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The Kingdom of Gods by N K Jemisin

December 17, 2011 Leave a comment

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.

 

The Broken Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin

February 20, 2011 Leave a comment

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.

 

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin

In the best traditions of The Archers, a nightly radio soap much loved by the British, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin is an everyday story of godfolk. As creation myths go, this has an inner circle of three gods, their children and all the worlds they brought into existence. Except, to keep the whole story-telling thing manageable, we are only on one world (almost all the time). Anyway, these gods had a war. Somehow, gods never seem to be able to get on. All that power and still no interpersonal skills. They fight even though it never solves anything and leaves worlds in ruin as collateral damage. Except, in this war, there was a resolution of sorts. One god reigned supreme, one god was imprisoned in human flesh, and the third was disincorporated — since gods are kinda unkillable, this is a process whereby the body is destroyed but the spirit (or soul, if you prefer) lives on.

Time passes as it must and a balance emerges. The losing god and immediate children are physically limited and under the control of the “humans” ruling this world. Rather in the same way Isaac Asimov’s robots have literal minds and like to play games with the three laws of robotics, so these gods are prone to “misunderstand” commands given to them. This is not always fatal, but usually involves serious destruction, albeit on a limited scale. Think of these beings as weapons available for use by the inner circle of the ruling elite and you have some idea of how the system is supposed to work. Remembering, of course, that the surviving god from the trio (now a solo act) has a local agent to keep them from running amok.

An outsider is summoned into this court of elite rulers. Her destiny was shaped before her birth. This makes her an innocent pawn in the renewal of the “human” political system. On a regular basis, the surviving god’s direct agent ages to a point when he or she is of little further use. At this point, the successor must be chosen. Our heroine, Yeine, in this first-person narrative is the current agent’s granddaughter. She is to have a pivotal role in the process of succession. That means everyone is out to manipulate her. As a political novel this works quite well. Jemisin has produced a series of different structures within the elite itself and in the surrounding kingdoms. While by no means original, the overall view of the society fits the need. Anything more complicated and the novel would get too bogged down in the detail.

There are, however, three problems with the resulting novel (the first part in The Inheritance Trilogy). The first is one of tone. I find the style of writing curiously flat. Although there’s a lot that is potentially exciting, I never found myself involved. In part, because I never had the sense our heroine was ever in serious danger. It’s always a problem with books when you know the heroine must persist through to the end. But there’s no real effort here to “sell” the story. We know she’s a warrior princess but, allowing for the fish-out-of-water, thrown-in-at-the-deep-end of court life, she’s remarkably uncertain for someone so obviously destined for greatness.

The second problem lies in the mystery element to work out who killed her mother and why. This could have been a major plot hook but, in the end, it’s all rather thrown away, being left as a kind of footnote to what has been a revenge motif running through the narrative. This is somewhat ironic because, in the best tradition of all country house murder mysteries from the Golden Age, all the suspects are gathered together for the succession ceremony. The moving finger does go round pointing at the candidates, but the revelation is swamped by the broader canvas of the succession itself. In a sense, everything must be subordinated to picking out who will lead — and, surprise, it’s not going to be who you guess.

Finally, there’s the reason for her ultimate success. The two-souls-in-one-body trope has been done so much better by others. While making allowances for this being the first novel, I can’t suspend disbelief at the arc of growth from barbarian clod (with the clod uppermost) to the superhuman able to survive sexual intercourse with a god in human form. It seems their activities can reduce the bedroom to a shattered wreck but leave her relatively untouched. How come the two-souls thing protects the physical body? Worse, it’s unprotected sex! Not the kind of role-model message authors should be sending to their readers. Just think what would happen if a godling baby is conceived and develops in a human womb. What will the first kick feel like?

So The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is mildly interesting, but not that exciting. Nevertheless, I have ordered the next in the series called The Broken Kingdoms. Hopefully, N. K. Jemisin can pick up the pace a bit.

For the record, this book is one of the 2010 Nebula Awards, 2011 World Fantasy Awards, and 2011 Hugo Awards nominations for Best Novel. It’s also a finalist in the 2011 Locus Award for Best First Novel.

 

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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