Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: The Broken Kingdoms, by N.K. Jemisin

One-line summary: Twilight of the Gods. Unfortunately, the wrong kind of Twilight.


Goodreads: Average 4.39. Mode: 5 stars.
Library Thing: Average 4.5. Mode: 5 stars.
Amazon: Average 5.0. Mode: 5 stars. (With 6 reviewers...)

The gods have broken free after centuries of slavery, and the world holds its breath, fearing their vengeance. The saga of mortals and immortals continues in THE BROKEN KINGDOMS. In the city of Shadow, beneath the World Tree, alleyways shimmer with magic and godlings live hidden among mortalkind. Oree Shoth, a blind artist, takes in a homeless man who glows like a living sun to her strange sight. This act of kindness engulfs Oree in a nightmarish conspiracy. Someone, somehow, is murdering godlings, leaving their desecrated bodies all over the city. Oree's peculiar guest is at the heart of it, his presence putting her in mortal danger -- but is it him the killers want, or Oree? And is the earthly power of the Arameri king their ultimate goal, or have they set their sights on the Lord of Night himself?

This is book two in the Inheritance Trilogy, which started with The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. There may be some minor spoilers for book one below the cut, but no spoilers for this book.

So, I just pontificated about review ratings and snarky reviews, and yet I feel an urge to pull my punches while reviewing The Broken Kingdoms. Jemisin seems like cool beans as an author and a person, and I mostly liked her first book, with reservations.

But, this book really annoyed me.

The Broken Kingdoms takes place ten years after 100K. The gods (who were set free at the end of the last book) are no longer on a leash, but the Arameri are still (uneasily) in power. Godlings -- the children of the Three -- are now free to run about in Shadow, the city that exists on the ground beneath Sky. (Contrary to the book's description above, most of them don't live hidden at all -- they walk openly and do business with mortals.) Besides the godlings, the most immediate change in the setting since the end of 100K is that there is now a 25-mile tall World Tree growing from Shadow to Sky.

The plot is summarized in the blockquote above. Someone is killing godlings, and a blind woman named Oree winds up in the middle of it. The identity of the "homeless man who glows like a living sun" will be obvious to anyone who remembers the end of the last book. So, the book is on the surface about figuring out who is killing godlings and why, leading to another power struggle among Arameri highborns using gods and being used by gods as pawns, and beneath the surface are issues of vengeance and forgiveness. But it ends up mostly being about which god Oree is going to shack up with.

Okay, let's cover the good first. I do like Jemisin's world. It's interesting. It's got a multicultural feel that's not just a bunch of generic Earth-culture pastiches with fantasy names. It's been deservedly praised for having POC center stage with a complete absence of racefail. The religion is a realistic religion (oppressive, occasionally benevolent despite the assholes in charge, schismatic, highly entangled in politics), and the gods, as in the first book, are beings of immense and unfathomable power who nonetheless act like petulant children prone to breaking their toys.

The story starts small in scale, leads to a major, earth-shaking conspiracy (you don't get much more earth-shaking than a plot to assassinate one of the three creator-deities), and... ends up small in scale. It wraps up neatly rather than on a cliffhanger, but on the other hand, this book felt like it was just another story that happens to be set in the same world as book one, and I expect book three will be the same. So this is a trilogy, but aside from cameos by recurring characters and events from the previous book setting the scene for what the new characters have to deal with, so far it does not feel like a continuous story.

Now, you're wondering why I took that cheap shot referring to Twilight in my one-liner, above. I didn't go into this looking for a Twilight comparison. But once I spotted one parallel, a whole bunch just jumped out at me. I am sure Jemisin had no intention or desire to write anything that resembled Twilight in any way, but the sad fact is that Oree is a hapless, impotent heroine who's basically an object of desire for vastly more powerful beings for inexplicable reasons, which puts her in danger and leads her to be willing to sacrifice herself for her controlling, powerful lover.

Oree isn't as personality-free as Bella Swan, and she has more spine, and she actually has some powers of her own. But she spends almost the entire book being threatened, rescued, imprisoned, rescued again, and basically acting as spectator to important events. Unlike Bella, she does occasionally take some initiative, but it always proves futile, so she just ends up having to be rescued again.

Yes, seriously. I can't think of one time where Oree actually solved a problem or got herself out of trouble. This isn't her fault -- like I said, she does have a personality, which makes her infinitely more interesting than Bella and similar heroines -- but it's the author's fault that her heroine is just an object to be protected and fought over. (This is literally the role she serves, in a major way.)

Now if I really wanted to stretch the Twilight analogy I'd point out that Oree's blindness is very similar to Bella's clumsiness -- a "disability" that doesn't so much disable the character as constitute a quirk. (Oree is blind, but she can "see" magic, which in a city full of magic and godlings means she can actually see quite a bit.)

Also, Oree is very pretty, attracts admirers (and gods) just by stumbling around, but doesn't realize she's totally hawt even though she keeps being told she is. And mind-blowing sex with her supernatural lover breaks her bed. (Okay, unfair -- that was last book. The obligatory "mind-blowing sex with a god" scene doesn't break the bed in this book, but it does drag a few D/s kinks uncomfortably out on display...) All right, I'll stop now.

So, that part was annoying. The story is actually interesting enough, but I noticed halfway through the book that while we're seeing everything through Oree's eyes (figuratively, and literally, as when she describes what she senses when "seeing" magic and the outlines of magical things and beings), that's all she does, is witness what's happening. She's a protagonist to whom things just happen.

Like gods. She's like a cat lady, except instead of cats, she collects gods. Gods are always following her around, talking to her, or falling in love with her. And there is no apparent reason for them to think she is such a special mortal as to be deserving of such attention. This is the catalyst for all the stuff that happens to her.

The writing is generally better this time around, although there are some writing habits I wish Jemisin would abandon. I'm quite tired of inserted lines of internal monologue interrupting the flow, and jumping around in time. Also, too many incidents of Oree blacking out and finding out what happened afterwards. (So now I'm flashing back to Mockingjay as well as Twilight.) Again, this makes for a hapless heroine things just happen to.

Because Oree is blind, we gets lots of descriptions of what she perceives with her other senses. Hearing, smell, and touch -- that part is fine. But Jemisin frequently takes the lazy route: the book is full of Oree describing how she could "feel" which way someone is looking, or how she guessed someone's expression by the silence, or how another person's emotions "filled the room." In other words, for a blind person, Oree picks up on an awful lot of things that she simply should not be able to pick up on without any visual cues. But Oree standing there not knowing how the other person is reacting would make for rather dull encounters. Rather than figuring out a way to write around this, Jemisin just lets Oree "sense" whatever she wants to describe.

I liked the gods as characters. In book one, I liked Yeine (though on reflection, it occurs to me that Yeine, too, made very few real choices, and was mostly just a victim of circumstances and fate). I thought all the other characters in book one, and especially the villains, were a bit flat. (Okay, the villains were a lot flat. Scimina had less depth than Cruella de Ville.)

This is true of the characters in book two, but unfortunately, they are essentially the same characters.

Leaving aside the Bella/Oree comparisons, Oree has a personality and a distinctive voice. The problem is, it's Yeine's personality and Yeine's voice.

Oh, sure, they aren't the same person. Their backstories are quite different. But they react the same and act the same. Their identical tendency to cower in horror, and then erupt in indignant fury even realizing how dangerous it is to do so... yeah, pretty much the same person. The author seems to have one pattern for her female protagonists. She just changes the names and the details. (-"warrior upbringing" +"blind".)

Same deal with the gods. And the nobles and the incidental allies and the cardboard villains. These were the same people with different names.

Combined with very similar (and similarly predictable) twists, I'm not yet convinced that Jemisin can write more than a handful of stock characters and plots.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms had huge buzz online, and no doubt The Broken Kingdoms will, too. But, in my opinion it doesn't live up to the hype. It's not bad, but book two did not really advance the series beyond what we got in book one. I would really like book three to blow me away because I think there is a colorful world here and a potentially awesome story, but... so far, not so much.

Verdict: If you liked The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, you'll probably enjoy the sequel well enough, but it's not epic. I am, alas, at this point somewhat underwhelmed by this series.
Tags: books, fantasy, n.k. jemisin, reviews

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