When I first got into mythology, one of the questions I asked myself was: what if the gods still walked amongst us? At the time I was only nine or ten, and the scope of my knowledge of any kind of mythology was limited to the Greek pantheon, and hence when I considered the question it mostly had to do with the possibility of Athena showing up on my doorstep and asking me to go on a quest on her behalf.
Since that time I have, of course, read about the mythologies of other countries, and have also had access to other novels that explore this concept – American Gods is the first one I read that explores this idea, and since then there have been a lot of urban fantasy novels that have tried to look at the idea of not just gods, but all kinds of mythological entities, living side-by-side with humans. The concept has even filtered down into young-adult novels, with Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson novels being a prime example. Fantasy has done this too, in its own way, but I have not encountered very many novels that play around with this idea.
Fantasy has, of course, played with this concept as well, perhaps for longer than even urban fantasy ever has, since there are many, many novels that hinge on the idea of the gods returning to the world, or the gods leaving the world. Such novels tend to explore the consequences of the gods’ return, or their departure: what happens if the gods come back? What happens if they leave? How will humanity cope with them or without them?
These are some of the questions that N.K. Jemisin set out to answer in her Inheritance Trilogy series, which begins with The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. It is the story of Yeine Darr, who is summoned to the city of Sky by her long-estranged grandfather. There she learns the darkest secret of the Arameri, the ruling family of almost the entire world, and from whom Yeine claims descent. At the end of the novel, she ascends to godhood after uniting the soul of the goddess Enefa which was planted within her before her birth by the very gods inhabiting Sky, in an attempt to free themselves from the control of the Arameri and of Itempas. After this, she imprisons Itempas in a mortal form, while she and the other gods go forth into the world, their influence and power returned to them at last.
The next novel, The Broken Kingdoms, starts ten years after the events of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, with a whole new protagonist. This time it is Oree Shoth, an artist who might be considered blind by conventional standards, but is, in fact, capable of seeing magic – a skill she uses in her art. After leaving her native land of Nimaro in order to find a new life elsewhere, she finds herself in the city of Sky, which has since been radically transformed by the events of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Where the city stood there now grows a giant tree called the World Tree (an event which occurred to mark Yeine’s ascension to godhood and the return of the Gray Lady in the first novel), and is now known as “Shadow,” because most of it is under the shadow of the World Tree. But underneath its boughs walk not just humans, but godlings: minor gods who, having been locked away from the mortal realm since the Gods’ War, have decided to walk amongst humans once again. They are familiar figures to Oree, who can see them though she can’t see anyone or anything else because they are magical.
And then one day she finds a godling in the alley behind her house. Uncertain as to his identity, she takes him in anyway, and gives him the name “Shiny” when he refuses to give her his name. For several months they live together in relative peace, until Oree’s world is shattered when she discovers a dead godling, and is sought out by the Itempan Order so that they might pin the murder on her after Nahadoth gives the city a deadline to discover the perpetrator of the crime. She then gets caught up in a plot involving the gods, Shiny – and her own, dangerous heritage.
One of the first things that the reader will note about this novel is the shift in tone in terms of writing. Jemisin’s language is as beautiful as ever, but it has none of the dreaminess that existed in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. There is a solidity in it, a sort of down-to-earth feel that did not exist in the first novel. Oree speaks (since this is a first-person narrative) in a voice that is entirely familiar, and entirely comfortable – even her sarcasm is familiar. I suppose this can easily be attributed to the fact that Oree is a commoner and remains mortal at the end of the novel, whereas Yeine (the narrator of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms) is technically noble and attains godhood at the end. This shift in tone and language does something to the pace of the novel, as well: the second novel seems to move at a quicker, snappier pace than the first, and deals with the plot in a more straightforward manner. There is still a lot of skipping back and forth between the past and lore and the present, as there was in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, but The Broken Kingdoms has none of the fluid sliding from one to the other that there was in the first novel. Again, I say that this shift is not a bad thing; it’s just different, and, I think, appropriate, given the differences between the two narrators.
And now that I speak of the characters, I must say that Jemisin has once again done very well in her writing of Oree and Shiny. Though Yeine and Oree are nothing alike, they are still both enjoyable characters: their voices are a pleasure to read, they are both strong in their own way, and are capable of doing what they must for the good of the world, even if it means sacrificing something they hold dear. I must, however, profess a bit more preference for Oree as a character – not because she’s in any way better than Yeine, but only because I like her wit and sarcasm more. Yeine is more aloof than Oree, and while I can appreciate that, I like how Jemisin has written Oree as more affable and approachable than Yeine ever was.
As for Shiny, that is an interesting thing as well. Readers of the first novel will almost immediately recognize Shiny as Itempas, originally the chief god of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms until the concluding events of the first novel saw him cast down and punished to a mortal form by Yeine. I really enjoyed the way Jemisin wrote his character: broken and still healing, proud but learning humility. in truth, after I figured out who he was I was entirely prepared to hate him, but Jemisin gradually builds his character in such a manner that it is difficult to well and truly hate him – he is no less a villain, of course, but he is at least a sympathetic villain, one whom the reader would like to see reformed and, perhaps eventually, happy.
His relationship with Oree is particularly fascinating, and more interesting to me than the relationship between Nahadoth and Yeine in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. My partiality to the Oree-Itempas relationship might be because of my bias towards Oree, but I think it’s also because their dynamics are more complex than the Yeine-Nahadoth relationship. There is a certain fatalistic attraction between Yeine and Nahadoth, which, while interesting, I have seen explored in a great many other books (though to be truthful, very few write it as well as Jemisin does). Oree and Itempas, on the other hand, have to learn to love each other, which I think is truer to what love ought to be: a learning process, where one learns to love the other for everything they are, and everything they are not. I also liked the fact that they do not get the typical happy ending (which is what Yeine and Nahadoth got), since I did not truly think Oree and Itempas would live happily ever after – that would simply have not rung true to everything that had happened in the novel. Some authors might have attempted to bend the ending to make it a happy one, but I appreciate the fact that Jemisin does not. It is not an entirely sad ending, to be sure, but it’s not entirely happy either – just the right amount of bittersweet to make it a satisfying ending to the novel.
Overall, The Broken Kingdoms is an excellent continuation of Jemisin’s trilogy. It does not suffer from “middle book syndrome” in the same way that other second books in trilogies do, but it does have a smaller scope than the first novel. There are far fewer political games in this one, too, focusing as it does more on the interpersonal relationships between characters and the mystery of Oree’s own origins. Some might hold this as a mark against the novel, but I find it a lovely change of pace from the tension and danger of the first novel. It is nice to settle into a novel that is primarily about its characters and how they relate to one another, though the ramifications of those relationships are obviously going to come to fruition in the third novel.