N.K. Jemisin loves to shatter the stereotypes of fantasy literature. Her works are not set in a pseudo-medieval Europe in which all heroes are men, all skin color is white, all sexualities are straight, and all conflicts are resolved with swords. She builds worlds full of wonder, intrigue and nuance where well-rounded characters get caught up in great clashes of diverse cultures.
Jemisin burst onto the scene in 2010 with the Locus Award-winning The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, after which came The Broken Kingdoms (2010) and The Kingdom of Gods (2011). These three novels are collected, along with a new novella, The Awakened Kingdom, in The Inheritance Trilogy.
Religion stands front and center in The Inheritance Trilogy. In this world, a pantheon called “the Three”—Itempas the Skyfather, Nahadoth the Nightlord and Enefa the Gray Mother —rule the universe together until the time of the Gods’ War. In the Gods’ War, Itempas killed Enefa and enslaved Nahadoth, establishing a monolatrist religion that banned worship of any other deities. The trilogy begins two thousand years into this age of the Bright.
The children of the Three are the godlings. Three godlings who fought against Itempas in the Gods’ War are enslaved along with Nahadoth. Itempas imposed the Interdiction, banning all the other godlings from the mortal world, and none have had worshippers since the Bright began.
Finally, there is a third class of divine beings: the demons. Demons are the offspring of gods and humans. Although very powerful, demons are mortal. In addition, the blood of demons is toxic to gods and may be the only way to kill them. When this was discovered during the earlier period of peace between the Three, the gods launched the Demon War against their own offspring, although a few demons seem to have survived and passed along their divine and deadly blood.
At the time of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, the mortal world is ruled by the Arameri, the descendants of Itempas’ most loyal supporter in the Gods’ War. The Arameri wield the power of Nahadoth and three enslaved godlings, which makes them completely unstoppable by any mortal means. The Arameri are cruel and corrupt, but they maintain order, which Itempas values above all else.
The narrator of the first novel is Yeine Darr, the daughter of the heir to the Arameri throne and a barbarian chieftain. Her mother had abandoned her birthright, and Yeine lived her entire life in the High North. She is grieving the murder of her mother when her grandfather summons her to the floating city of Sky. He surprises her by naming her one of three potential heirs—and thrusts her into a battle for succession against her ruthless cousins.
The Broken Kingdoms takes place ten years later, in world completely reshaped by the climactic events of the first novel. The narrator is Oree Shoth, a blind painter with the remarkable ability to see magic. When someone—or something—begins murdering godlings, Oree must fight to save the very universe itself.
Three mortal generations pass before The Kingdom of Gods. The narrator is Sieh the Trickster, one of the godlings enslaved with Nahadoth in the first book. An eternal child, Sieh seeks the love of the Three, but these greater gods are as far removed from godlings as Sieh is from mortals. Yet it is to mortals he goes in search of love until a mysterious event fundamentally changes his nature. What happens when the god of mischief is forced to grow up?
The new novella, The Awakened Kingdom, continues to explore the interactions between mortals and immortals. Shill, a newly-born godling, narrates this 124-page addition to the trilogy. The story takes place 300 years after The Kingdom of Gods in Darr, the homeland of Yeine (narrator of the first book). Shill has come to the mortal realm to try to discover her nature—what is she the goddess of?—with the help of a mortal boy named Eino, a second-class citizen in the extremely matriarchal Darren society despite his ability to wield magic.
The Awakened Kingdom is a nice add-on, even if it is only a marketing ploy to get diehard fans who own the three individual books to buy this collection. The novella is much lighter in tone than the books that make up the main trilogy. There are no existential threats looming here, and Shill’s adolescent voice can get annoying (hearing a divine being use the “because X” meme put me off a little). But it is also a clever commentary on sexism with the twist of placing female chauvinist pigs on the top of the heap. Although Jemisin is hardly the first to use this technique—the Greek myth of the Amazons is about 3,000 years old—she handles it well and even adds in a cringe-worthy practice of adult male circumcision that reminds me of the female genital mutilation that goes on in some parts of our world. As in her Dreamblood duology (2012), Jemisin uses a fantasy story to critique the sexism in our society.
The theme that runs through this saga is the abuse of power. Those with power, be they mortal or immortal, are regularly corrupted by it, often to the point that they most hurt the ones they love. The real heroes in these tales are the few who can restrain themselves or even relinquish their power. This is yet another lesson that good fantasy tales impart upon their readers.