The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms: February 2010
The Broken Kingdoms: November 2010
The Kingdom of Gods: October 2011
Omnibus and The Awakened Kingdom (sequel novella): December 2014
Finally got around to it: January 2016
Things are going to be different this year on Backlisted. I’m intending to do fewer but more in-depth reviews, both as a function of how much time I have to write for this blog (between my own fiction writing as well as reviewing for three other publications, that amounts to not a whole hell of a lot), and in an effort to spend more of that time ruminating on the works that matter most to me, without feeling the need to simply pump out a thousand or fifteen hundred words before moving on to the next title in my to-read pile.
And holy shit what a way to start the year.
This trilogy (quartet if you count the novella added to the omnibus) had been recommended to me by at least three people whose taste I trust implicitly yet still I dragged my heels on this more than I care to admit. Why? Because it’s fantasy, and with the exception of K.J. Parker’s Engineer trilogy, I’ve always been a bit hit and miss when it comes to fantasy lit—or more to the point, hesitant to even dive in in the first place. For the record, I’m pretty picky about sci-fi as well, though I’m usually more inclined toward the future speculative side of things than I am vaguely medieval worlds filled with magic, kingdoms, and occasionally elves (who always—always—come across like the most arrogant of pricks). Likely this has to do with having read and greatly disliked The Hobbit at a young age, and then years later having to force myself to make it through to the end of The Lord of the Rings—a truly gruelling task I would not wish on anyone.
I’m making so many friends right now, I’m sure.
Imagine my surprise then to discover that not only was I immediately pulled into Jemisin’s intensely vibrant world, which is so effortlessly realized, but like an addict following his first taste, I now intend to seek out everything else she’s ever published. And again, I don’t even like fantasy. Or so I thought.
It’s fortunate, too, that this comes so quickly on the heels of having read the entirety of Hannu Rajaniemi’s The Quantum Thief trilogy, a series that I was very much looking forward to, and in which I was profoundly disappointed. In this sense, The Inheritance Trilogy was a much-needed breath of fresh air. Curious that the exact same thing happened to me a year ago when, over the Christmas break, I read through Jeff Vandermeer’s Area X: The Southern Reach trilogy and was as disappointed in it as I was Rajaniemi’s work, and for the same reasons—a propensity toward ideas over any semblance of narrative cohesion or character depth and development—only to rebound with Kameron Hurley’s exquisite (and brutally violent) Bel Dame Apocrypha. Such is the way of things.
And as with all entries on this site, the longer the review the more plentiful the spoilers. And since this is, without question, the longest review I’ve ever written, well…
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms
There were three gods once.
Only three, I mean. Now there are dozens, perhaps hundreds. They breed like rabbits. But once there were only three, most powerful and glorious of all: the god of day, the god of night, and the goddess of twilight and dawn. Or light and darkness and the shades between. Or order, chaos, and balance. None of that is important because one of them died, the other might as well have, and the last is the only one who matters anymore.
The Arameri get their power from this remaining god. He is called the Skyfather, Bright Itempas, and the ancestors of the Arameri were His most devoted priests. He rewarded them by giving them a weapon so mighty that no army could stand against it. They used this weapon—weapons, really—to make themselves rulers of the world.
In the first of Jemisin’s books, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, we’re introduced to the family line at the crux of the entire series: the Arameri. They are the ruling family of the land and of the Amn people, and devotees of the god Itempas, of whom it is said, during the God’s War that precedes the narrative by many centuries, killed his sister Enefa, and offered his brother Nahadoth to the Arameri as a slave. As can be expected from any family with as much wealth and power as the Arameri, they are revealed to be a brutal, power-obsessed family all-too focused on the “purity” of their highblood status. The seat of their power is a palace within a city, both named Sky. The palace itself floats in the air around an impossibly thin column separating it from the city that bears its name—a clear if narrow sign of the division cultivated between the ruling family and their subjects below.
It’s through the eyes of a nineteen-year-old woman named Yeine dau she Kinneth tai wer Somem kanna Darre that we first come to know the Arameri, and to understand the world in which they rule—one where gods and godlings do in fact exist, though several have been enslaved and the rest cast from the mortal realm in the centuries since the God’s War and Bright Itemptas’s vicious retribution. Yeine is a Darr baroness, and the daughter of Kinneth, late, disowned heiress of the Arameri who fled her kingdom, and Dekarta—her father and the current ruler of Sky—following the suspicious murder of her mother. Darr, of which Yeine is a member of the ruling class—an “ennu”—is a matriarchal society, where the men are only called to fight if a situation is truly dire. Otherwise they are designated as the protectors of the home and of the community’s children. Yeine herself is described as a warrior. She has Amn eyes, faded green in color, more unnerving than pretty. Otherwise, I am short and flat and brown as forestwood, and my hair is a curled mess.
In the book’s opening, Yeine is called to Sky by her grandfather, Dekarta Arameri, to challenge her scheming cousins Scimina and Relad for her grandfather’s rule (the finer details of which—such as the fact that to lose means certain death—are obfuscated until her arrival, when it is too late for her to leave). But it is not just Yeine’s life that is at risk—both Scimina and Relad, though sister and brother, will turn as readily on one another as they will on Yeine to determine who will reign in Dekarta’s footsteps. Thus, alliances must be made, and threats levied. Such is the Arameri way. Throughout all this, Yeine must contend with her cousins’ poor expectations of her. (Scimina is especially cruel and condescending, describing the Darr as “a race that has never been more than savages, no matter how prettily we dress you.”) As well, her gradual realization of what it takes to be considered Arameri. In the words of Yeine’s aunt, being a member of said family means knowing “How to be cruel…. How to spend life like currency and wield death itself as a weapon.”
But Yeine is not alone in her time at Sky. Along with several of palace’s helping hands, many of whom she comes to realize are Amn, though not treated with the same degree of respect as highbloods (like the good-natured T’vril), she is occasionally hunted, and desired, by the god and godlings imprisoned by the Arameri: the Lord of the Night Nahadoth, Itempas’s brother, sister, and sometimes lover; Sieh, the Trickster god and the first and oldest of the godlings made from the Three; Kurue, the goddess of wisdom; and Zhakkarn, goddess of war and battle. It’s through the relationships that develop between Yeine and the gods confined within Sky, especially Sieh and Nahadoth, that she learns the truth about the Three—Itempas, Nahadoth, and Enefa—the Big Bang-like astrological phenomenon known as the Maelstrom that birthed them, and the jealousy and resulting war that tore their family asunder.
As the story progresses and Yeine finds herself becoming further embroiled in the lives and plight of the gods surrounding her, she learns an unexpected truth about herself: that when the goddess Enefa was murdered by Itempas, her soul remained, though horribly wounded. Sieh and the other gods discovered Enefa’s soul and placed it within a mortal body—Yeine’s—where it is to be nursed back to health. This helps to clarify certain things—chief among them why life in the universe continued following Enefa’s apparent death, when it is said that the true death of any one of the Three would mean the end of all things, and the unbalancing of creation. Upon learning this, Yeine agrees to ally herself with Nahadoth and the godlings, to assist in ensuring their freedom, in exchange for the protection of her homeland, Darr, regardless of whether the makes it through the succession competition alive.
It’s in the narrative’s final moments, however, that the truth of things is laid bare and, following a sequence of events that sees Yeine murdered to curry favour with Itempas and Scimina turning viciously on her brother Relad (sadly the one character in the story I felt was given the proverbial short end of the stick—often feeling like an afterthought, or a pale echo of his more conniving and terrifying sister), Yeine is reborn as a goddess, the imprisoned gods are freed, and Bright Itempas is thusly and efficiently subdued. Simultaneous with her rebirth, Yeine brings to life a massive World Tree (basically the Yggdrasil from Norse cosmology) to grow up and through the palace of Sky, connecting it to the city below in a very real and material manner—something much more substantial and meaningful than the narrow column that had existed previously, more as a symbol than anything with actual social weight or promise.
From separation to forced unity, the rebirth of Enefa/Yeine brings the Arameri, and Itempas, down to earth, effectively setting things on the slow path to equality, if such a thing is to be achieved in a world so fractured by haves and have-nots. All in all, a rather fantastic, aesthetically powerful means of illustrating the rebuilding that must now take place that the Arameri have literally lost the power of the gods, that their highblood status has taken a severe hit from which it is impossible to rebound, and that they are going to be forced to have increased communication with the world and divergent classes they’d for so long floated carelessly above.
The Broken Kingdoms
My education didn’t help. Like most people, I was taught that there were three gods once, and then there was a war between them, which left two. One of them wasn’t actually a god anymore—though he was still very powerful—so really that left just one. (And a great many godlings, but we never saw them.) For most of my life, I was raised to believe that this state of affairs was ideal, because who wants a bunch of gods to pray to when one will do? Then the godlings returned.
Not just them, though. Suddenly the priests began to say odd prayers and write new teaching poems into the public scrolls. Children learned new songs in the White Hall schools. Where once the world’s people had been required to offer their praises only to Bright Itempas, now we were urged to honor two additional gods: a Lord of Deep Shadows and someone called the Gray Lady. When people questioned this, the priests simply said, The world has changed. We must change with it.
You can imagine how well that went over.
The second book in the series, The Broken Kingdoms, takes place ten years after the events of the first. It focuses on the city once called Sky, now called Sky-in-Shadow (or simply Shadow), as it exists beneath the shadow of the towering World Tree created during Yeine’s rebirth as a goddess. The Arameri’s power has been diminished if not done away with entirely, and they are now ruled by T’vril, who Yeine installed as Dekarta’s successor at the close of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. And alongside the Arameri’s partial dismantling, the world is again overrun by godlings given free reign.
The narrative this time around belongs to a young Maroneh woman named Oree Shoth—a blind artist who can somehow see the magic that surrounds her, especially now that the world is once again flush with it. Oree sells her art to tourists and passers-by on Shadow’s Promenade. Early on she describes herself as such: They love my long legs, my graceful neck, my storm of hair, my breasts… they also commented on my smooth, near-black Maro skin…
Like Yeine before her, Oree does not walk through this world alone. Though she has left her Maroneh family behind, to make her own way in the world, she is accompanied by a host of fellow artists, a godling named Madding with whom she was once involved when she was seventeen and new to the city, and a strange man she comes across one night covered in muck—a man who repeatedly discovers new and horrible ways to die (re: kill himself) while always returning to life; a man who Oree can see when he starts to magically glow at the break of daylight. Seeing as the sad, perpetually suicidal man refuses to talk but still gloms on to Oree like a stray dog, she’s forced to name him herself: she calls him Shiny.
Of course it’s clear pretty early on that Shiny is really Itempas in mortal form—stripped of his godhood but not his immortality, forced to wander amongst humans and to learn from them until such time as Nahadoth and Yeine consider him to be redeemed—or merely punished enough. The trick of it all: he has to learn how to love, unconditionally. But while this is pretty obvious from the jump, in no way is Shiny’s journey anything less than utterly compelling. But I digress…
Soon after meeting Shiny, Oree’s world is thrown for a loop when a godling is found murdered in an alley just off the Promenade—one of Madding’s sisters. Madding and other godlings, meanwhile, have a side operation going on selling god’s blood to average mortals, gifting them with magical highs, for a price. During the investigation into the godling’s death that follows, Oree’s magical side begins more and more to reveal itself, independent of Madding’s bloody (literally) influence: as a function of her art she learns she has the ability to create passageways in space. Her magic is unstable, though, and it is eventually revealed that Oree is in fact part demon—a species of humans created by the mating of gods and mortals, believed to be all but wiped out on Itempas’s orders, in the aftermath of the God’s War. Why? Because demon’s blood is anathema to a god’s existence. It is the one thing that can harm them—beyond their catastrophic, universe-shattering infighting that is.
Once Oree’s abilities are discovered, she’s kidnapped by a radical organization known as the House of the Risen Sun that believes the gods are to blame for humanity’s ills, and that Nahadoth especially must be destroyed (because, of course, the Risen Sun is organized my Arameri highbloods who’ve lost a significant amount of status since the freeing of the gods; and because Nahadoth, due to his years of imprisonment, hates the Arameri second only to Itempas—minus the complicated familial-type love he shares with the latter). The Risen Sun, led by the Arameri Serymn and her husband Dateh, aims to use Oree’s blood to construct god-killing weapons, citing the need for vengeance and protection against the changing face of the world. It’s here that Oree learns the truth behind her father’s fateful words: that “There’s no such thing as magic that does no harm.”
Of course the Risen Sun don’t realize that were they to succeed and actually kill Nahadoth, all of existence would be negated. The universe previously sustained the death of a god by the fact that Enefa’s soul survived where her body did not; were any of the Three to actually be obliterated from existence, so too would all life cease to be. But the Risen Sun are about as up their own asses as a cult can be, as evidenced by the fact that Dateh is eating the hearts of murdered godlings to gain their strength.
Which is just all kinds of fucked up. Amazing and disturbing and holy shit why didn’t I think of using that in a story? But still, totally fucked up.
Beyond Dateh’s clear and villainous insanity, however, the most frightening thing he does is to clarify to Oree the sad truth about the Arameri and their relationship with Bright Itempas: “We worship Him not because He is the best of our gods, but because He is, or was, the greatest killer among them.” Which, to me, reads as a terrifyingly perfect analogue to those among us, in the real world, who would beat their chests for the God of the Old Testament—a being to be feared, not loved, for the ways in which It can completely, effortlessly, wreck literally all of humanity, and without a shred of remorse.
And of course there is an epic as all hell showdown with Dateh, wherein he’s confronted with the horrors of what he’s done. But as exciting as the climax was—and unexpected, coming after I thought most things had been neatly wrapped up and placed on a shelf—the most fascinating aspect of this second book is in how it humanizes Itempas through Oree’s interaction with him. He’s forced to admit to his mistakes (as much as he’ll admit to anything at this point), and confront the fact that he is learning to love, and indeed is falling in love with a demon—an individual that in a previous life he would have condemned to destruction out of his own capacity for self preservation (and that whole fearing the destruction of the universe thing):
“You’re saying you started the God’s War,” I said. “You’re saying the Nightlord was your lover—that you love him still. You’re saying he’s free now and he’s the one who did this to you.”
In this moment, and many that follow through the remainder of this book and into the next, Itempas, the harshest of the gods, responsible for untold death and destruction, is effectively humanized, and not at all in a way that felt cheap or manipulative. He reveals to Oree that his actions in starting the God’s War were a result of having experienced a moment of utter, incomparable loneliness for which he blamed Enefa—for taking Nahadoth from him, and for being completely incapable of sharing his love.
In the end, he was a spurned lover incapable of being alone, who lashed out at those who loved and cared for him most because change, as it were, was simply not in his nature.
At the close, it’s revealed that Oree was in fact telling the story to another person all along—hers and Itempas’s daughter. After the climax in which she loses her ability to see the magic in the world around her, becoming now entirely blind, she and Itempas go into exile—he a deposed god, she a demon whose existence many fear as being a threat to all. And to add insult to injury, she is visited, well before the birth of her child, by Nahadoth and Yeine, who for the most part sit out the events of the second book—the threat of Nahadoth looms over many of the book’s events, though he rarely makes an appearance. They inform Oree that either she must die, or that she must abandon Itempas, for he no longer suffers with her by his side. And Nahadoth especially is not willing to let him off the hook after only ten years spent wandering the Earth in pain and isolation.
While the ending of this book is an emotional stomach punch, Oree nevertheless rises to all occasions. Despite her blindness, she is never treated as less than, nor is she ever placed in a physically compromised position by any of the gods. Any persecution she faces throughout is not a result of her disability but of her heritage as a demon. And that she survives and accomplishes all she does, without help from, and often in spite of the gods, is why, at the end of all things, she emerged as my favourite character in the entire series.
The Kingdom of Gods
A godling defying a god. It seemed impossible. We were such low things compared to them; they could kill us so easily. Yet we were not powerless. Some among us—myself, once upon a time—were strong enough to challenge them directly, at least for a few moments. And even the least of us could keep secrets and stir up trouble.
One godling’s mischief did not trouble me. But if many of us were involved, conspiring across mortal generations, implementing some complex plan, it was no longer mischief. It was a revolt. One far more dangerous than whatever the northerners planned for the Arameri.
Because if the godlings revolted against the gods, the gods would fight back, as they had done when threatened by the demons long ago. But godlings were not as fragile as demons, and many of us had no vested interest in keeping the mortal realm safe. That would mean a second God’s War, worse than the first one.
This had been brewing right under my nose for fifty years, and I hadn’t a clue.
Beyond me, in silent rebuke, the bloody sky went gradually black.
Right away one notices the tone of the third book in this series is decidedly different than what’s come before. The narrator this go around, the Trickster Sieh, informs the reader up front not to expect the same old tricks: You will not reach the end and suddenly learn I have been talking to my other soul or making a lullaby of my life for someone’s unborn brat. And he’s right. Down to the very structure—split into four parts where the previous books were only divided by chapters—the third book in the Inheritance Trilogy is a decidedly unique but no less riveting affair. And upon reflection, its focus—a godling faced with mortality—is a perfect third act for this series, having spent the first two books exploring immortality and godhood from the perspective of mortals, to varying degrees (Oree, of course, being a demon).
Far more time has passed between the second and third books than between the first and second—many decades as a matter of fact. It begins when Sieh meets and befriends two Arameri highbloods—children. He’s wary at first, because children or not, a highblood is a highblood. The memories of his incarceration are not so easily wiped clear. In spite of this, he is intrigued by the children and offers to meet them again, one year from their first encounter. Things continue like this until the children manage to encourage Sieh to become their friend, and the three of them take a blood oath to that effect. In the moment the oath is made, however, and their blood is shared, Sieh is hurtled away without knowledge of what has happened to him, how much time has passed, or even where he is. When he wakes in Nahadoth’s care, he learns that not only have eight years passed, but also that he has become afflicted with, of all things, mortality.
Upon returning to the mortal realm and to Sky, Sieh seeks out the two Arameri children with whom he took the oath—Shahar and Dekarta, named for two of the family’s most important (re: infamous) rulers. Their mother Remath, granddaughter of T’vril, is the new ruler of the Amn people. When Sieh is reunited with Shahar, he learns from her what really happened that faithful day—from their perspective:
“Eight years ago,” she said in that same clipped, edged tone, “you and I and Deka took an oath of friendship. Immediately upon which you unleashed a flare of magic so powerful that it destroyed the Nowhere Stair and much of the underpalace—and then you vanished, leaving Deka and me buried in the rubble with more bones broken than whole.”
Sieh, of course, never intended for any of that to happen—from the children getting hurt to his forced mortality. Worse, he learns that the boy, Deka, was blamed for what happened and sent away to become a scrivener. Despite his selfish, childish nature, Sieh wishes to get to the bottom of things and seeks out what might have caused the oath they took to have such grave effect.
Simultaneously, The Kingdom of the Gods goes into terrific detail to illustrate the degree in which the world is changing as the Arameri’s control continues to slip. The World Tree still grows throughout the palace of Sky, splitting it into inconvenient pathways and disrupting the Arameri’s sense of a power in a very material way. What we learn as we follow Sieh’s investigation is that the Arameri line is dwindling in accordance with their diminished power, and that highbloods have been the target of attacks and assassinations for some time.
Eventually Sieh’s journey leads him into the paths of several characters around which the central themes and conflicts of the entire trilogy’s narrative to some extent revolve: Ahad, a man shaped from the mortal prison Nahadoth was forced into during his Arameri captivity; Glee Shoth, the grown daughter of Oree and Itempas, who keeps the latter safe from those who might seek to destroy or abuse him; and the villain of the piece, Kahl Avenger—the offspring of Sieh and the original Enefa.
The existence of the last of these individuals is one of the most interesting and unexpected twists in the entire series. Prior to the God’s War, it is revealed, Enefa courted Sieh and made for him a child from his seed. But as Sieh’s nature is forever that of a child himself, the maturity inherent in having a child proved anathema to his existence, almost killing him. It would have, actually, had Enefa not hidden the child, Kahl, where no one, god or mortal, would know to look, and subsequently locking the knowledge of his existence from Sieh’s memory. But when Enefa was killed, the chains on Kahl’s imprisonment were loosened; and when Enefa’s soul was reborn in Yeine, they were shattered altogether, and for decades, “Kahl, son of death and mischief, Lord of Retribution, was loosed upon the realms to do as he would.”
And what’s Kahl’s endgame? The creation of a God’s Mask, which would afford the slighted individual the power of a fourth god, thus upsetting the balance of the Three and throwing all of existence into disarray, calling forth the Maelstrom from which all life began to subsequently wipe clear the universe.
Really though, he’s just a petulant shit frustrated that his parents never paid him any attention.
I’m of course being reductive here, but Kahl’s ambition serves as an interesting parallel to Itempas and the rashness of his actions, which also could have destroyed all of creation had he truly been successful in killing Enefa the first time. And really, that’s what this book is all about: parallels and understandings. Much of this is shown in how Sieh grows and matures, aging rapidly as he does, but also in Itempas, who has changed considerably since the second book and now willingly and gratefully places his life in the hands of his demon offspring, Glee. He has gone over the course of three books from viewing the mortals as subservient and the demons as a pure threat, to living amongst, loving, and fighting for mortals, and viewing his child, and all demons, as a necessary countermeasure to the gods themselves—because balance must exist in all facets of the known universe. And sometimes even a god needs to be taught this very simple lesson. Similarly, Sieh learns the value in having a life to give, and others to give it too, and is discovering such things not only from his interactions with Dekarta and Shahar, but also in the troubled and difficult, though evolving relationship he finds with the subdued and surprisingly level-headed Itempas.
But of course it’s in Sieh’s love for the two Arameri children, now adults, in which his biggest transformation takes place—especially the passionate relationship that develops between he and Dekarta following the latter’s return from exile as a powerful scrivener not to be trifled with.
What’s fascinating is that over the course of this one book, Jemisin manages to reframe the entirety of the Three’s troubled history within the smaller, more compact narrative of Sieh, Shahar, and Dekarta (including the very end of this book, in which it’s revealed the story of the Three is, in some ways, being retold and gifted to a new generation). And in doing so, she manages to also satisfy and resolve the conflict between the Three, giving them what was needed for old wounds to be resolved, and new promises made.
Behind all of this, though, is Kahl’s long con, using the northerners and those otherwise dissatisfied with the remains of the Arameri’s rule to don similar but more unstable god masks and sacrifice themselves to his greater good, in the process killing Remath, destroying Sky, and toppling the World Tree in one of the series’ most amazingly well-realized sequences. Which is to say nothing of the intensity that follows as Kahl, having assumed for himself a true god’s power, calls forth the Malestrom to bring about the end of all things:
The Whorl was not as high as Sky had been, but it was as good a vantage point as any. From there, the heavens were a terrible, awe-inspiring sight. More than half of the sky had been devoured by the swirling, wavering transparency. As the sun rose and passed into the space of change, its shape turned sickly and distorted, its light flickering on our skins like a campfire. This was not an illusion. What we saw was literal, despite the impossibility of the angles and distance. Even Tempa’s rules for physics and time had been distorted by the Maelstrom’s presence. Thus we beheld the slow and tortured end of our sun as it was torn apart and drawn into the great maw. There would be light for a while longer, and then darkness such as no mortal has ever seen.
I was reminded when reading the above of the television show Farscape. For years, they teased the existence of a “wormhole weapon”—a device of such terrible power that to use it would mean the end of all life in the galaxy and beyond. After four seasons and a movie that served as the series finale, they finally employed said wormhole weapon, creating a flame-wreathed singularity in space that would double in size every few seconds until it swallowed existence whole. Needless to say, after so many years’ worth of build up, it did not disappoint. This was the image that sprang to mind as I entered into the final conflict of this book, and the Second God’s War, as the Maelstrom, this almost impossible to imagine non-entity that had been discussed in hushed tones for two full books, was brought to life, and was actually, genuinely, terrifying as fuck.
And this right here is why I adore this series so much. While it excels, effortlessly, at representation, at discussing race and class, at normalizing same-sex relationships and having gender-fluid characters (Nahadoth) and disabled characters (Oree) at its core, at plot and pacing and tossing about analogues to our world that feel so fully thought out it seems almost obvious, it also manages to be absolutely epic in scope, never disappointing or becoming confounding in its action. And at the height of such devastating events, to find a way to bring it all back down to Earth, so to speak, with a hand on a former lover’s shoulder and the words By such small gestures are wars ended. Such is the strength of Jemisin’s writing. As endings go, this was damn near perfect.
The Awakened Kingdom
You were wanted! Mama and Papa and Naha wanted you lots. You know this, and you know there is a space carved into existence which is shaped like a godling, and that godling is supposed to be you! The hole was left when Biggest Sibling went away. By that I mean, he died. His name was Sieh. Now imagine you are supposed to be Sieh! Well, not really. Sieh is dead. But you were made to fill the hole he left behind—to be the Trickster and the wind, mischief and cruelty, the cat and the boy and the cranky old man. Imagine the Three have shaped you so, so carefully to match the hole. You will be different from Sieh-that-was, but you will be important in the same way. You will be powerful in the same way. The planets will follow you and the mortals will tell tales of you and you will steal all the suns, but only keep the ones that want to be your friend. Without a Trickster the universe will not end, bit it will be a much duller place.
The fourth entry in this series, a sequel novella that takes place three hundred years following the close of the third book, is a decidedly quieter affair that feels more like an extended coda than it does a full-fledged tale. (That’s not intended as a slight, by the way—the narrative is substantial and worthy enough to be included in the omnibus.) It’s told from yet another new perspective—that of a godling, the first child of Itempas and Yeine following Sieh’s death at the end of the Second God’s War. This new god is still learning the ropes, which sometimes means accidentally levelling cities or shouting at a register somewhat torturous to mortal ears. To this end, she goes to Earth to learn from mortals how to be a better god. As Itempas puts it when discussing the untold strength of human beings and why it’s important to study them: “They were made to endure death on a scale we cannot imagine.”
The new godling, after some fumbling around, decides to name herself Shill, and befriends a young Darr man named Eino. Eino’s grandmother Fahno is a former “enulai”—a mortal from whom a god learns in a mentor-mentee relationship. This position, as it were, did not exist prior to the Compact, an agreement made three hundred years earlier when, following Kahl’s defeat and the world’s rather narrow brush with obliteration, the Three left mortals to manage life on their own terms, so as not to unwillingly involve innocent life in their squabbles and occasional wars.
As Shill begins to taste what it means to be a mortal, she sees in Eino a young man struggling to accept the society in which he’s been raised—one that has, over the centuries, reduced men to mere objects to be married off, for status and/or wealth it would seem. The courting of men in this society includes a gift: a knife that their future/new wife will use to circumcise them, as if to enforce their ownership. The reasons for this are told by way of another enulai named Mikna:
“But not long after Skyfall, “Mikna continued, “in the new golden age that Darr had begun to enjoy with the ending of the Bright, and the rebuilding after the war—our men turned on us. Not all, certainly, but enough to pose a real threat…. That’s the way of men, you see, when women don’t keep them in check.”
Shill, though, being an innocent for whom all things are currently equal, and for whom histories and politics are largely unknown, is baffled by the rights that have been taken from Eino and the other Darr men. And in her quest to learn her nature, as it were, she discovers in the unbalanced Darr society that hers is to be the embodiment of balance, capable of bestowing power to those who need it, at the expense of her own wellbeing. Because, as Yeine tells her, power cannot be given but only taken. Too much is a danger, as can be too little. This, then, is Shill’s purpose—her nature: to regulate; to delegate. To be the peace the blossoming world needs—the very antithesis of a god’s rule.
While The Awakened Kingdom is certainly a more light-hearted finale than I would have expected, given the bleak, near-cosmic destruction of the previous book, it’s quite satisfying on its own merits. Though Shill’s voice is a rather dramatic departure from that of Yeine, Oree, and Sieh, it functions almost as an exhalation, as if telling the reader “this is going to be a little different, and that’s okay—you can un-tighten the giant fucking knot in your chest.” Because as captivating and exciting as the trilogy was, it was also rather exhausting—not in a bad way, but in the way one feels like they need a breather after a pretty fucking amazing rollercoaster.
But Shill’s brief tale is not merely a surface-level romp to show the reader what became of the world following a few centuries of life without the influence of the Three, or for that matter the Arameri. It also serves as a thematic bow of sorts to many of the more pressing themes presented throughout, such as the equality gap between certain races and genders (an intriguing and welcome flip of the narrative that exists in a lot of fantasy lit, where men are the kings and warriors and the like, while women tend to the home and protect the children), and the presence—and danger—of magic in the hands of those not fit to wield its power.
Additionally, ending things with a tale focusing on the Darr and not the Arameri was a lovely way to bookend things, in a sense bringing Yeine’s journey full circle. For when she visits the people for whom she once sought the power to fight, or at least to defend against her cousin Scimina’s encroaching forces, she is now very aware that power alone would not satisfy their problems, nor would it absolve them of their sins, as it would not do for any nation on the Earth. In this way, Shill, her child, is brought about to be the thing that she could not be to Darr as a mortal, or to any nation as a god: the ability to empower safely, and with the knowledge and wisdom to do so in a way that would not grant any one group of people more power or authority than they deserve, or would know how to handle. This is also a pointed stab at what the Arameri represented at the start of everything, during the time of the Bright: cruelty, enslavement, and oppression—the poisons of power unchecked.
At the end of all things, the series is not just about power, or corruption, or the varied social strata represented throughout; it’s about family, first and foremost. It’s about how no matter their scope or strength or influence—be it a trio of gods that loves one another as strongly as they hate, fucking and spawning and battling to the death at the dawn of time and beyond, or a new trio of souls formed in a different universe, or possibly in an afterlife, at a much later time and in a place known only to them—family, by blood or by choice, is at the heart of every glorious success and every unimaginable tragedy one can consider. This is the strength of Jemisin’s work—beyond the florid writing and goddamn stunning imagery, this series survives on its ability to turn even the mightiest of gods into flawed, fucked-up individuals as capable of as many good deeds and miracles as they are back-stabbings and affairs.
As is likely incredibly fucking obvious to anyone who’s read this far, I don’t have a lot of negative things to say about this series. Sure, there are a few things I would have loved to see padded out—as mentioned earlier, Relad in the first book is a rather slight character until the plot demands he step forward and offer Yeine an alliance. Additionally, I would love to have had some resolution with Oree’s friends and fellow artists from the Promenade in the second book, and the scrivener corps in the third. Oh, and there was not nearly enough of the godling Lil the Hunger. She absolutely stole every scene she was in—her and her enormous mouth of rotating, buzzsaw teeth. Just give me an entire book with her as the protagonist and I will be happy.
But these aren’t so much points against the series, or even missed opportunities, as they are simple wishes for more. In no way did I feel the narrative was lacking or void of any one thing or another.
The older I get and the more I read, the harder I find it is for me to feel the rush of excitement or joy I used to gain from just picking up practically any old book. But more than those sensations, these days I find satisfaction to be my magical, elusive unicorn in the woods—that thing that I almost never feel, the sense that what you’ve read could only have been written by this one person, and that they’ve shown you their very best hand. The most recent instances I can think of where I felt this way have been in books that I now consider among my favourites, regardless of genre: The Shining Girls, by Lauren Beukes; Daytripper, by Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá; the previously mentioned Bel Dame Apocrypha, by Kameron Hurley. These are all books that twigged my specific loves and interests so strongly as to feel they were not so much things I discovered as they were written for me.
This is how I felt after finishing Jemisin’s The Inheritance Trilogy. This was, truly, one of the most satisfying reads I have had in quite some time, and I can’t recommend it enough.