My review of N.K. Jemisin’s first novel was positive, but I didn’t know I’d buy and read the sequel the very next night, in a blur of delight. (I’ve also now read book three in the Inheritance Trilogy, so am officially a superfan…).
In The Broken Kingdoms, the narrator—this is a spoiler, but a tiny one—is blind, and can see only magic. She’s an artist on the streets of Shadow, which is what the City of Sky from the first book has been renamed. The action starts around ten years after the first book ended, and concerns some of the same gods from the first book, with different emphasis.
(There will be some spoilers about the first book, but I’m trying to keep them to a minimum, since Jemisin’s twisty and elaborate plotting is one of her strengths.)
Here is how the blind woman, Oree Shoth, describes a man she finds in her muckbin, whose identity and relationship to her will form the spine of the plot:
“At first I saw only delicate lines of gold limn the shape of a man. Dewdrops of glimmering silver beaded along his flesh and then ran down in rivulets, illuminating the texture of skin in smooth relief. I saw some of those rivulets move impossibly upward, igniting the filaments of his hair, the stern-carved lines of his face.”
Oree’s world creating itself out of the dark, in lines of flame or color, is a beautiful prolonged effect that thrilled me throughout the book. I was also amazed that Jemsin was writing action-adventure-fantasy, which requires so much world-building, without having access to telling us what stuff looked like. Every time Oree touched someone’s face (or wished she could), or explained how she was drawing conclusions about things she couldn’t see, or made fun of someone for having a stupid response to her blindness, I was impressed by Jemsin’s skill as a writer. She took a limit and made it into a strength, made blindness more interesting than sight.
I also realized in Book Two that employing a narrative gimmick will be a feature of the series. In Book One, there were strange conversations and artifacts, like blips in the text, that kept me guessing throughout and (spoiler) ended up being Yeine, dead, arguing with her second soul (end spoiler). In this one, there is a “you” who Oree is addressing, whose identity, revealed, made me weep.
These kinds of epic touches are the delight of reading fantasy. Another delight is Jemisin’s language, which is so flowery, dreamy and embellished, that it’s easy to miss how tightly crafted it is. Here is Oree introducing herself (and also laying the groundwork for an important plot reveal later in the book):
“My parents named me Oree. Like the cry of the southeastern weeper-bird. Have you heard it? It seems to sob as it calls, oree, gasp, oree, gasp. Most Maroneh girls are named for such sorrowful things. It could be worse; the boys are named for vengeance. Depressing, isn’t it? That sort of thing is why I left.”
For me, however, all of the epic touches and dazzling style in the world aren’t going to be truly, deeply, exciting if a book doesn’t provide something to think about. In this case it was the portrait of people (mainly brown-skinned people) dealing with the fall-out from a fallen ruling class (white-skinned, mostly-evil people), formerly absolute dictators with the Gods on their sides, now in Book Two struggling to hold on to their power. The ruling-class God, Itempas, the Lord of Light and Right, has fallen too. (Incidentally, he surprised everyone by turning out to be brown-skinned.)
Jemisin executes this with her usual panache. The Arameri (ruling classes) live in an obnoxious palace in the sky and just. don’t. care. about anyone non-Arameri. They play roles, they cause trouble or sometimes even turn out to be not-so-bad, but Oree Shoth and the good guys are from other races, and take center stage. It’s very clever. Instead of making the princess black, Jemsin has made the princess bad (which makes so much more sense), semi-sidelined her, and created a more exciting female hero.
Even more interesting, Jemisin calls into question the idea of a God who is always right. Wouldn’t an always-right God be kind of an asshole? Could he ever change his mind? Would he have any sympathy for imperfect humans? What would it take for this God to become someone worthy of worship?
Overall, a fabulous book.