Hinduism (and other, sister religions like Buddhism and Jainism) has an interesting concept: samsara, which is a term used to describe the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth that the human soul undergoes. One is born, one dies, and then one is reborn again, with the circumstances of one’s rebirth being determined by one’s karma (the quality of one’s actions). This is an oversimplification of the concept, I know, but it’s a very good way of describing in broad, general terms what the concept is.
It is also a concept that writers have played with over the years, in various ways and with equally various effects. Some writers use it to explore deeper themes: a good example would be Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt, which goes so far as to use a specifically Tibetan Buddhist take on the concept for the purposes of the novel. Other writers do not take as explicit a route as Robinson does, simply borrowing the concept of reincarnation that lies at the heart of samsara for whatever purpose they deem it suitable – I have seen romance novelists use the concept for their own purposes, usually taking the idea of two lovers whose souls are bound together for the rest of eternity, following and finding each other through each and every incarnation. The concept has also found itself drifting into sci-fi from time to time, but it has found a home for itself in fantasy, since the cyclical nature of the concept lends itself very well to many fantasy stories.
Of course, not all writers do a very good job using the concept, but the few that do use it well make it into a powerful vehicle for themes about love, forgiveness, and – most important of all – redemption. That is the case with The Kingdom of Gods, the final book in N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy.
Set a generation or two after the events of The Broken Kingdoms, The Kingdom of Gods is narrated by Sieh, the god of childhood, introduced in the first novel and who makes a brief appearance in the second. In The Kingdom of Gods, he meets a pair of Arameri twins, Shahar and Dekarta, the head of the Arameri family. If the names are familiar, there is good reason: Dekarta was the name of Yeine’s grandfather in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, while Shahar was the name of the founder of the Arameri line, a high priestess of Itempas during the Gods’ War. He befriends them, somewhat-reluctantly, and in order to solidify that friendship attempts to make a blood pact with them. However, the blood pact goes awry, and when Sieh next wakes up, eight years have already passed since the failed blood pact, and he is slowly becoming mortal. He returns to the city of Sky-in-Shadow in order to reconnect with the Arameri twins to find out what exactly happened, However, when he gets there he finds out that a deeper, more dangerous game is afoot, and that this game is dangerous not just to himself, but to all the gods, even the Three.
One of the first things the reader will note, after the first two novels, is the change of narrator. I really like Sieh as a character, have liked him since The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, but I was expecting Jemisin to continue the pattern established by the first two novels and get a female narrator to tell the story (in this case, Shahar, since she is mentioned in the book blurb). Of course, learning Sieh was the narrator did not put me off at all, at least in terms of his narrative voice: he is as excellent a narrator as Yeine and Oree were, which is a good thing because I think that any novel that attempts to use a first-person perspective must have a narrator with an interesting voice. Sieh is certainly that.
There are many similarities in his tone to Oree’s voice in The Broken Kingdoms, but I think that’s mostly to do with the casual nature of their narration: Oree because she is a commoner, and Sieh because he is a god. The difference comes primarily from the fact that Sieh is far, far more careless about what he says than Oree, which is unsurprising because he is a god and doesn’t have to care about anything, least of all mortals. That changes, though, as the novel progresses, especially once Sieh finds himself in the company of Dekarta and Shahar.
And now that I mention the twins, here’s where I hit a snag with the novel. While I like the role they play in Sieh’s development, I wish there was more of them as people apart from Sieh, gotten more development as characters in their own right. I think it would have been interesting to tell this novel with two first-person narratives: Sieh’s and Shahar’s, perhaps, or maybe even three, including Dekarta’s (though this desire to see Dekarta narrate is mostly due to the fact that I want to learn more about how he constructed the system of magic he creates for himself). It would definitely make the novel longer, but the length would be very much worth the time I’d put into it if one or both of the twins were given a voice. It would also go a long way towards explaining why they are so important to Sieh, why he finds them so attractive, which is crucial to understanding the ending of the novel.
Speaking of the end, I think that Jemisin could not have come up with a better conclusion for her trilogy. I mentioned samsara earlier in this review, and that is pretty much what happens at the end. Debts are paid in full, truths are revealed, and, more importantly, people are forgiven, accepted, and redeemed (not least Ahad, for whom acceptance is a key component of his storyline). And though characters die – Sieh and Dekarta, notably – death is merely another type of transformation: when Shahar finally passes after living a full life, she essentially “midwifes” Sieh (who is no longer Sieh) back into existence, who then takes both Dekarta and Shahar with him to become another Three, in another realm entirely. As for Itempas, he dies, but does so sacrificing himself for humanity, which fulfills the conditions that were laid on him at the end of the first novel, and he returns to his original form – and, in a short story found at the end of the novel, finds his way back to Oree. Very few endings are capable of reducing me to literal tears, but this novel managed to do just that, and so very handily, too.
Overall, The Kingdom of Gods is a fantastic conclusion to a beautiful and heartbreaking trilogy – primarily because it does not focus on the typical things a lot of contemporary fantasy novels focus on. Though there is a lot of political maneuvering, scheming, and mentions and threats of war and bloodshed all over the place, they are not the central focus of the books. Instead, these novels are about characters, and how they relate to one another, whether they be mortals, demons, godlings, or gods. The only failing I can think of in the entire trilogy is one that rests in this book: the lack of development for Shahar and Dekarta, who are important enough to need it, but do not seem to get it (whereas other characters, like Glee and Ahad, get good development, which is odd since they are technically just supporting characters). Despite this one failing, however, the trilogy as a whole is a wonderful read, and definitely more than worth spending one’s time – and tears – on.