Thursday, November 17, 2011

Forgetting and Friendship: A Review of N.K. Jemisin's Kingdom of Gods

Perhaps the thing that I loved the most about N.K. Jemisin's The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms was the way the story was narrated.  The story is told by Yeine, a woman of both Darre and Arameri ancestry who comes to the city of Sky at the summons of her grandfather, the ruler of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms.  But throughout the story, there are passages in italics, passages hinting at another story twined with Yeine's.  And at the end of the novel, the form and content of the narrative--the existence of these italicized passages and the element of the plot they represent--come together in a glorious climax.

Jemisin does something similar in Broken Kingdoms through her chapter titles.  As Kat Howard described in her review of the novel, Broken Kingdoms tells the story of Oree Shoth, a blind street artist.  Each of the chapters has the title of a painting: "Discarded Treasure" (encaustic on canvas); "Family" (charcoal study); "Frustration" (watercolor).  And these titles then encourage us to see each chapter as a visual image.  Here, again, we see Jemisin using the form of the narrative to highlight certain aspects of the content, in this case, themes of sight and art.

Needless to say, I was very excited to see this impulse yet again in Kingdom of Gods.

Kingdom of Gods is narrated by Sieh, the oldest godling, the god of childhood and tricks.  Jemisin not only emphasizes the importance of childhood to the novel as a whole by starting some of her chapters with nursery rhymes, but she also uses these rhymes to point to some of the important things going on in the chapters that match--or complicate--the traditional rhyme.  Once again, form and content come together.  (Perhaps the most fun example of this is in the glossary, but I won't tell you what it is--you'll have to go look for yourself.)

Another element of all three novels that I really appreciated was the way each story was told from the perspective of a marginalized character.  Yeine, the protagonist of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, is half-Darre in a society dominated by pureblood Arameri.  Oree in Broken Kingdoms is a blind woman in a world of sighted people and gods.  And Sieh, the narrator of The Kingdom of Gods, doesn't really fit into the mortal world (since he is a godling), but (for reasons that become clear over the course of the novel), no longer fits in with his other godling brothers and sisters.  In each of these cases, Jemisin's use of the outsider enables her to tell stories that can function as very powerful commentaries on race relations, religion, and the very structure of society.

While I was fascinated by the story that unfolded in Kingdom of Gods, I didn't find Sieh as compelling of a narrator as I did Yeine and Oree.  Sieh is not only the oldest godling, but he is also the one whose nature is to be a child.  He simulatneously has (and needs) the impishness of a child while also being able to think about things rationally from an adult perspective.  I think I found this contradiction too much to get my head around.  This isn't to say that Sieh isn't a well-written character (he is); rather, that his very nature made it more difficult for me to get lost in the story the same way that I did with Yeine and Oree.  Perhaps that's Jemisin's point.

In the end, Kingdom of Gods functions as a wonderful end to a provocative, inventive trilogy.  Some elements of the ending I saw coming, and as a result, they gave the ending the feeling of completeness that is necessary at the end of the trilogy.  But there were other, unexpected elements that pushed me to think hard about what was going on.  I often found myself torn by conflicting impulses--one to rush forward to find out what happens, and the other to study the passage I was reading to make sure I understood the nuances and details.  In this way, Jemisin has perhaps created the most powerful example of form and content coming together--not only is Kingdom of Gods a story about a godling with contradictory elements in his nature, but the way in which she writes the book forces the reader herself to become, even if just for a moment, a bit like Sieh.
Kingdom of Gods