227. The Broken Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin
Author: N.K. Jemisin
Series: book two of the Inheritance Trilogy
Publisher: Orbit Books
An artist who sees nothing but magic and gods gets more than she bargains for when she brings a semi-visible homeless man into her life.
You know what I like best about N.K. Jemisin’s work? She tells a damned good story, but she also gives the reader plenty to think about. Her books are hella entertaining, with scads of opportunity for deeper reflection.
Unfortunately, this also makes them tough for me to review. I have so many thoughts, my friends! So many, many thoughts--and I haven’t a bloody clue how I want to organize them. I know I’ll leave a few important points out, however I structure things. I can’t possibly include everything.
I normally review books two or three days after I finished them. I’ve put this review off for nearly a month. I’m posting it mere minutes after I finished writing it; a rarity, in my backlogged world.
I mean, I’ve been thinking about the book. I’ve been reliving certain scenes and considering the issues Jemisin raises and trying to decide how I’d like to approach it. And somehow, I got nothin’.
Rambly non-review, then?
Y’all know I gotta lead with the characters. I liked Oree, our narrator, very much. She’s a blind woman from a marginalized culture who can see nothing but godlings, magic and the art she creates to sell in the market. I’m a visual reader, and I found it fascinating to picture the world as Oree sees it. In my mind’s eye, magic glowed in the darkness without ever illuminating anything around it--a trippy, gorgeous visual that I never tired of. It was brilliant, impossibly coloured, difficult to look away from. The scenes in fully magical places, by contrast, were brilliantly white (tinged, where appropriate, with a hint of pale blue), with any nonmagical elements in silhouette. There’s one bit where Oree watches a character with very long hair descend a small staircase, and I delighted in picturing the way the pitch-black strands moved as the person walked. I saw small glimmers of magic peeking through as locks billowed out, then disappearing as the mass of hair came back together. It was awesome.
Oree also has a wonderful voice--smooth, readable, and subtley distinct from Yeine’s (our first narrator). She has a concrete reason for telling the story, too, and her corrections and present-tense asides fit perfectly into the plot. Y’ll know I <3 narrative context, so I was thrilled with this internal consistency.
I loved Oree’s relationship with the various godlings of Shadow, too. I was particularly pleased with the romantic angle. It wasn’t what I expected, and I thought Jemisin developed it quite well. It fits with who Oree is and how the gods have chosen to integrate themselves into this world that was so long denied them.
It raises some interesting questions, too, about how much the government, and the gods, have kept from the people. Oree’s relationship with her godling (former[ish]) lover, Madding, is deep and affectionate, but he clearly hasn’t told her much about the way his divinity works. And her reaction to Shiny, the homeless maybe-godling she takes in off the street, shows us she has little to no idea of what went down ten years ago, at the very end of THE HUNDRED THOUSAND KINGDOMS.
I suppose this is a little odd on my part, but I loved how ill-informed Oree was. The gaps in her knowledge make for an interesting structure that reminded me of THE KING OF ATTOLIA by Megan Whalen Turner. The previous book “spoils” this one. The reader knows who Shiny is, why he has so much trouble with self-preservation and why he refuses to say a word to Oree. I had a blast watching her put the pieces together and figure out what I already knew--but I understand this might not be your cup of tea. I know some readers have found this frustrating, and interpreted it as backtracking. Me, I thought it was fun, and a nice way to show how the upper classes withhold information from the common folks. It adds another level to the worldbuilding.
The commoners’ lack of knowledge also invites the reader to consider certain parallels between this fictional religion and our own world. While THE HUNDRED THOUSAND KINGDOMS put me in mind of Hinduism, in certain respects, THE BROKEN KINGDOMS feels Christian. We know who Shiny is, and what he is to the people of Shadow. The people of Shadow don’t. They see a homeless black man with authority issues, and most of them are prejudiced against him for either his skin colour or his social status. They treat him poorly, with priests among the worst offenders.
Now, this’s a tricky parallel for a variety of reasons. I’m not entirely comfortable with it; in fact, I’m decidedly uncomfortable, because I don’t want any of you to feel marginalized because I seem to be saying particular things about what went down in Jerusalem about 2000 years back. (For the record: I’m not saying that at all--and before you ask, I don’t think Jemisin is, either). But it’s there, and I found it interesting, and I wanted to draw your attention to it. And I think I shan’t go any further than that, though you're welcome to do so, if you wish.
Moving away from real-world comparisons, now: Jemisin’s religious worldbuilding is so interesting because it raises questions about the way humans relate to divinity. How does one worship someone one could potentially run into on the street? And if the divine is never in doubt, how does dissent work? What about divine changeability? We saw one example in THTK, as peoples’ belief shaped Nahadoth. This both does and does not apply to Shiny, and I had a wonderful time thinking about how his capacity for change--or lack thereof--contributed to the world around him and to his own religion.
And... I think I’m gonna shut up now. I don't feel like I've really said what I wanted to say, but I doubt I could manage that without another few weeks and several more drafts.
In short, I enjoyed this very much, on a variety of levels, and encourage you to pick it up if you have any interest in secondary world fantasy or novels that deal with religion in an open-ended, no-answers-only-questions kind of a way. I can’t wait for THE KINGDOM OF GODS, which should be out in 2011.
4 stars – loved it
GLBT Reading – this’s another of those books that definitely qualifies, but doesn’t quite fit into any one team. Shiny has played for #teamboyskissing in the past, and his lover’s gender was fluid, so there’s #teamliveyourtruth. (I giggled at the bit where Oree wondered how one of the godlings could be both Shiny’s and Nahadoth’s child). There’s also a nice nod to #teamthreesome.
Babbling About Books, and more (second review down; also covers THE HUNDRED THOUSAND KINGDOMS)
Fantasy Book Critic
Janicu's Book Blog
Speculative Book Review
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