In Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe, we take a look at science fiction and fantasy, why they’re great, and what they say about where our species has been and where it’s going.
The Broken Kingdoms is book two of The Inheritance Trilogy. The main premise of this book series is that the inhabitants of this world coexist with and even enslave their gods. There are three main “big G” Gods: Nahadoth, god of the night, Itempas, god of the day, and Yeine, goddess of twilight and the dawn. Any offspring from these three Gods are called godlings, and while not as powerful as their forebears, they have some impressive abilities. Without getting into specifics, I can tell you these Gods have disagreements and war sometimes. During the first book, Nahadoth is actually enslaved by humanity because Itempas chained him as punishment. The humans who had control of him, the Arameri, quickly became the undisputed rulers of the world, because any society that stood against them quickly fell to the overwhelming power of their pet God. The Arameri live in the palace pictured on the book cover – Sky, a castle in a tree. Shadow is the city that has grown under the tree, so called because the massive branches shade most of the city.
The author, N.K. Jemisin, is a relatively new author – book one of this series is her first novel that really exploded. I appreciate how prolific she is: The first book in the trilogy was published in 2010 and the third was published in 2011. That is a whole world, a full story, complete and entire, in less than a couple of years. That is refreshing as hell in the world of The Wheel of Time and A Song of Ice and Fire, the former of which took twenty-three years to complete, and the latter of which has been going for eighteen years and is nowhere near finished.
Praise this woman – she actually publishes fantasy regularly. It’s impressive.
The story she creates in The Broken Kingdoms focuses on the upheaval and changes in a city newly filled with godlings. For 2,000 years, godlings were not allowed in the human realm, but events in the first book ease that restriction, and now they participate in human society. The action of the book starts with the murder of one of their number, and suspense begins high and fast – who killed an immortal, and how did they do it?
The main character through whose perceptions the reader experiences the search for the murderer is Oree Shoth, a member of a marginalized race, the Maroneh. In the distant past, the rich and powerful island that was her people’s ancestral home was sunk beneath the waves by the fury of Nahadoth, the Arameri’s enslaved God. They were given space to settle in Arameri lands but have never really recovered. What’s special about Oree? Well, for one thing she’s blind, but not really.
The not really part is that she is magic – for some reason, she can “see” anything magical. In the enchantment-doused city of Shadow, this means she can get around easily by the glow of magic everywhere, and godlings she can see perfectly clearly, as they are beings of pure magic. Her magical ability also allows her to use paint and artistic representations to open doors to other places. Equipped with normal and godling friends and her abilities, she finds herself embroiled in the conflict bubbling at the center of this murder conspiracy.
Without discussing key events of the book, I want to talk about what is good and bad about this book. The best thing about this book is the mythos – Jemisin spends a significant amount of time explaining the origin of the world. First, there was Maelstrom, massive, incomprehensible, chaotic, feared by god and man alike. Maelstrom produced Nahadoth, god of the night, then Itempas, god of the day. They were brothers and more than brothers, and loved each other deeply. A few millennia later, Enefa, goddess of twilight, dawn, and life appears. Through her, procreation and the genesis of human life become possible. Later, there is a massive conflict among the Three that creates many of the problems explored in this book. The magic system is also interesting. All magic in this world originates in the gods, but in a world where Gods and godlings regularly had relationships with humans, many humans have a little godsblood in them and can channel a bit of magic. There is a competing form of magic wherein ungifted humans, through extreme study and materials manipulation, can use sigils, inscriptions, and artifacts to tap magical potential. Finally, the book has high readability. It’s a fast read because Jemisin follows a nicely balanced intrigue/payoff rhythm wherein suspense and lack of knowledge is set up, satisfied, and replaced by even more extensive intrigue in rapid oscillations, holding final satisfaction off until the last page of the book.
On the bad side, the characters seem a little light. Almost no one other than Oree is fleshed out at all, and even Oree herself is not an extremely complex character. The same lack of complexity affects the plot. It’s just event, event, event, TWIST, keep reading! It’s well put-together, but it’s built like a carpenter building a chair, not an architect building a cathedral. Also, the world surrounding the story is not very well explored. This could be because the books are comparatively short. I wasn’t sure whether to include this feature as a good thing or a bad thing, because Jemisin sketches out a massive world brimming with history by using a minimum of key explanations and events. This strategy can leave the world feeling a little bit hollow and flimsy, but it’s a blessed change from Robert Jordan’s strategy of describing every fold in every garment and the delicate silverwork on the side of every teapot.
You should read this. Some of the story elements are a bit weak, but it is strong on everything I look for in a fantasy: interesting premise for a new world, satisfying exploration of the mythology of that world, and a respectably put-together and exciting plot. Also, you should reward this author for actually finishing her book series instead of stringing people along for decades.
Andrew Findlay has strong opinions about things (mostly literature) and will share them with you loudly and confidently.