Nora Jemisin's gods have a complicated relationship with humankind, in both the usual sense and the Facebook "It's Complicated" one. They're more-or-less immortal beings with countless centuries of life experience, who view people—in the words of godling of childhood Sieh, at the start of The Kingdom of Gods (2011)—"like pets . . . to be indulged and disciplined and loved and kept safe in the finest of cages, on the gentlest of leashes. We only killed them when we had to" (p. 8). Yet on the evidence of the Inheritance Trilogy, gods just can't help falling into bed with little ol' human us. Because we're just that fascinating.
To be fair, Sieh's statement is not without—it becomes apparent—a hefty dose of irony, given the story he is preparing to tell, about which more below. Nevertheless, just as with the central vampire/human relationships in things like Buffy and Twilight, when very powerful beings with a very different perspective on life and death start fixating on young women and teenage girls, however much we're told things like, "Love levels the ground between us and them. When they break our hearts, it hurts the same as if the deed were done by one of our own" (KoG, p. 288), it’s difficult to suppress the little voice at the back of your viewerly/readerly mind wondering pointedly about the power dynamics.
Take, for example, the episode in which Oree, blind boho artist narrator of The Broken Kingdoms (2010) and self-described "woman plagued by gods" (p. 15), is first kissed by a surly stranger she has taken into her house. Lacking a name for him, she calls the stranger "Shiny," because he has a certain divine glow that makes him visible to her magic senses despite her blindness. All gods have this quality, but none to the same extent. "'Handsome'," she tells us, "did not begin to describe that face, so much more than the collection of features that my fingers had explored and learned. Cheekbones did not have their own inner light" (p. 37). She spends the next several sentences describing his breathtaking prettiness thus; as a reader for whom romance is not the primary thing I seek in fiction, I must confess this sort of passage set my eyes rolling (feel free to weigh the next few paragraphs of my commentary with this in mind!). Although Jemisin, through Oree, goes to some pains to explain that this was not a violent experience ("If he had forced the kiss, I would have hated it. I would have fought. Instead he was gentle" (p. 130)), it is nonetheless something that is very clearly initiated and directed by him, not her ("He drew near again and kissed me. . . . his mouth coaxed mine open with a skill I had never imagined he possessed" (ibid.)).
Oree is a smart adult woman with a previous godling relationship to her name, but Shiny—in fact Itempas, disgraced member of the trio of chief gods, condemned to exile among humankind—is the senior partner, by an order of millennia, and this continues to be the shaping dynamic of their interactions. It is he who determines the nature and timing of their romance and he, again, who controls the form and tone of their physical intimacy: "he'd taken hold of my waist again, pulling me where he wanted so he could do all the things his gaze had implied" (p. 363). Itempas/Shiny is the doer of the verbs; Oree is their object:
He touched me more then, kissing, tasting, caressing. He had learned much about me in our previous session, which this time he used to ruthless effect. When his teeth grazed my throat, I cried out and arched backward, not quite voluntarily. The way he was holding my wrists meant that I bent how he wanted me to bend. He wasn't hurting me—I could feel the care he took to avoid that—but I couldn't break his grip. I trembled, my eyelids fluttering shut, fear and arousal making me light-headed as I finally understood.
. . . He was not quite my Shiny, not anymore, and he would be nothing like my cool, carefree Madding. He would be a thing of heat and intensity and absolute power.
Could I lie down with something like that and get up whole? (TBK, p. 365)
He might be careful to "avoid" hurting her (although this is surely the minimum one should expect from a sexual partner, outside of, say, consensual BDSM), but there is no doubt that—for all the talk, elsewhere, about heartbreak and suchlike—the power here is all his.
This is the tension at the heart of Jemisin's debut trilogy, the second and third volumes of which are under review here; indeed, if there is a unifying theme to the trilogy it is the use and abuse of power, whether that be in inter-personal relationships or on the wider canvas of running a world empire. But while the tension within the various protagonists' (invariably human/god) romances is acknowledged—as in the passage above—and engaged with, at times one can't quite escape the feeling that the author is trying to have her cake and eat it. Problematic hot god-sexing is still, well, hot god-sexing.
In time-honored tradition, in Jemisin's trilogy immortals also envy the brief but meaningful lives of mortals, the emotional intensity attendant on not having a very long time in which to experience emotions. More particularly, they envy humankind's own, attenuated version of immortality, as the godling Madding explains to Oree, some time before she meets Itempas: "You mortals and your intoxicating insanity," he tells her (during foreplay). "You make us want things we shouldn't. . . . Children, for one" (TBK, p. 115). Not having children with mortals is, he explains, "the only real law the Three have ever imposed on us," because said children are half-breed "demons" with their own power. But arguably such children also make their divine parents vulnerable. They offer a target for their enemies, of course, and they give them a stake in human society that (potentially) goes beyond a single mortal lifetime, as the plots of both The Broken Kingdoms and The Kingdom of Gods spend time exploring.
Divine meddling in human affairs can have repercussions that echo for centuries. As already noted, power in a wider sense is very much a concern of these novels. In the trilogy's opener, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (2010), we were shown how the dominion of the Arameri family—their direct rule over a large empire, and their indirect but irresistible influence beyond it—was rooted in their enslavement of most of the gods, and thus their ability to wield divine magic. They were able to do this with the help of Itempas. The Bright Lord has been a supporter of the Arameri for generations, ever since one of their number, while still a child, demanded his help murdering her father and thus impressed him with her ruthless will to power, "undiluted by such paltry considerations as conscience or doubt" (TBK, p. 203). But in the course of one of his periodic spats with his sibling Nahadoth, Itempas took a step further, deciding to use the Arameri—and, more generally, their people, the pale-skinned Amn—to make himself sole god (or at least, sole free god).
It was for this that Itempas was cast out, at the end of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. The Broken Kingdoms charts how his intimacy with Oree begins to break down the high-dudgeon isolation of his exile, drawing him down from his pole of arrogance and to recognize the wrong he has done. Yet the wider consequences of his actions, for non-Amn humanity, are not so easily overcome. When Oree tangles with some of her divine boyfriend’s more doctrinaire worshipers, in the course of an investigation into a series of murders of godlings, she is moved to chart some of the after-effects of unchecked Arameri and Itempan dominion. "[T]he world has enjoyed the longest period of peace and prosperity in its history" under the Arameri, says one; is that so, replies Oree:
"My people were once as wealthy and powerful as the Amn, Lady Serymn. Now we're refugees without even a homeland to call our own, forced to rely on Arameri charity."
"There have been losses, true," Serymn conceded. "I believe those are outweighed by the gains."
. . . "How many nations and races have the Arameri wiped out of existence?" I demanded. "How many heretics have been executed, how many families slaughtered? . . . The Bright is your peace. Your prosperity. Not anyone else's." (TBK, pp. 189-90)
Over the course of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and its sequels, we see the Arameri, like Itempas, lose much of their direct power (thanks to the intervention of another god, the resurrected Enefa, third in the trio). But one of the most interesting aspects of Jemisin’s story and her world-building—far more interesting, to this reviewer, than the romance, it must be admitted—is how she portrays the legacy of this power. The traces of colonialism don’t simply evaporate because the most obvious weight of coercion is removed; the cultural hegemony, the way the world is shaped in the oppressor's favor even without them having to actively, consciously maintain it, remains. It cannot be easily forgiven, as Usein Darr tells Sieh:
"No mortals should have as much power as the Arameri had when they owned you," she said. "No mortals should have as much power as they have now: the laws, the scriveners, their army, all their pet nobles, the wealth they've claimed from peoples destroyed or exploited. Even the history taught to our children in the White Hall schools glorifies them and denigrates everyone else. All civilization, every bit of it, is made to keep the Arameri strong. That is how they've survived after losing you. That is why the only solution is to destroy everything they've built. Good and bad, all of it is tainted. Only by starting fresh can we truly be free again." (KoG, p. 266)
Sieh, for his part, has a more ambivalent attitude to these issues. He begins The Kingdom of Gods as a convinced Arameri-hater, and with excellent reason: he was one of the godlings enslaved and degraded in countless ways during their ascendancy. (Likewise, he is reluctant to forgive Itempas, for his role as enabler.) Sieh saw the Arameri's tactics from the within; in one casual aside, he tells us that unemployment is up in Shadow, the city at the foot of the giant tree that holds the Arameri's palace, and that this is "progress," since, "In the old days, the Arameri would have unleashed a plague or two to kill off commoners and increase the demand for labour" (KoG, pp. 214-15). Early on in the novel, he makes his position clear during an argument with young Arameri scion Shahar:
All your family's power, all your riches—do you think they come from nowhere? Do you think you deserve them, because you're smarter or holier or whatever they teach this family’s spawn these days? Yes, I killed babies. Because their mothers and fathers had no problem killing the babies of other mortals, who were heretics or who dared to protest stupid laws or who just didn't breathe the way you Arameri liked! (KoG, pp. 26-7)
Yet his growing affection for Shahar and her half-brother Dekarta complicates the picture, undermining the purity of his anger. Its seeds are planted when he first meets the siblings, as children: "[Shahar] scowled and put her hands on her hips and poked out her bottom lip . . . Her brother, who had seemed sweeter-nature, had begun to glower. Delightful. I have always been partial to brats" (KoG, p. 12). He comes to sympathize with Shahar's desire to escape the legacy of her family's past deeds, and use their remaining powers for good, even though he considers it to be "impossible . . . naïveté of the highest order" (KoG, p. 172); the ends, after all, can hardly go undefined by the means.
Naturally, since these are novels whose stories are told through romance, this affection blossoms into intimacy, with both siblings. Unlike the other human/god(ling) affairs we see, however, the dynamic here is subtly altered: the fact that Sieh is a child god growing into an awkward, unexpected and entirely unwelcome adolescence ("an evil, evil disease" (KoG, p. 170)), together with the power that Dekarta and Shahar still have as Arameri, helps—somewhat—to offset the imbalance between divine and mortal. Significantly, both siblings initiate their respective relationships with Sieh—and both are, at times, unsettling. Dekarta vows, strikingly, "If I must change the universe to have you, then so be it," prompting Sieh to describe his accompanying smile as "tight, vicious, beautiful. Terrifying. Arameri" (KoG, p. 468).
Sieh's central emotional arc, however, is his journey from savage rejection of Itempas—betrayer, murderer, enslaver—to something like forgiveness. After the redemptive journey of falling in love with Oree in The Broken Kingdoms, book three sees Itempas being cautiously welcomed back into the fold by his divine peers. Sieh, however, is not yet ready to accept the reconciliation. His daddy issues are complicated somewhat by the fact that he sort-of fancies his step-mother (Yeine, Enefa reborn), identifies very strongly with his other parent (Nahadoth), and is enormously jealous of the intimacy of the Three. He experiences the sight of Yeine and Itempas having make-up sex, therefore, as a betrayal:
I hated them, I despised them both, how dare he take her from me, how dare she love him when I had not forgiven him, how dare they both leave Naha alone when he'd suffered so much, how could they? I hated them and I loved them and gods how I wanted to be with them, why couldn't I just be one of them, it wasn't fair—
—no. No. Whining was pointless. It didn't even make me feel better. Because the Three could never be Four. (p. 10)
Sieh's petulant outburst here is not reflective of his narration more generally, at least not until the later stages of this third novel. For the most part, he is entertaining company, more experienced than either of the previous narrators in the ways of gods and mortals, and thus inclined to be more snarky and iconoclastic. His retelling of the creation of the Three—in which he refers to Itempas as "a gigantic screaming twit" (KoG, p. 7)—is irreverent, and his delight in life is infectious, as when he launches into a tickling match with a young Dekarta ("It was like being drunk, like being in one of Yeine's newborn heavens, so sweet and so perfect and so much delicious fun. I love being a god!" [KoG, pp. 23-4]).
Sieh's combination of divine capriciousness and all-too-human adolescent angst make him an engaging and unpredictable protagonist: funny, disarming, and occasionally brutal. Confronting someone building a super-weapon, he opts for charming directness: "We think you might be trying to destroy the world. Could you, perhaps, stop?" (KoG, p. 263). On another occasion, scared and pissed off, he murders half of Shahar's family on a whim and then amuses himself by trying to come with a rhyme for "horror," the expression on her face. As Dekarta puts it, in one of several examples of Jemisin's gift for resonant, epigrammatic turns of phrase: "You're still the child . . . And the cat, and the man, and the monster who smothers children in the dark" (KoG, p. 535).
Nonetheless, by the latter stages of The Kingdom of Gods much of this has dropped away, and Sieh's story has largely been boiled down to lengthy dialogue scenes in which he processes his relationship with his various parents. (Some more successful than others; less so: "Just shut up, all right? Gods, you're so insufferable! You can't make me choose something like that. I'll hate you if I damn well please!” (KoG, p. 445).) Likewise, in The Broken Kingdoms, while capable, self-reliant Oree gives us a fascinating window into the "beautiful, ridiculous city" (TBK, p. 15) of Shadow—a world of "newcomers, dreamers, young people drawn to the city in spite of its dangers" (TBK, pp. 70-1), of struggling artists and crowded tenements, where godlings leave trails of glowing, gleeful piss on the walls mostly because they know she can see it—ultimately the novel surrounding her is more interested in her emotional entanglements with an arrogant but cursedly handsome god.
My feelings of vague dissatisfaction at the end of the Inheritance Trilogy might be put down to a mismatch, then, between reader and subject, rather than flaws with the novels as such; indeed, having recently read Jemisin's The Killing Moon (2012), which has a very different focus and (to my mind) is much stronger for it, I am more or less certain of this. In terms of prose, characterization and worldbuilding there is much to recommend here, even if this particular deployment is not to my taste; and overall, the genre is much better for Jemisin's arrival in it.
Nic Clarke is Lecturer in the History of the Islamic History at Newcastle University. (Most of the books are still in Oxford, but they'll be moving soon.) She also reviews for SFX, Vector, and Cascadia Subduction Zone, and spends too much time wittering on at Eve's Alexandria.
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