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The Broken Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin

The Broken Kingdoms is Book Two of The Inheritance Trilogy, continuing the story some ten years after The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. I confess to finding the first outing by N. K. Jemisin less than stellar and picked this up more in hope than expectation of anything better. It’s been my experience that indifferent first books in a trilogy are harbingers of worse to come. Except this is one of the surprise packages of the year so far and I now find myself genuinely interested to see how it all ends in The Kingdom of Gods due later in 2011.

The primary problem in the first book was the lack of credibility in the heroine, Yeine. Here was this rube who rose to the top of the political heap in a cut-throat court, only to find a rather different end from the one we might have expected. I only decided to pursue this into the second volume because there was a good mystery element to solve, and the underlying discussion of the relationship between humans and immortal beings with supernatural powers proved interesting.

Well, our author has the confidence to throw away almost everything from the first book. All the hack courtly intrigues and politics is dumped as we hit the streets with a new heroine and there’s a whole new nest of matryoshka dolls to unpack. Ten years is always longer than you think both in the real world and on paper. In this case, the world has now regained some of its magic as the godlings have come back to live among the people.

For those who missed the first book, I should explain that, in the beginning, there were three gods who then produced children. The resulting extended family was all immortal and had supernatural powers. But, when the family went forth and multiplied with humans, they got children with magical powers but human lifespans. For want of a better name, these were called demons. After a while, there were wars and all the demons perished. But, with their genes now in the human population, some vestiges of the magical powers lived on, honed into medical and other potentially useful skills. I suppose everything would have remained stable if the godlings had been able to resist the odd dalliance with humans.

N K Jemisin

All of which brings me to Oree Shoth, our new heroine, who is born blind. She has malformed corneas which give the impression of cataracts but, for some reason, this seems to give her an enhanced power to “see” magic in all its forms. When her father dies, she leaves her country town and heads for the city of Shadow which lies under the World Tree. There she manages to earn a living through her knack for making trinkets that appeal to tourists. Surprisingly, she is also able to paint but never shows anyone the pictures. In the midst of all this, she acquires a godling as a lover but he breaks it off. It’s the usual problem with immortals unwilling to live with humans while watching them die.

As we kick off, Oree finds a body. Someone has killed a godling. This is unprecedented and, so far as anyone knows, the killer has to be another godling. Why one godling should wish to kill a brother or sister is a mystery. The following dawn, she finds a strange man in the muckbin. He seems human but glows in the first light of the sun as if there’s some magic about him. Curious and compassionate, she pulls him out and adopts him as one might take in a bedraggled stray cat. Sadly, he then dies. Remarkably, he later comes back to life. For some reason, he will not speak. She calls him Shiny and an entirely platonic friendship is born.

Taking an overview, this is a thoughtful exploration of identity and redemption. What is it that makes us who we are? There’s the inevitable nurture/nature issue but, when you’re dealing with immortal beings, the nurture element rapidly becomes irrelevant as the decades stretch into centuries. At the mayflower end of the equation, the humans adjust more rapidly to circumstances. When you only have a few score years and ten before shuffling off the mortal coil, this tends to focus your attention on the needs of the present. Since death is never far away, you quickly learn to adapt to circumstances, making and breaking alliances to give yourself the best chance of survival, if not prosperity. This means the cultural differences between the humans and immortals are profound. Humans find a need to do things today because there may not be a tomorrow. Perhaps the humans prove more moral. A majority is honest, apologising when in error, finding a guilty conscience painful, and seeking forgiveness and redemption before death. When you’re immortal, there’s no pressure to be moral. Without the threats of pain or death as punishment, there’s nothing to reinforce conscience. Even if a means of punishment was found, what would be the motivation to change? Why should you care what others think when, sooner or later, you will resume godhead as if nothing had happened? Arguably the only thing the humans and immortals share is loneliness. Mercifully, humans escape this through death.

There are some technical problems in the writing because our first-person narrator cannot see what’s going on around her when only humans are involved. This means we have to rely on those around her filling in the gaps. However, for all the occasional clunkiness, N. K. Jemisin manages to maintain the illusion of a blind narrator with all the unreliability that requires. Because she’s denied all the usual clues of body language and other unspoken signifiers, she can be slower on the uptake. In a sense, this makes our game in trying to sort out who’s doing what to whom and why all the more interesting.

Overall, The Broken Kingdoms is an emotionally satisfying novel and it sets us up nicely for the concluding volume. Curiously, even though this is the second of a trilogy, you could read it as a stand-alone. But it will have a better resonance if you know the background history from the first. I unhesitatingly recommend it to all who enjoy thoughtful fantasy.

Jacket art by Cliff Nielsen.

For the final volume in the trilogy, see The Kingdom of Gods. For a new duology by N K Jemisin, see The Killing Moon and The Shadowed Sun.

 

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