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.