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The Kingdom of Gods by N K Jemisin

When I was about eight or nine, I began reading Henry Treece’s historical novels. I missed him as a teacher by only a few years but, as I grew up in the school, he was slightly famous since he had gone on to become a poet and novelist. As time passed, he wrote a trilogy based on the mythology of classical Greece. His work is attractive because it’s not at all sentimental. Indeed, at times, it’s quite coldblooded. In particular, his view of the Greek gods and their role in contemporary Mycenaean times was, for me, quite a radical departure from their more usual portrayal in Greek literature. I had tended to see them as merely constructs we humans had invented while sitting around campfires. They were exaggerated versions of us, albeit endowed with superpowers. But Treece gave them an independent agenda and a pleasing viciousness when dealing with humans. His Medea, granddaughter of Helios, was a memorable creation.

The Inheritance Trilogy by N K Jemison is also about gods and the relationships both between themselves and with humans. We started off in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms with the story of Yeine who rises to power as a mortal, but joins the pantheon at the end of this first book. On the way, she interacts with a number of the gods, both major and minor, so we get to see how they fit into the framework of power-brokers as they exploit and are exploited. We then moved some ten years forward in time to The Broken Kingdoms. Our new heroine is Oree Shoth who adopted a stray thinking him a mortal with some magical powers only to discover she has taken in a god in mortal form. From this, you will see the game being played by the author. We are to be interested in the line dividing human and god, mortal and immortal. Which bring us to The Kingdom of Gods an unstated number of years later, although definitely measured in the hundreds. This begins with Sieh, one of the first tier of gods born of the original trio, losing his powers as a god and finding his body growing from his more usual form as a child into a teen and thereafter into adulthood as he gains experience. The “gods” are supposedly programmed to stay true to their essential nature. So, if one is a god of childhood, he acts unthinkingly, sometimes full of fun, sometimes wantonly cruel, always capricious.

For Sieh, his status is compromised when he swears a “blood” oath with two Arameri children: Shahar the presumptive heir to the family’s leadership and her brother Dekarta who’s life may be threatened simply because he could usurp his sister’s claim to lead. Except neither children fits the Arameri mould. Rather than show the usual traits of reflexive paranoia in pursuit of outright domination, they seem to have the capacity to be “good” (whatever that means in this bloodthirsty context). For the record, these Arameri humans have socialised themselves into set behavioural patterns, traits reinforced by the way both the “gods” and the other humans have acted towards them. Anyway, the moment the oath is sworn and their blood touches, Sieh gives off a blast of magic power which eviscerates the bowels of the palace and he then disappears. The children survive but Dekarta is almost immediately sent away to learn the art of magic (in human terms).

N K Jemisin emerges as an author to watch

So, from the outset, we’re set a puzzle to inquire into the circumstances of Sieh’s transformation into a mortal and loss of memory while, in the palace, eight years have passed and there are a few worrying deaths among the Arameri and their servants. The short but passionate reunion with Shahar is interrupted by her mother’s desire to produce a child courtesy of Sieh. He’s less than pleased when the plot is revealed and leaves the palace for life among his fellow humans. Except he’s of little use for anything except as a spy for other godlings — a role that introduces us to Glee Shoth, daughter of Oree and Itempas, and Kahl who proves to be central to the mystery. A brief encounter between Sieh and Dekarta also shows real power at work in their relationship. Later, after an attack on the Arameri, we see the power when Shahar is added to make three. Together they roll back the universe a few minutes.

When you work out the relationships between all the main characters in this drama, you realise this trilogy is a complex story about loneliness and love, themes hidden within a broad narrative in which people and gods may seem to be changing. The reality is that, no matter how much individuals may assert their natures prevent change, everything evolves over time. Take a god of night as an example. The fact his powers are limited does not mean he is limited. He can move round a world to remain in darkness. He could relocate outside the day/night cycle of a planet and exist in a different dimension where conditions always maximise his power. Yet what he discovers is that power as an individual is nothing compared to the power achievable when the gods of dark, light and life come together. In a sense, both luminary gods must learn to live in twilight or dawn, if you prefer, finding compromise between the extremes and benefitting from the change. Everyone can only achieve a certain level of power on their own. True strength comes when individuals join together with a common purpose.

Although all three books have a certain amount of action, they are meditations on the power we all have to transform our lives. For humans, this may come from their own relationships or as benefits from the worship of real gods. Within the hierarchy of gods and their children, the loneliness they feel can only be eased by the relationships they form either among themselves or with humans. In some cases, these relationships will be cruel. What children do not go through periods when they hate their parents only to forgive them later? Is it not also the case with brothers and sister who fight and make up? Everyone can forgive and recall the simple love they shared when young and innocent. Perhaps, as adults the innocence will always be lost, but the bonds formed between parents and their children endure.

N K Jemisin is just starting out as a novelist and, taking an overview of the trilogy, there are some dead patches where she discusses and philosophises too much. This is not to say every fantasy trilogy should be action-packed, with page-turning intensity at every point. There should always be time to sit back and review the primary themes, advancing the reader’s understanding of the author’s intention. But The Kingdom of the Gods comes close to 600 pages and that’s too long when the story is somewhat diffuse. When Henry Treece wrote Jason, the first book in his trilogy, he was very careful to create Medea as a very strong character to set alongside the ostensible hero. In this final volume, making Sieh the primary point of view and delaying the emergence of the danger means the book lacks a driving force. Sieh is passive and, by virtue of losing his powers, largely defenceless. This makes the book a compromise. It’s neither a Sieh novel in which he must regain his powers to defeat his “enemy”, nor is it wholly a resolution of the Inheritance Trilogy in which gods and their children evolve into something new. It divides its forces and ends up less powerful than it should. This is not to say that the trilogy is a failure. In fact, it’s a very good effort, producing some very interesting ideas in a well-constructed universe of godhood and magic. If you have not already done so, you should read the first two books and then come to this. Jemisin has started her writing career auspiciously and deserves to be read. As a reinforcement of this recommendation, I’ve already ordered her next book to see how she develops as an author.

This book has been shortlisted for the Nebula Award for Best Novel 2011.

 

For a review of a new duology by N K Jemisin, see The Killing Moon and The Shadowed Sun.

 

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