No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Friday, May 18, 2012

2012/21: The Broken Kingdoms -- N K Jemisin

I am, you see, a woman plagued by gods. It was worse once. Sometimes it felt as if they were everywhere: underfoot, overhead, peering around corners, and lurking under bushes. They left glowing footprints on the sidewalks. (I could see that they had their own favorite paths for sightseeing.) They urinated on the white walls. They didn’t have to do that, urinate I mean; they just found it amusing to imitate us. I found their names written in splattery light, usually in sacred places. I learned to read in this way. (p.15)

Oree Shoth lives in Shadow, the city that was once Sky but is now shaded by the impossibly huge World Tree that sprang into existence at the end of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. It's ten years since the fall of the Arameri, and Shadow is swarming with godlings, the lesser children of the gods. Ten years ago, of course, there was only one god worth the name: Bright Itempas, the Skyfather. But Itempas, demoted to Dayfather, is now one-third of a trinity, the other gods being the Nightlord and the Grey Lady.

The Three don't much concern Oree. Blind (though always able to see magic) she makes a living selling statues and trinkets, and -- unlike Yeine, the protagonist of the previous book -- is firmly rooted in a network of close relationships. Her lover, Madding, is a godling; some of her best friends carry the blood of gods. And the mute, reckless house guest she rescued from a rubbish bin is definitely a god ...

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, despite its title, was claustrophobically focussed on the politics and power-plays in Sky, the city in the clouds. The Broken Kingdoms pans out to show the lives of ordinary folk in the terrestrial city -- though Oree is not exactly ordinary, and her house guest attracts attention from unexpected quarters. (It's interesting to see Oree's gradual recognition of characters who are already familiar to the reader: this second book does stand alone, but is greatly enriched by knowledge of the first.)

Oree is a delight. She's self-reliant and grounded (metaphorically, as well as literally!) in a way that wasn't an option for Yeine: she has a sense of humour, which was a luxury Yeine couldn't afford: she's a single woman who neither wants nor needs protection, and she's comfortable in her skin, her city, her difference.

Of course, gods and comfort go together like electricity and water.

Oree's heritage holds secrets, and she realises that she's a danger to those she cares for: worse, she is being used as a weapon. But she also learns that the gods are to be pitied as well as feared, and that she has the power to heal, as well as to harm. The focus of The Broken Kingdoms may be on Oree, and perhaps on the wider social transformations brought about by the events of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms: but the arc of the Inheritance trilogy concerns the Three, and this middle book progresses their story as well as Oree's own. It works on multiple levels: likeable and / or intriguing characters, a fascinating world, a murder mystery and an exploration of Big Themes (race, class, colonialism, gender, slavery, oppression) that doesn't detract from a damn good read.

No comments:

Post a Comment