The Inheritance Trilogy by N. K. Jemisin had been on my radar for months before I finally got around to reading the first book, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. The series was talked about in my social media circles for a few different reasons. One, the author is a woman of color (traditionally published woman and traditionally published woman of color within the SF/F genres alone is something worthy of noticing). Two, the main character is a woman, and is also very clearly a woman of color (with the caveat given that her world is not our world, and while there is what can be seen as racial prejudices, it’s more a matter of a superiority complex by one group versus all these other groups – oh, wait. No caveat needed, after all.) Three, gods are real, are on stage, are part of the story (that is, it’s very much a pagan friendly trilogy).
Maybe the last point isn’t all that surprising, given that we’re talking about secondary world fantasy here, but from what I’d heard, it was polytheism done right, even if the gods were not any of ‘our’ gods, and polytheism done right in not as common on the ground in fantasy as you might imagine.
I’d even managed to get my hands on the first book from my local library more than once, only to return it unread. I think I was nervous that the hype was too much, that it wouldn’t live up to all the wonderful things I’d heard about it.
The first book, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, is, almost right away, my favorite kind of book. In the beginning, or shortly after the beginning, there was Nahadoth, the Nightlord, god of night, of chaos, of change, of darkness, of all the scary things. He was lonely, and after forever and ever and ever, there came Itempas, god of order and of justice, of the heavens. He was everything Nahadoth was not, they fought for a very long time, but they were all there was, and they were drawn to each other, and so they didn’t always battle, and there was love, and so their cycle went, for another forever and ever and ever. Then came Enefa, goddess of life and death, of growth, of the earth, mother of mortals and godlings. She was a bit of both of them, complimentary to both her brothers, and there was strife, and love, and hatred, and jealousy, and commitment, and all the messy things that families have.
Back before the series begins, there was a God’s War. Itempas murdered Enefas, sides were forged, gods and godlings were drawn into the War, and opting to not take a side planted you firmly on the wrong side. Itempas won, eventually, and in his anger, he enslaved all those who opposed him, locking them in a prison of mortality, and giving the control of them to his favored people, the Amn. Fast forward to the present time, and what we have is a race of people who control gods as slave, who worship and only accept Itempas as god, and who have spread this bizarre, bastardized monotheism across the globe. Their power is unchecked, for who was left to check it? They are bold, and they are fearless, and they are blind to the danger in their midst.
The protagonist of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is Yeine, a woman of mixed blood, and torn loyalties. Born and raised among the matriarchal Darr, Yeine is called to Amn by the patriarch of the Arameri and ruler of Sky, only to find him naming her heir. Trouble is, he’s named two other heirs. Succession goes to whomever is strong enough to survive deadly politicking that passes for battle among the Arameri. Though Yeine was the leader of her own people before she was summoned to Sky, she is ill-prepared to withstand the danger her cousins present. Luckily for her – maybe, maybe – she’s got the gods on her side. She’ll need them, because soon it becomes clear that there is more than simple succession at stake. She’s a weapon being shaped by the very gods themselves, in a desperate attempt at liberation.
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms sets the tone for the rest of the series, in that it is a ‘can’t put down’ sort of book. It’s hard to find gods that are not real in the way that our gods are real — rooted in history and coming down to us through time, as much a part of our species’ past and our understanding of the world, real in that sense even if one is not a theist — that read as real, to me. They might be called gods, but I can count on one hand the number of times that they’ve seemed believable as gods, in fantasy — Jemisin makes her gods real. They are rich and authentic, complex but approachable (some of them, anyway; I don’t know that I’d approach all of them), and more to the point, they belong in the story, in the world. It’s a beautiful thing. I can’t recommend this book highly enough.
(Fair warning — the rest of the review will contain spoilers for the book that preceded it.)
The Broken Kingdoms picks up ten years after the end of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. The gods have been freed, Itempas has been imprisoned in mortal flesh, trapped and cursed by Yeine via Nahadoth, to not be free until he manages to ‘right all the wrongs inflicted’ in his name. We meet Oree Shoth, a blind artist who takes in the cold, quiet stranger she finds one day in the muckbin. He’s rude, and distant, and aloof and she doesn’t quite know what to make of him. Neither does her sometimes lover, Madding, a godling living in Shadow.
One thing leads to another, as these things do, and before long Oree is learning all sorts of things about herself, about her parents, about her blood, and about the plans that the Armnhea have for her. Without the patronage of their beloved Itempas, who seems to have abandoned them, they are in a desperate grab for power — even if that means killing all the gods in all the world. They don’t want to, necessarily; they simply want the power to be able to do it, and that means getting their hands on the one thing sure to kill gods and godlings alike — the blood of a demon, the offspring of a mortal and a god. They should not exist, not anymore, not since the Gods’ War, but some managed to sneak through life unnoticed. Some, even, have no idea what they truly are . . .
The Broken Kingdom is a very good second book, and while it’s my least favorite of the three, I think this actually speaks to the strength of Jemisin’s skill as a storyteller. I was sympathetic to Oree, and it was great to see a protagonist that was not as able-bodied as protagonists generally are, but there was much about the story I didn’t care for. I do not like Itempas as a person — I’m not inclined to be sympathetic to a being who decided it was the best choice to enslave and torture a large number of his family, and then to set himself up as the only god to be worshiped. The stories and myths of solar deities in general, of king gods, are not my most favorite, either, and that worked against this book for me. I did not want to want good things for Itempas, and it was hard to swallow that Oree would be kind to him when, at least at first, he was an ass to her.
Except, over the course of the book, Itempas became sympathetic. I cared about him, largely because Oree cared about him, but also because he was wrong. He was proud and he was powerful, and he was wrong in his actions. He was stubborn and headstrong, and self-righteous — and able to admit that, eventually. He was quintessentially himself, and in that, Jemisin created a completely believable character who, even if I did not like him on a personal level, I could admire for his complexity. One might say that it takes more skill to render a desipicable character sympathetic over the course of the story. In this, Jemisin succeeds.
Which brings us to The Kingdom of Gods, and oh my god, this book! The Kingdom of Gods is, hands down, my favorite of the three. Our protagonist for this one is none other than Seih, Trickster god of childhood. The oldest of the godlings, and one of the somewhat recently freed gods, Seih doesn’t have much to do with humanity in general since Yeine became a goddess and freed them all. Can’t blame him; he has reason to hate the Arameri — moreso than most. He happens by Shahar and Dekarta quite by accident. They’re young at the time, and he is a god of mischief and play, so you can’t really blame him for taking a liking to them. When, after winning a potentially deadly contest of wills with him, and they ask for his friendship as their prize, they decide to seal the deal the way kids do — with a blood pact.
What they didn’t expect was for part of the palace to be destroyed, for young Shahar and Dekarta to be injured, or for Seih to find his godhood beginning to slip away. And that is just the beginning of the trouble.
This book covers more time in story, with more jumps of a few years or more, than the other two, and that means it has the potential to feel disjointed. It both is, and is not. It is — but the protagonist is experiencing those jumps first hand and is just as unsettled by them, and so it’s a great effect that helps drive home that everything Seih is experiencing is tinged with a mortality that has never been as real as it is now. Even when he was a slave, even when he could live and die as a mortal, he would always come back. This time, it would be for keeps.
I want to jump up and down in my seat, such is my love for this book. I didn’t think it would be — I’m always more interested in seeing the contact between mortal and supernatural through the eyes of the mortal’s experience, and I was a bit leery about having the god as the protagonist, but I should not have been. I loved the first book, and I liked the second book well enough — it fit the series, it made sense, it was solid on its own — but this last book is so, so good. Uplifting and captivating and larger than life and depressing and endearing and edge-of-your-seat reading. I was so glad to finally get around to reading book one; nothing could have made book three better. I am hooked on N.K Jemisin’s writing, now.
[Jolene Dawe is a polytheist devoted to Poseidon and Odin. She is the author of Treasures from the Deep, a collection of Poseidon’s myths retold, and The Fairy Queen of Spencer’s Butte and Other Tales. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her partner, a small horde of cats, one small dog, and three spunky spinning wheels. You can find her online at http://thesaturatedpage.wordpress.com%5D.]