Title: The Broken Kingdoms and The Kingdom of Gods (Inheritance Trilogy books 2 & 3)
Author: N.K. Jemisin
Publisher: Orbit Books
Rating: 4/5 for The Broken Kingdoms; 3/5 for The Kingdom of Gods
How I got these books: As Christmas presents (because my in-laws are awesome)
Long-time readers of the blog know that I read and reviewed N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season last year, and it completely bowled me over. However, before I read that, I read and reviewed her debut novel The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms 2 years ago. So when I got The Broken Kingdoms and The Kingdom of Gods for Christmas a few months ago, it just seemed like the natural thing to do to read them this year.
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms ended with Yeine Darre, heir to the Arameri throne, ascending into godhood and becoming the second incarnation of Enefa, goddess of dawns and dusks, balance, and life. Upon her ascension, she and Nahadoth, the nightlord, punished the third god of their triumvirate by making him human and stripping him of the majority of his power. The goal was to make Itempas, lord of light and order, understand the privations of human life so that he could eventually “earn” his powers back.
At the beginning of The Broken Kingdoms, it’s been about a decade since Yeine’s ascension, and a young blind artist named Oree Shoth takes pity on a broken man she encounters, inviting him in for shelter and companionship. The thing is, even though she’s blind, she can see him. He gives off amazing bursts of light that only she can see within her head. Obviously, this newcomer — whom she dubs “Shiny” — must be more than he appears.
However, things in the capital city of Shadow are going haywire. Godlings have re-entered the mortal plane, and while their antics are fun to encounter (and also Oree’s bread and butter, since she sells handmade objects of worship), something completely new and unexpected has started happening: Godlings are dying.
Godlings can’t die. Or at least, they shouldn’t be able to. So who is doing this? And why? Oree’s ability to see magical power may be the key to answering both questions.
Of course, just because questions are answered doesn’t mean there won’t be new ones in the future.
The Kingdom of Gods takes place about a century after the end of The Broken Kingdoms. And in this third book, Jemisin takes her interest in liminal beings, in narrators who stand on the thresholds between different levels of power, and turns it on its head. Where Yeine was a woman who became a god and Oree was a woman with mixed mortal/immortal heritage, the narrator of The Kingdom of Gods is a mirror image of these two: Sieh is the god of childhood and immaturity, and he’s gradually becoming human. Over the course of the novel, his descent into mortality intensifies, because if there’s one thing that’s antithetical to the living, eternal embodiment of childhood, it’s the reality of growing old and frail.
The more I’ve read of Jemisin, the more I see what sort of tactics she uses to corral her characters towards the endpoint of the narrative. Characters may rapidly change their outlooks and behaviours, but those changes are rooted in a strong sense of ego and self-preservation. Things turn on a dime, become chaotic, become messy, become angry, become contradictory — but that’s because she takes great pains to portray the motivations and differing psychologies of the people in the story, and deftly interrogates exactly where everyone’s rough edges grind up against everyone else’s.
That said, I felt a real sense of diminishing returns between the first and the second book, and especially between the second and the third. As the stakes increasingly become larger, with first kingdoms, then gods, then entire universes at risk, the effect on me as a reader got duller and duller. It felt like I was being smothered in Epic — okay, so the god of vengeance tries to manipulate the entire universe by making a bajillion magially-infused masks explode while people are wearing them so he can reap their lifeforce, gain even more power, and thus overthrow the Big Three. Lots of things are exploding. Ho hum.
While the Inheritance trilogy overall is inventive in how it investigates concepts like colonialism, imperialism, power structures, entitlement, identity, and more, the last two books didn’t hit as hard to me as the first one did. Worst of all, the slow unspooling of backstory — like what caused Itempas to want to kill Enefa in the first place, or the fact that Enefa raped her own son at some point — felt anticlimactic. Itempas decided to kill Enefa because he was feeling jealous and left out when she and Nahadoth were spending time together. Before that, Enefa raped Sieh, her own son, because she was feeling lonely over being left out of Nahadoth and Itempas spending time together. In the end, it felt like the biggest issues at play — the reason why the whole universe risks flickering out like a candle — because three omnipotent beings just don’t have the rationality and emotional intelligence to, y’know, just talk things out.
Either that, or one could snarkily assume that the entire point of the series is that threesomes just don’t work. I dunno.
Maybe the real point Jemisin is trying to make is that gods have the same frailties as humans, that no matter how much power and control you have, you can still fuck up? That’s a more realistic assessment, but still — you’d think that the gods who created the universe the entire story is being told in could get their shit together.