Tags: N.K. Jemisin
N.K. Jemisin’s debut novel, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, got great reviews and was nominated for both the Hugo and the Nebula. As is my custom, when I heard it was part of a trilogy I put it on my “to read” list, avoided synopses, and waited to read it until the trilogy was published so I could read it all at once. This is one of those times where my all-at-once approach came back to bite me. There are trilogies that are really one story (the vast majority these days, it seems to me) and trilogies that are really what it says on the tin, three stories. The Inheritance Trilogy is an example of the latter. The three books share a setting, a few characters, and should definitely be read in the order published, but they really are self-contained. For reasons I will get into in a minute, I suspect reading them all at once wasn’t merely unnecessary but even a little harmful.
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms begins with an interesting combination of character and setting. Yeine Darr is the hereditary chief of a small, unimportant kingdom who is summoned to the court of the Arameri, the hegemonic rulers of the world. For many centuries the Arameri have lived decadently in their palatial tower of Sky, ruthlessly destroying anyone who goes against their “suggestions” but otherwise enforcing a general peace. Yeine’s mother was heir to the Arameri throne but abandoned her birthright to marry Yeine’s father. Both of Yeine’s parents died in her childhood, but unexpectedly Yeine’s status as a potential heir to the throne is reinstated, putting her in deadly competition with two of her cousins. She has only a few weeks to learn to navigate the traitorous court politics of Sky, find out the real reason her mother left, and understand why Yeine has been recalled. But complicating all this are the captive gods.
The reason the Arameri have dominated the world for millennia is their control of the Enefadah, four gods who were on the wrong end of an ancient power struggle in the pantheon and sentenced by the triumphant Itempas, god of order and daytime, with an unbreakable compulsion to obey any order given to them by the Arameri. The Enefadah are a compelling creation: powerful enough to destroy the world but bound to obey mortals, they hate their imprisonment and especially despise their Arameri jailers. If an Arameri ever gives them a command vague enough they can interpret it as something the Arameri doesn’t want (especially the Arameri’s painful death) they seize the opportunity, making them a double-edged weapon.
Yeine ends up falling in love with one of these captive gods, Nahadoth. As the cthonic god of darkness and along with Itempas one of the three supreme gods, Nahadoth falls pretty cleanly into the romantic stereotype of the older, theoretically more powerful, alluringly dangerous, but in important ways helpless male. I can’t say I read a lot of romantic fiction but the use of this trope in Twilight has made it feel overused even to me. At any rate, you can take that or leave it, but apart from that emotional story there’s plenty more interesting material in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Yeine spends most of her time trying to figure out the truth behind the story’s four formative events: the war in heaven that resulted in Nahadoth and the other Enafadah being imprisoned, the circumstances surrounding her mother’s departure from the Arameri before Yeine was born, the eventual deaths of Yeine’s parents, and finally the nature of the ceremony by which power will soon be transferred to whoever is designated the heir. The answers to these questions more than pay off the setup, making what could have been a problematic ending still feel quite satisfying. Yeine ends up being a good deal more passive than I prefer protagonists to be and the ending relies a little too much on previously unmentioned metaphysics, but all in all The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is a very strong novel that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend.
What I don’t recommend is doing what I did and reading the entire trilogy all at once. It’s not that the two books that follow are bad. I’ve heard some people say the second book, The Broken Kingdoms, is even better than the first. Personally I would put it a notch or two below, and the third book, The Kingdom of Gods, is somewhat less effective than the second. But I think I would have liked both better if I’d read them as they came out, that is to say, with months separating the experience of each book, because Jemisin has done something a little unusual with this trilogy. Although each story advances the setting both chronologically and conceptually, all three are variations on the same theme in an unusually thorough sense. Each novel is centered around a mortal / god romance. In each case, the mortal is young while the god is many thousands of years old, but there’s something special about the mortal that draws the god in that is connected in some way with the mortal’s lineage. The god is always male, always very dangerous, always paradoxically vulnerable, always inhibited, and for most of each novel there is considerable question about how much he really feels for the mortal until the end, when of course love is fully affirmed. Although each book threatens its narrator with death in very different ways, all three resolve this side of the plot via metaphysical innovation.
I’ve had to describe the similarities carefully of course, because certainly there are differences. Yeine and the second book’s narrator, Oree Shoth, are very different people, and in the third book, the god is the narrator while the mortal side of the equation is two people, a twin brother and sister. It’s also the case that various problems that affect two of the books are not shared by a third. Where the first book has a strong intrigue plot with a number of well-drawn antagonists (and one, Scimina, who is not so well-drawn but at least acts out of a very understandable desire for power), the latter two each have cackling villains bent on destroying the world. In the second book, Oree Shoth spends a good deal of time with Shiny, but in the first and the third, love at almost the first sight sparks a romance that is portrayed as a profound relationship despite the lovers never spending very much time in each other’s company (understandable on the part of the young mortals but considerably less so for the immortals).
These similarities and near-similarities make each book of the trilogy feel very much like a variation on a single theme rather than independent stories, at least when read all at once the way I did. It’s a comprehensive elaboration on mortal-god relationships in the setting, I suppose, but I can’t help but feel this sum is rather less than the sum of its parts. One issue is that I became less interested in the gods and the metaphysics within which they operate the more I learned about them. As with most fantasy gods, these are portrayed as similar to humans in thoughts and emotions but possessing supernatural powers, but while we are told most people worship them, somehow this seemingly important element of religious life is never depicted. The three central gods of day, night, and twilight are associated with and responsible for natural phenomena like their polytheistic antecedents as well as limited in certain ways by a mysterious metadivine realm, but they are also half-heartedly said to be transcendent like a monotheist God, working together to create the entire universe, which here is depicted as the mind-bogglingly large universe of modern astronomy, not the cosy Earth-centered universe of the ancients. There are throwaway references to other stars and planets, but everything important in the emotional lives of the gods is centered around the human world, as if the entire rest of the universe is devoid of life or even interest. Below them, the countless lesser “godlings” have no connection whatsoever with the natural world but seem to be associated, at random, with various concepts. There’s a godling of wisdom, a godling of war, and so forth. Not only does their aspect drive their interest, but it provides them with antitheses that can harm or even kill them. This seems all right at first, like when the godling of obligation is weakened by even the suggestion that he would break his word, but it ends up feeling arbitrary, particularly with Sieh, the godling whose nature is explored the deepest. Sieh, we are told, is the godling of childhood, but this is interpreted rather more expansively than, say, the godling of hunger. Sieh prefers and even gains strength from acting like a child: playing silly games like tag and engaging in juvenile tricks. The problem is that not only is Sieh the oldest of the godlings, he often acts like it, discussing important issues with adult humans and other godlings. He also desires and frequently has sex. Yet in the third book it turns out the idea of being a father causes him pain. I suppose you or I could come up with a tortured explanation as to why this would be, but surely it makes just as much sense that he would have no interest in sex and want to avoid it?
These concerns weren’t an issue reading The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, where I was pulled along by the fluid first-person narration, the fairly unique feel of the gods’ captivity, and the questions and revelations about the past. The Broken Kingdoms carried on those first two virtues, but in place of the first book’s revelations it featured a narrative where almost every reader spends almost the entire book knowing considerably more about what’s going on than any of the main characters. That’s not bad, I guess, but it’s definitely less satisfying. The Kingdom of Gods didn’t have anything to do with captivity, the narration was undermined by an unlikeable and, worse, unconvincing main character, and the increasingly unconvincing metaphysics of god(ling)hood were front and center. The trilogy’s name is a reference to the fact that the four mortal characters destinies are shaped by what they inherit from their parents, but as the titles of the two sequels suggest, as the trilogy proceeds the emphasis of the story is increasingly on the gods, culminating in a conclusion that relegates its mortal protagonists and their concerns to the sideline. For those readers who remain interested in the mechanics of godhood right up to the end, I think the conclusion might prove stirring, but to me it fell flat almost to the point of being actively depressing.
The grain of salt I’ll toss on to all this is that I think both of the latter books shared some virtues with the first book, particularly the quality of writing and the setting, that I took for granted having just read The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. While I am somewhat lukewarm on the trilogy as a whole, I definitely recommend the first book. If you like it as much as I did (and most people seem to have liked it even more) then you’ll be reading the next book no matter what I say, but my advice is to consider reading a couple unrelated books in between.