Netflix knows I’m a feminist. Untrue. Netflix knows I like movies and TV shows with “strong female protagonists.” May as well be the same thing. I should probably create that as a category on this blog, too. I do like books with women who are complicated, deep and challenging. I guess because I like reading about nuanced, complex characters and turns out, women are those, too. What I do not like reading are stock ‘strong female protagonists’ you know the sort who have ‘boy-like’ figures and unwieldy curly hair and piercing eyes (you noticed those were all descriptors of appearance, too, huh?). Who are awkward or ungainly, who aren’t supposed to succeed, but do because they are overlooked because of their previously stated ‘unconventional’ appearance. These female characters are confident, they’re independent and yet they end up relying on men (or in this case gods) (see the Divergent series for a great parallel, here, or Twilight for that matter) and don’t see it as reliance (or an abdication of their independence), but as a admission that their fierceness is all exteriority and really they do need help and someone has finally recognized their preciousness. Someone sees them for who they really are. Yawn.
It wasn’t just that The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms has one of these stock ‘unconventional’ strong female protagonists (who is secretly not-as-strong-as-she-looks and needs her man). Usually I can accept the character – or the text – on its terms and enjoy other elements, or enjoy the character needing others (because that can be enjoyable, too). But this book was just terrible in so many other ways, too. Woe was me that this was the only book I took on the plane with me (lesson here in packing more than one book in your carry-on. I made the same mistake in only bringing How to Be Both on the flight-there and finished it in the first half of the flight leaving me bookless and bereft – or maybe a lesson in getting an e-reader? but we all know how that ended last time: submerged in the tub).
Anyway, here are the ways it was terrible (in addition to its really sucky protagonist):
Overly and unnecessarily complex world-building: one of the reasons I love fantasy is for reading the way the worlds are constructed and imagined, the elements of magic (and where they appear) the alternate and parallel societal structures and the ways these are played with, the introduction of geography and the effort to situate the reader among these elements. One of the reasons I disliked this book was it made no effort to guide the reader in these elements. It assumed familiarity (to the point I thought maybe I was reading book two in a series) and in consequence overwhelmed this reader with detail, hierarchies, names, relationships and histories. It was too much and not enough all at once.
Inconsequential Plot: The thrust? Some gods have been made ‘slaves’ to a race of people and are being ‘held captive’ in human bodies. Our ‘daring’ female protagonist happens to have a duel soul – sharing her soul with that of one of these gods – only she didn’t know she had this duel soul until the sexy-god-man revealed it to her (yawn). With her duel soul she can emancipate the slaved gods and punish their captors. To do so she’ll be killed (or will she? or will the sexy-god-man save her? you might as well predict the outcome). This plot has potential! Make some connections to social inequality, to racial inequality, to inequality! make connections to forms of violence and oppression. Make the god characters someone I could care about by describing more than their “cavernous dark eyes”. No such luck.
Tired tropes of other characters: Evil step-sister? check. Punishing patriarch? check. Wise woman with potions and herbs? (re: witch) check. Sexy-dangerous lover? (Edward, anyone?) double check.
So yeah, this wasn’t a good book for me. But a bazillion other people seem to really love it (getting both Hugo and Nebula nominations for best book). So… tell me where I’m wrong. I’m willing to change (because, I too, am secretly not-as-confident-as-I-look). Untrue.