Friday 13 January 2012

Book Review | The Broken Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin

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In the city of Shadow, beneath the World Tree, alleyways shimmer with magic and godlings live hidden among mortalkind.

Oree Shoth, a blind artist, takes in a homeless man who glows like a living sun to her strange sight. However, this act of kindness is to engulf Oree in a nightmarish conspiracy. Someone, somehow, is murdering godlings, leaving their desecrated bodies all over the city.

Oree's peculiar guest is at the heart of it, his presence putting her in mortal danger - but is it him the killers want, or Oree? And is the earthly power of the Arameri king their ultimate goal, or have they set their sights on the Lord of Night himself?


I did not adore The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms in the manner many critics did. As a first novel, yes, it impressed in some respects, and I still stand in admiration of N. K. Jemisin's very elegant voice, but beyond that her award-winning debut was such a slight thing that I came away from it deeply uncertain of the sequel.

The Broken Kingdoms, thank the Gods, is no mere retread of its highly-held predecessor. In fact it turns on its head the equation that so surprised me about book one of The Inheritance Trilogy: where The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms was fantastical romance, up to and including the most cringe-worthy sex scene I've encountered in some time, The Broken Kingdoms is romantic fantasy, with a wider focus on the world, and a perspective that actively earns our empathy, rather than expects it.

It's better, all told; much better. But it's not perfect.

Ten years on from the events of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, the Arameri - the ruling class of this sprawling continent, oriented around a vast tree whose branches crack the skies - still cling perilously to power, despite the source of their power having fallen, quite literally, from grace. Where once the Gods lived under sufferance, at the beck and call of Arameri fullbloods by dint of a falling-out between order and chaos - as embodied by Itempas and Nahadoth - Yeine's climactic ascendancy, to share body and soul with the dead God Enefna, has tipped the balance in the Darklord's favour.

So it is that Itempas, bringer of the Bright, around whom the predominant religion in the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms was ordered, was cast out of Sky, and the heavens entire. As the godling Madding explains: "Nahadoth wanted to kill him... after what he'd done. But the Three created this universe; if any one of them dies, it all ends. So he was sent here [to Shadow], where he can do the least damage... Maybe, somehow, he can get better. See the error of his ways. I don't know." (p.139)

Shadow is the shanty city built around the roots of the world tree, on which Sky sits. A decade ago, it was the closest most folks ever got to the Gods, but now, with Itempas made a mere man of, and Nahadoth and Yeine watching over the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms - and beyond! - godlings like Madding are everywhere. Some live like mortals, and take mortal lovers, reveling in the wonders of the world denied them for millennia. On Madding's arm - on it and off it, that is - we come, at last, to Oree Shoth, The Broken Kingdoms' substitute protagonist.

Oree is "a woman plagued by gods," (p.15) and she doesn't just mean Madding. Blind since birth, but able to see magic, some years ago she came to Shadow from Maroneh, a far-flung kingdom on its last legs, the better to see what magic there was to be seen. Of course it's everywhere, now, so Oree - an artist who makes ends meet selling trinkets to tourists - is not entirely surprised when she comes across a godling in a muckbin:

At first I saw only delicate lines of gold limn the shape of a man. Dewdrops of glimmering silver beaded along his flesh and then ran down it in rivulets, illuminating the texture of skin in smooth relief. I saw some of those rivulets move impossibly upward, igniting the filaments of his hair, the stern-carved lines of his face.

As I stood there, my hands damp with paint and my door standing open behind me, forgotten, I saw this glowing man draw a deep breath - which made him shimmer even more beautifully - and open eyes whose colour I would never be able to fully describe, even if I someday learn the words. The best I can do is compare it to things I do know: the heavy thickness of red gold, the smell of brass on a hot day, desire and pride.

Yet, as I stood there, transfixed by those eyes, I saw something else: pain. So much sorrow and grief and anger and guilt, and other emotions I could not name because when all was said and done, my life up to then had been relatively happy. There are some things one can understand only by experience, and there are some experiences no one wants to share. (pp.16-17)

Oree takes this heaven-sent creature into her home, calls him Shiny in lieu of a proper introduction - he doesn't speak at all, you see - and in so doing becomes embroiled in a conflict as old as time that will change her life forever after... that is if she still has a life left to live, by the end of The Broken Kingdoms.

Meanwhile, someone, or something, is murdering godlings, one by one. Which should be impossible. But then, what about this world is as it should be?

By now you're probably confused. That's all right; so was I. The problem wasn't just my misunderstanding - though that was part of it - but also history. Politics. The Arameri, and maybe the more powerful nobles and priests, probably know all this. I'm just an ordinary woman with no connections or status, and no power beyond a walking stick that makes an excellent club in a pinch. I had to figure everything out the hard way. (p.59)

The single greatest issue I raised with regards to The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms was its cipher of a central character, Yeine, and though she and Oree may seem of a similar sort, on the surface, certain crucial differences exist to differentiate The Broken Kingdoms' narrator from last time's lady-in-waiting. Whereas Yeine was summoned to the world tree, Oree comes of her own free will; and while Yeine took up in Sky upon her arrival, among the privileged and the decision-makers, Oree makes her humble home in Shadow, with the common man.

Both characters have an inheritance to come into, of course, but though Oree's eventual destiny is not so shattering as Yeine's, The Broken Kingdoms is in sum a better book than the first of this trilogy for its modesty, for its restraint in that respect... not least because the careful reader will have an easier time believing in Oree than Yeine, who seemed utterly unaffected by this strange new world, as new to her at the outset of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms as it was to us.

So too is the fact of gods walking among us much more meaningful in The Broken Kingdoms, particularly given the ease with which Yeine fell into bed with Nahadoth in book one of The Inheritance Trilogy. Here, however, the reader inherits Oree's reverence for these mysterious, magical creatures, whose actions feel all the more extraordinary for her particular perspective.

And the world feels fuller, finally. You will recall that almost the entirety of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms took place among the Arameri in Sky; an interesting enough setting in itself, if rather simplistic. Similarly, the events of The Broken Kingdoms occur almost exclusively in Shadow... the yin to Sky's yang, or vice versa. Thus Shadow gives welcome context to Sky, placing it - and us - more firmly in the world.

In The Broken Kingdoms, by upping the fantasy quotient of the larger narrative and simultaneously scaling back its more romantic aspects, and giving readers a less convenient, but more appropriate central character to invest in, N. K. Jemisin addresses many of the issues I had with The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. It follows, then, that I appreciated this sequel a great deal more comprehensively than I did her debut.

But The Broken Kingdoms introduces a new problem to the tally, and it is a problem related to the thing I most admired about The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms: namely the beauty of Jemisin's voice. Which is to say, word for word, The Broken Kingdoms seems a less considered narrative than its predecessor... imprecise and occasionally clumsy where the author seemed so assured before. Still more damningly, though Oree is - as discussed - a character distinct from Yeine, their witty, flippant, passionate, first-person narrations are almost identical in form and tone, with little to distinguish one from the other.

The Broken Kingdoms is a solid, if stylistically indistinct sequel which improves on The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms in every other sense. Truth be told I came to it expecting more of the same, and though there's absolutely an element of that, it's the same but better; improved in every which way but the one. To wit, bring on The Kingdom of the Gods... which I'll be approaching with far higher hopes than I bore to The Broken Kingdoms. 


The Broken Kingdoms
by N. K. Jemisin

UK Publication: November 2010, Orbit
US Publication: September 2011, Orbit

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  1. I had very similar opinions about this book - mainly that the universe Jemisin had created felt so much more consolidated and fuller and that the story greatly benefited from the 'scaling back'. I kind of felt that Jemisin was just making a lot up as she went along in 100K, and the divine nature of a lot of characters did not help this. TBK was in comparison a story of a much less 'grand' scale.

    Unfortunately if you're like me, the final book will be a giant disappointment. I felt she went back to the failings of 100K, only much worse. It was my most recent review if you want to check it out.

  2. Considering how much I enjoyed "The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms", I can't wait to read this one, if you say it's even better than the first!

  3. I loved Oree's unique perspective, being blind. I really enjoyed The Broken Kingdoms and unlike Josh, I also adored The Kingdom of Gods. I'm curious to find out on which side of the fence you'll come down!

  4. Josh: I kind of felt that Jemisin was just making a lot up as she went along in 100K

    To be honest, I didn't so much feel as if she was making it up as she went along, as that she'd written an erotic short story to which she then added politics and gender issues without managing to give either of those additions enough nuance or depth. Maybe this is a problem which the next two books overcome though?