil people are evil because they smile slyly and like kinky sex and seem at least on the surface to buy into the political theater of the court. We know that the good people are good because... oh. Wait. There are no good people except the heroine! There are no shades of grey! No one else is oppressed and having to make deals with their oppressors in order to live. Everyone is either bad and working against the heroine, and therefore evil, or bad and working for the heroine, and therefore slightly more tolerable.
The heroine confuses me. She's supposed to be a badass warrior-queen/leader/something. She's been doing it for a while? Or maybe only a few weeks? Or maybe several months, but many of those months were spent traveling across the world to see a king that she doesn't even respect or care about? (Why did she travel to see the king again? I have no idea.) She's not badass at all -- she's boring. It's not even that she's an unreliable narrator -- she's just kind of stupid about people. She's in a situation she's never been in before, so I guess I could cut her some slack, but it's the author's choice to set up the book like this. It's the author's choice to make her heroine a powerless ninny. Why make that choice?
I also think the choice to narrate the story in this way was a terrible one on the part of the author and her editor. There are a lot
of tangents. They are boring. World-building isn't something that should get in the way
of telling the story to the reader. The almost stream-of-consciousness narration that we're subjected to is so frustrating
. No, I do not want a three page tangent about something boring and unrelated -- I want to know about how the heroine is running for her life!
There are better ways to wodge into the text whatever important information the author thinks her readers should have.
Other issues: The one (so far) same sex relationship is the cause of all the sadness and destruction in the world. The people who enjoy kinky sex are evil. That's how we know they're evil, don't you see? No one not evil could ever want to put a collar on someone else for sexual gratification of all involved! The names don't make any sense; there doesn't seem to be a naming scheme for separate countries/ethnicies, or indeed any kind of thought given to language at all. (It's possible this is secretly my #1 problem, since why make up a world if you're not going to also make up language rules for it?) Plus, you know, at this point in the life of the genre of fantasy, incest isn't some big thing that automatically makes me suck in a breath and feel shocked; it's just sort of boring. And I'm really
tired of having to read about pedophilia. And you know what? I'm not interested in gods who have been sandpapered into tedious human-shapes with human morals and human desires. (What then, exactly, makes them gods? Immortality? Oh, but they can die and/or be killed? So what
makes them gods? Oh, the author says so? Not good enough!)
I put a call out on Twitter for negative reviews of this book, to see if other people were coming to the same conclusions I am. Like I said, I'd only seen people talking about what they liked about the book and its author until eruthros
helpfully supplied me with this review
, written by someone who apparently finished the book. (So... now some book spoilers. Actual things that will likely spoil the book itself for you.) winterfox
points out a blog post written by the author
in which the author says...
[...] one of the staples of epic fantasy is clearly-delineated good and evil... So I needed there to be one absolute, unadulterated ratbastard in the story [...]
WHAT. How can someone believe this? If the sentence had been, "One of the tropes in some fantasy novels is that good and evil are clearly delineated," then perhaps it wouldn't have irked me. But there's a lot
of fantasy out there, and some of that fantasy delights
in messing around with the ideas of good and evil.
The quote winterfox
pulled from the blog post ends with this:
Scimina [the evilest woman to ever evil in the book -- or so we're told by the heroine]: evil Just Because.
It was upon reading this that I realized that there's no way I can finish reading the book. It's going to lie around my house, and I am going to glare at it, and sulk about how I spent money on it, and in generally be incredibly annoyed until I talk myself into forgetting that I'm so pissed, give the book away, and move on. (Judging by how I still have not moved on from a similar epic sulk from 2007, this could take a long time!)
I am all for evil characters. I love
evil characters. I think they are fascinating and wonderful and fun. I also sometimes side with evil, finding the "good" characters in fantasy novels often desperately unfun, annoying, sanctimonious, and boring. (Examples: the Harry Potter books and the first Kushiel
trilogy by Jacqueline Carey.) Most of the time, one does not see an evil character reluctant to embrace their destiny of taking over the world -- often that's how we're supposed to know that said character really, truly is
evil. The "good" character is a whiny brat who doesn't want to go on a quest/embrace destiny/have magical powers/save the world. I'll save my rant on the reluctant hero for another time, though.
My point is that evil can be really sympathetic. Heck, evil can be sympathetic in real life! Evil can trick people into thinking it's not evil. Evil can make you cry for it. Evil, even when it's getting what it deserves, can pull compassion from you. That's something that is great
about evil (and people). Evil doesn't even have to be totally
evil -- it can be in a grey area. It can -- and, in fact, often is -- not evil at all, but instead just something that we/the protagonist disagree with. (A good example of this is the first Kushiel book, in which "evil" is the political opponent whose calm, rational political views disgust a bunch of people who don't really seem to even have a dog in the fight except for their personal relationship to the king or whoever. Sorry, I haven't read those books since, like, 2001 or whatever. But still!)
The author says in that blog post that she doesn't believe some of her characters are absolutely evil (in the moral sense; as opposed to...? the other kind of evil hanging around?) because they had reasons
for what they did, and because they are all capable of sorrow and regret. I'm not sure that resonates with me -- I think that without reason backing up what they do, characters become very lifeless.
In fact, advice I give often to my clients is to sit down with a list of their characters, every single character, and come up with reasons for those characters to do what they do and be who they are. I will even sometimes suggest writing short stories about each character, reminding the authors that every character probably believes zirself to be the protagonist of zir own story, regardless of how the author's chosen protagonist sees them! After all, most people do not often think, "Wow, I am a supporting character in the life of the person standing behind me in the grocery store!"
But this makes it clear that the author believes herself capable of writing nuanced characters. That's all well and good. Then she says that she did not want to know more about her "rat bastard" character -- she writes, "because it's hard to plot another person’s death if you know them and understand them"!!
Well, that's not true across the board, but maybe it's true for this author. But does that mean that her one "rat bastard" character, her one (supposedly) unambiguously evil character, must be paper-thin? To be honest, though, I doubt the author's ability to write a character that is not
one-dimensional, since even her beloved (boring) heroine has got nothing going for her. And why should I spend my time reading a book when the author couldn't even challenge herself to come up with a three-dimensional, interesting, compelling villain?
Most villains don't think of themselves as evil. I am hard-pressed to think of a book villain (in an adult fantasy novel) who sits around saying, "I'm so evil! Bwahahaha!" Most villains actually think they are the protagonists of the story. They think they are doing the right thing, that their position is unimpeachable. They think the protagonist
is evil. If the author isn't going to put herself in that position, if the author isn't going to even bother trying to understand why the "villain" might think that way, not only is the reader being cheated out of an interesting villain, the reader is being cheated out of a protagonist who isn't 100% perfect in everyone's eyes.
A lot of the reviews I read (just from people on my blogroll who are readers, who are into the author's nonfiction on the subject of race and social justice) mentioned that the prose is amazing. I'll give the author this: she can write a sentence. But the sentences never string together into something really compelling. It's just the same overwrought, faux-formal narration that a lot of epic fantasy suffers from.
I think I take it back that this book's biggest problem is the characters. I think this book's real biggest problem is its hype. I could have picked this up and read it in a few hours and maybe not gotten so het up about it if eight million people hadn't told me that it's the Best! Book! Of! The! Year! And! All! The! Other! Years! Too! It's a first novel. Every bit of it suffers from a lack of editing. It's not anywhere close to being the worst book I've read this year. Heck, if it had landed on my desk, I'd've probably acquired it. The author has some interesting ideas and way better than passable writing -- she just needs to be critiqued and challenged more.
In a few years, when she's done writing in this universe, I'll pick up whatever she writes next and see if she's gotten any better. It happens!
(I hope she writes a standalone! I know, I know, I'm the only person in the world who wants standalone fantasy novels that are 200,000 words long. Whatever. Go on! Read your 15-book series! Leave me alone!)
I would be really interested to read your thoughts on this book, and on villains/evil. Comments and links to your own posts on the subject(s) both welcome.
Next to be read: The Alchemy Of Stone by Ekaterina Sedia
. No one recommended this to me, and I don't know much about it. I was doing that thing where I just click around Amazon, looking for something cool to read (south Brooklyn doesn't have any bookstores to browse in meatspace; it's a tragedy!) and I found it. I read the Publishers Weekly
review and decided I wanted to give it a shot -- I mean, automatons! Alchemists! Statues that want souls! Terrorists! How could I pass that up? I'll let you know how it goes.