I’ve not reprinted any of my old reviews lately, so here’s another one from Interzone in 2011.
The Kingdom of Gods (Book 3 of The Inheritance Trilogy)
N.K. Jemisin, Orbit, 584pp, pb
‘There will be no tricks in this tale. I tell you this so that you can relax. […] I will simply tell the tale as I lived it.’ And yet, given that this story is told by Sieh, the trickster god, the oldest of gods yet the one who manifests most often as a mischievous child, how can we trust his story? We can’t entirely yet, as with the rest of the world, Sieh is changing, and part of the story he tells focuses on his own mysterious transformation from god to human, and his efforts to understand and maybe halt his sudden, rapid ageing.
Sieh’s change began when he swore an oath of friendship with Shahar and Dekarta, the twin heirs of the ruling Arameri family, an oath which literally blew apart a section of the palace, and cast Sieh adrift from the world. When he is able to return to Sky he becomes aware of how much things have changed since the moment when the gods, including himself, were first freed. The Arameri are dwindling away, although it is not clear why, and the process is being accelerated by a series of deaths all marked by the corpses’ faces being covered with masks which somehow killed them. Sieh recognises that this is in some way connected with his own situation and sets out to discover more.
The earlier volumes of the Inheritance trilogy dealt with the freeing of the gods from the control of the Arameri, and their subsequent re-establishment in the world, and The Kingdom of Gods develops this further, presenting gods and godlings as more like business people, working behind the scenes, keeping the world on an even keel, but needing to earn a living too. They literally move in mysterious ways but there is something deliciously prosaic about them too: they are very practical, very ‘human’ gods in many ways. This is, to my mind, one of the great attractions of this series, and an element that has grown stronger with each volume. By contrast, the ruling mortal family, the Arameri struggle to cope with the diminution of their role in the world. Their power is receding, as Shahar recognises, but they connive to maintain an appearance of stability, in part because they realise that, however much they are hated, they remain the last bulwark against civil war breaking out as countries demand greater autonomy. At the same time, this situation cannot persist much longer.
If the earlier novels set the reader up to be sympathetic towards the imprisoned gods and the oppressed peoples of the world, and to react against the Arameri, this novel lays bare the complexity of the Arameri position itself, in particular, in showing how they have failed to acknowledge their own origins so determined are they to present themselves as pure and untainted. While never suggesting that their past behaviour should now be condoned, Jemisin opens the way for perhaps a little more sympathy towards them by showing how they have been undone by their own ignorance and stupidity. It is perhaps fair to say that no one in this series, not even the gods, is perfect; so much of what happens, good and bad, rests on the necessary existence of imperfection, in order to keep the story moving along, and thus this proves so in the resolution of this story.
This has been an intensely enjoyable series to read. If the first novel was a little cautious, as Jemisin’s confidence in her characters has grown, so has the story itself. What began as a twist on the familiar fantasy epic has developed into a penetrating analysis of the relationships between gods and humans, and the problems that arise, but also issues of power among people and countries, and who gets to wield it.