I’ve spent so much time in the belly of A Song of Ice and Fire that reading a new fantasy series – a complete fantasy series – is like dunking my head in a bucket of cold water. It’s like pink lemonade on a July Sunday. A good book makes me want to write, to tell everyone about it, to think about it, to community it. That’s how it was with N.K. Jemisin’s Inhertiance Trilogy.
This is a book review, but I also want to explain how I came to know about N.K Jemisin (besides, you know, getting out from the rock I live under). There’s that whole Sad Puppies/Rabid Puppies foofaraw about awards, right? Everyone knows about that by now. I don’t have to explain it to you. A bunch of people don’t like the people who win SFF awards (or who they imagine win SFF awards) and have generally thrown a Poopy Diaper Tantrum on the Internet for several years, knocking over several Hugos with their thrashing and flailing. You might have even heard of Vox Day, whose real name can be rearranged to spell “Bead Eel Hooter,” and whose flailing and thrashing have been prominently and shockingly caustic. Well, back in 2013 at Continuum in Australia (an annual SFF con in Melbourne), N.K. Jemisin, Guest of Honor, gave a little speech in which she mentioned – not by name! – this bitter, caustic shitheel. More specifically, she called out the Science Fiction Writers of America because 10% of the membership voted for Vox to be president of the SFWA. She called him “racist, misogynistic, and hateful” (all true). The speech is here; read it, it’s good writing. Well, the unctuous manbaby didn’t take kindly to that golden lasso, and said some incredibly racist, misogynistic, and hateful things about N.K. Jemisin.
You can read a fuller account of that here. The dude was eventually booted from SFWA, because obviously.
I’m a pretty hermit-y reader; I see cool-looking books and I read them. I generally didn’t know much about the publishing industry or “Puppies.” That’s changing. And N.K. Jemisin might well be the first author who I knew I agreed with well before I read her books. In fact, I desperately wanted to read her stuff because it felt wrong to agree with and respect an author so wholeheartedly without supporting them financially and creatively as well. That was a lot of adverbs. Let’s talk about The Inheritance Trilogy.
Quick Plot Summary
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms – Yeine is summoned to the magic floating palace of Sky, where she becomes one of the three contending heirs to the throne of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. She also meets the enslaved gods who serve the family of Sky, and learns all she can about her mother’s death – and her own strange, fated life.
The Broken Kingdoms – Oree is a blind woman who can see magic. She meets a fallen god (the fallen god, really), and through a blood-soaked eldritch horror-venture becomes that god’s only friend.
The Kingdom of Gods – The trickster god Sieh befriends two young twins – and then everything goes horribly wrong, as he starts aging. And someone’s out there, killing folks with cursed masks.
Alright, that was quick and dirty. The books are really so much more. Each of the three could technically stand on its own – they’re more like the Foundation novels in that regard than a continuous series like The Dark Tower or ASOIAF, as they explore a world and its gods through the eyes of different mortal characters. You don’t have to have read 100k to follow the plots of the TBK or TKoG, but it certainly enriches the series. Alone, they’re each a good book. Together, they’re a complete whole.
How Does It Read
BAM. So fast. These books fly by. I read them all over about two weeks, but that happened in these huge 300-page marathon sessions (I have an omnibus of all three plus the novella The Awakened Kingdom. Haven’t read the accompanying triptych of short stories yet). Each book features some sort of timetable – Yeine will die in seven days, Oree has 30 days to solve the murders, Sieh is aging very very rapidly – and Jemisin is not at all forgiving with that timetable. We don’t linger on each of Yeine’s seven days; she sleeps through a few of them, and before you know it we’re at the climax. Sieh doesn’t just age rapidly – he ages suddenly in random bursts, until before you know it he’s an old man (oh, minor spoilers I guess, but never fear – you have no idea what juicy plot points I’m hiding).
These books are high fantasy, but I’d almost call them minimalist. There’s no maps, there’s a tight cast of characters (relatively; there’s some sprawl, but the books focus on the same several characters with a few newbies every time), and the lore is applied like fennel seed – delicately and precisely, in just the right amount. For a story with its heart in the cosmos and the gods, the whole cosmology of this world is tight and clean. The complexities come up in the character relationships, not in the histories and lore. Remember how, at the beginning, I said this was like a drink of pink lemonade on a July Sunday? I wasn’t kidding. It’s so refreshing to read a high fantasy trilogy that only uses worldbuilding, cosmology, and atmosphere to serve the characters. Sure, sprawl can be fun – (like I said, I’ve lived in the belly of A Song of Ice and Fire), but it’s so damn interesting to just barrel through the plot, watching our characters tossed and turned like rubber duckies in hurricanes.
How Does It Make You Feel Though
Honestly, great. Ultimately, it’s a powerful existentialist story about self-actualization – it’s your responsibility to be as true to yourself as possible. But you know, less twee than what I just said. One of the best things about having the gods wandering around on-screen is that you feel the scope of power – when Yeine SPOILER SPOILERS at the end of 100k, it’s a fist-pumping exciting moment because you’ve been shown the scope of the gods’ capabilities firsthand. It also means you get crazy-good analogies and metaphors – leaps of faith can be literal when there’s a god to catch you on the way down. One of my favorite moments was a leap of faith in book 2, when one character escapes from a prison by flinging herself from a window and trusting that a fallen god’s power will return to him in time to save her. And as I said above, that’s what the books are about. There’s “systems” of magic, there’s politicking and trade wars and all that Star Wars Episode One stuff, but every single piece of it serves the characters. The world of the Inheritance trilogy is infinite, so it takes a skilled hand to arrange things in the best way possible.
That’s not to say these books are cheery fun-fests – no, your favorite characters can and will die, thousands of people may die, horrible things happen all the time. But in the end, the stories are forward-looking and forward-moving. This is far from a nihilistic grimdark fantasy story; these are high fantasy tales meant to stir you, bring a tear to your eye, and leave you feeling buouyed. I don’t know how to spell buouyouyed.
Oh, and a note about sex and gender in these books. It’s handled to a T. I know I’m beating the same drum, but it’s all about the characters. There’s also plenty – a bounty! – of nonbinary stuff in these books. Again, a breath of fresh air. (Oh, and I know these books are 5 or 6 years old. There’s fresher stuff out there. I know. That doesn’t make these books any less bold and cool and good). It’s just nice to read a fantasy series that doesn’t cleave to the “no gays in Medieval Europe” rule. (For a great list of recent books that are written from outside the Medieval European milieu, start with this list from Saladin Ahmed. Yes, that is another Jemisin book on there).
I know I’ve talked a lot about A Song of Ice and Fire in this review. I can’t help it! It’s in my brain like a Babel fish. But I think it’s also a good contrast to draw. Because as great as ASOIAF is, it’s sort of in its own little category. The rest of contemporary fantasy lit looks like N.K. Jemisin, not George R. R. Martin – fresh, bold, fast, hungry. As Game of Thrones continues to do what Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings did in the earlier 2000s, more and more people are discovering the wonder of fantasy worlds. I hope they discover the Inheritance trilogy. I want to shout it from the mountaintops – read these books! They’re great, not good, and by reading them you’re invited to a conversation that’s happening right now all over the world.