Underground Reading: A Tan and Sandy Silence by John D. MacDonald

New Releases: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, Book 1 (The Inheritance Trilogy) The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (2010) is a somewhat convoluted tale of politics and deities. A young, rural noble, Yeine, is whisked away to the world's capital city, where she learns that she's one of three competing heirs to the throne. In the short time she has before her inevitable death by the hands of her competing cousins, Yeine has to unravel her family's secret history, understand the true nature of the land's strange gods and, most difficult at all, wade through a field of asterisms

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You don't want to click the link do you? An asterism is a series of three punctuation marks (usually periods or asterisks) that is used to denote subchapters. You may have seen it used. Perhaps if you're a 19th century printer. Or in a freshman poetry class.

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Interestingly, the author litters nearly every single page with these landmines of punctuation. This makes for a distinctive writing style. And by distinctive, I mean "frustrating". I can only guess at the intention. Perhaps they were meant to offset the near-stream of conscious (rivulet of consciousness?) style of the protagonist's first-person prose? But any advantage to doing that was swiftly lost when

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You're getting annoyed now right? Not just having the bloody things interrupt mid-sentence, but, if you're paying attention, you may have noticed that you're now reading in the second person, instead of the first.

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The book does toy with some interesting concepts - at least in passing. In the setting of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, the good guys have won. The evil night-god is imprisoned and forced to do construction work. The good sky-god and his kinfolk are ruling the world. Peace reigns. War is strictly controlled - and mostly bloodless. Yet, as the author constantly recites, there's something wrong about this. The ruling class is decadent, the succession schemes are bloody and some of the outlying barbarian cultures aren't getting equal representation in the Council of Nobles. (This is, interestingly, a topic raised in Robert Graves' I, Claudius - in which he talks about the excesses of Tiberius and the omnipresent fear of his close kin, but then also points out that, for the millions of people in the Roman Empire, life had never been better.)

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You'd probably want to know more about this interesting take on a fantasy civilisation, wouldn't you? Me too. 

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Most of the book focuses with Yeine and her family problems. Not to trivialize them - her family is composed of gods and emperors - but they're actually not that interesting. 

In fact, by the halfway point, the entire plot of the book has been established and the author has already underlined the moral conclusions (this world = WRONG). Yeine has five days to live, let's follow her around and see how she spends them... The answer, of course, being "in bed" - with her "thousand-mouthed, god-phallused" lover. Much to my distress, the only lengthy-un-asterismed passages are those in which Yeine is being taken to the great heights of pleasure (literally) and subsumed by the forbidden pleasures of her primordial lover. I'm not so prudish that I don't mind a good sex scene, but, for about half the book, that's all that happens. Should Yeine sleep with the captive-god? Ok, again? What about again? Oooh. Ok, it was reeeally good that time - but maybe she should... nope, happened again. ENOUGH.

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Asterisms do make writing a review a lot easier. You don't need to actually complete arguments. I'm starting to understand 

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Beyond the now-thoroughly-irritating asterisms, the book commits another horrific stylistic flaw. Italics are for emphasis. See? That stood out, didn't it? That's because, typographically, italics are different

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But your eyes get a little tired if you read paragraph after paragraph in italicised text. It isn't really meant to be read for a long period of time. Think about it, if it were legible, all text would be italics. But, waaaay too often, especially in genre fiction, authors use italics to convey the difference or the importance of an entire bloody scene. Perhaps the most overused convention is to have a particular character or method of communication always take place in italics. For example, any time a god speaks, or a character does some sort of psychic chit-chat. That's annoying, but almost forgivable - as long as said character doesn't mind-link for a page at a time. But to have entire scenes in italics? That's completely illegible. And it is particularly annoying when it is, say, the entire climax of the book. That's right, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (when you have to emphasise something in italics, you un-italicise it, which should say volumes about the legibility of italics right there...) actually wraps up the entire fate of the book, its protagonist, the empire and its holy pantheon... in a italicised wonderfest that turns the entire thing into eye-aching gibberish. If the entire climax is so important that it needs to be emphasised, isn't it more important that it can actually be read?

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Here's a question: where was the editor in all this? Here's another: was it their fault?

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The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is an exercise in style over substance. I find this a particular shame, as the style is atrocious and the substance is quite promising. I say this fully aware that style is a personal decision, and I applaud the author's daring-do in pushing the typographic and punctuated boundaries of genre fiction. I applaud, however, with one hand, as I need the other to pour myself some aspirin.

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