The first book in N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance trilogy is politically, emotionally, and (I guess you’d say) spiritually complicated — so much so that it makes The Goblin Emperor look simple by comparison. The premise is that Yeine Darr, of the Darre people, is summoned to the magnificent floating city of Sky by her grandfather Dekarta, ruler of the world and of the Arameri kingdom. There, he makes Yeine one of three heirs, resulting in a vicious power struggle. Yeine must try to understand Arameri politics and customs as quickly as she can in order to have any chance of winning — or even survival to the ceremony where the winner is declared — but in fact her goal is not to win. She is there to discover who recently murdered her mother, and she will do whatever is necessary and make whatever alliances she has to in order to find out. Along the way, she is drawn into the politics of the gods, who have been enslaved and made into weapons for the Arameri. (Godly politics make Arameri politics look faded and petty.)
Jemisin pulls off a nifty trick here. This book plays with inversions of typical tropes almost everywhere you look, rather than the inversion of just one trope, which would make it predictable. This means that just when you think you know what’s going to happen, something else is crossing your vision in a way you didn’t expect. For instance, rather than the light/dark dichotomy that you find in most of Western culture, the Arameri gods are Bright Itempas (the Skyfather), Nahadoth (the Nightlord), and Enefa (the goddess of twilight, dawn, and life.) And the roles they play are far more complex than it seems they’re going to be at first: godly motivations are not human motivations, or anything like, and you can’t predict them very far in advance.
Another interesting thing Jemisin does is to play with the idea of incarnation. In the Christian tradition, the incarnation is an act willingly taken on by God in order to come among human beings and show them infinite love. In The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, incarnation is forced on the gods as a kind of enslavement, a painful prison of flesh that turns them into unwilling weapons for the ruling race. It also gives them the dubious gifts flesh is heir to, but to a godly level: fury, playfulness, vengefulness, ferocious sexuality.
Jemisin touches on issues of race and class here, particularly with her exploration of the servants in the city of Sky, but it’s never heavy-handed. Yeine’s own agency and identity are at stake, and it is deeply refreshing to read a novel where a woman is able to explore those questions without the plot device of sexual assault to move things along. This was a complex, interesting, engaging novel, and I’m looking forward to reading more of Jemisin’s work — maybe a lot more.
This sounds good! I was at a storytelling convention in October and lots of people kept mentioning Jemison as being really good but it turns out she has written a lot and I have no idea where to start. This just might be it! Will definitely be checking my library for this one!
A storytelling convention sounds like a BLAST. I’m told that her Dreamblood books are even better, though really enjoyed this one. Good luck!
I loved this one, and the first sequel, but not the third in the sequence. It’s nice to see your take!
How interesting. What was wrong with the third one — plot, prose, lack of urgency?
For what it’s worth, I liked the third one! It was perhaps a little less emotionally engaging than this, but a more nicely-put-together book altogether. I think NK Jemisin got better at making books as she went along.
Thanks for this, Jenny! I’ve heard lots of great things about her other writing, too. I really look forward to it.
I am so glad you picked this up! Her ‘Dreamblood’ duology is arguably better than this series and her new book is my favorite. She has a knack for writing complex and relatable characters. I hope you review more of her books!
I plan to finish this trilogy at least — I’m looking forward to it! — and will probably seek out more if it’s as complex and interesting as this. Thanks for the recommendation!
I had the same experience as Samantha – as much as I loved the first two, I didn’t even finish the third (though I did skim to the end). I’ve been meaning to read more of her books, but I wasn’t sure where to start (and got distracted by other books).
I’d love to hear what you thought was wrong with the third one, Lisa. Why weren’t you grabbed by it?
Partly it’s because Sieh is the narrator. i really enjoyed him as a character, particularly in the first book, but I found him overwhelming as the main character. I also found the story increasingly confusing and hard to track. But I see Jenny liked it – so your mileage may vary, as they say.
Oh, interesting! He’s very chaotic even in the first one; I’m fascinated to see what that narrative would be like. Thanks for the heads up!
I read this one a few years ago and really liked it, particularly for the way Jemisin inverts what we expect, and it was interesting to read your take on it. Every time I look at my to-read list, I remind myself that I want to read more of her work, but so far this one is all I’ve read.
I know — I have such a long to-read list, myself! But I’m very tempted to read more over Christmas break. It was a lot of fun and very easy to get absorbed into, despite the elaborate world-building.
I tried this one but gave up for basically the same reason I stopped watching Game of Thrones….too much….just too much. I like a fantasy the builds out from a much smaller set of characters, something like The Hobbit really. Something where I don’t really have to read two or three more books to get a complete story if I don’t want to. I’m very old fashioned with my fantasy reading, I guess.
I have really enjoyed N.K. Jemisin’s short stories on Pod Castle though. And I would try a stand alone novel.
I thought this one worked quite well as a stand-alone, even if it was planned as a trilogy, actually — if I never read the others I’d feel satisfied. But I agree that it’s very complex, and I had to read it carefully to understand what the heck on earth was going on!
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