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

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

2012/22: The Kingdom of Gods -- N K Jemisin

"...you liked to kill people, back when you lived here. You would do tricks on them, sometimes funny tricks ... but sometimes people would die."
Still funny, I thought, but perhaps this was not the time to say such things aloud. (p.25)

The Kingdom of Gods opens with the words "There will be no tricks in this tale. I tell you this so that you can relax." (p.5). Are you convinced by this? The narrator of this novel is Sieh, the eternal child, the Trickster, and he turns an irreverent eye on the Three: Bright Itempas, Nahadoth the Nightlord, and Yeine, the Grey Lady, whose role is to provide balance.

Sieh has had millennia to come to terms with wanting what he cannot have. The Three are his parents, and the parent-child relationship is especially rocky when the parents are deities with their own conflicts and concerns. Oh, Sieh's tried growing up, assuming a more adult role ("I had grown up before, hundreds of times; I knew the pattern that my body normally followed" (117)). But something is happening to him that he cannot control -- something that may be connected with Shahar and her brother Dekarta, two mortal children of royal blood whom Sieh has befriended (or, perhaps, corrupted).

Sieh's unique status -- a god, but not one of the Three; a child, but not one who will ever grow up in any real sense -- makes him an informed, albeit biased, observer of a world in flux. The Arameri are not as powerful as they were when Yeine came to Sky as her grandfather's heir, in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Bright Itempas is no longer the sole deity, but one of Three -- and an outcast, trying to redeem himself by righting all the wrongs committed in his name. Shahar (named after her ancestor, the Arameri ruler who helped Itempas overthrow Nahadoth and murder Enefa) is destined to rule, but wants to be more temperate and democratic than any Arameri before her. And on the streets of Shadow, the terrestrial city above which the Arameri palace Sky still hangs, there's a groundswell of atheism.

Atheism is a tricky concept when gods, godlings, demons and mortals interact on a daily basis. Not believing in the gods doesn't make them any less real; doesn't make sense. One character describes himself as a 'primortalist':
It means 'mortals first' — neither an accurate nor complete representation of our philosophy, but as I implied, there are worse terms. We believe in the gods, naturally ... But as the Bright has shown us, the gods function perfectly well whether we believe in them or not, so why devote all that energy to a pointless purpose? Why not believe most fervently in mortalkind and its potential? (p.111)

It's another thing for Sieh to take into account in his altered state. Worship is nice ("Even gods need encouragement sometimes") but not essential. Trust is more important, but can he truly trust anyone? Even his mother Enefa deceived him, though Sieh has forgotten (been made to forget) the details of that deception. Shahar (and, to a lesser extent, her brother Dekarta) love Sieh but have their own intrigues to play out. There are gods whom Sieh does not know: there is the Maelstrom, an inchoate swirl of chaos from which the Three were born, with which he somehow resonates.

There are aspects of this novel that didn't quite convince me: there's a thin, razor-sharp line separating the sublime from the ridiculous, and a couple of climactic scenes teetered precariously thereon. Sieh, though, is a delight: a cynical trickster who nevertheless is determined to remain true to his nature. ("You’re careful to act impulsively — even though you’re experienced and wise enough to know better." (p. 324)) Of course, the trickster can be tricked: but there's always another card up his sleeve. Remember that opening assurance? Yeah, right.

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