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'The Broken Kingdoms' is the second book in N K Jemisin's Inheritance Trilogy. While it takes place in the same world as 'The Thousand Kingdoms', 'The Broken Kingdoms' follows a completely different set of characters (although a few familiar faces make occasional appearances) and takes place ten years after the dramatic finale of the first novel. It can be read as a stand alone novel, but there's definitely a richness that comes from reading this book after 'The Thousand Kingdoms'.

Meghan from 'Medieval Bookworm' is the reason why I ended up reading the fantastic 'The Thousand Kingdoms' last year, so I was super excited when she agreed to co-review the second book in the trilogy with me. We get pretty spoiler happy in this post, letting out secrets about both 'The Thousand Kingdoms' and 'The Broken Kingdoms', just so you know : )

Jodie:So, let me try and briefly set the scene for anyone who hasn't read the book . The main character in 'The Broken Kingdoms' is Oree Shoth, a blind woman with the ability to see magic, as well as create her own magical oil paintings. In Oree's world, magic is reserved for gods, godlings (the children of gods) and the elite, so she hides her gift carefully, but her life is quickly disrupted by the suspicious scrutiny of the religious authorities called 'The Bright'. Oree has recently made the decision to shelter a mysterious, reticent man who seems bent on suicide and this will be important *winks*.

Thoughts - go!

Meghan: My first thought on the book which occurred to me over and over again, especially after you sent me that article, Why is Oree Shoth Blind?, was that Oree’s blindness actually added a whole different dimension to the book, especially in the magical realm. The fact that she only saw magic revealed how prevalent it is and was a useful device to help us work out what was going on and where she was. I don’t know how we’d have known about all of the godlings if she couldn’t see them for what they were, for instance.

Jodie: Great point. I think Jemisin acknowledges a really important, often unexamined literary link between disability and magic in 'Why Is Oree Shoth Blind?'.

I do wonder though if sometimes Oree’s ability to see magic, crosses over into a version of the ‘throwing off the disability’ trope? Oree’s blindness is over ridden in many places by her ability to see magic, especially in Sky, where she can see the outline of everything because there’s so much magic around. I thought the novel tried to keep from tipping into magical healing territory: Oree makes a point that Sky’s constant brightness hurts her eyes; she can only see things that radiate magic, so magic doesn't give her full sight and at the end of the novel she loses her ability to see magic. Then, there were times when I thought that it was very convenient that Oree's magical abilities allowed her to see just when she needed to.What did you think?

Meghan: Actually, I hadn’t thought about it that way, but you are completely right. It means that she doesn’t fully experience what a blind person does until the end of the novel, which is easily the shortest section of the book. At the same time, though, it really wouldn’t be the same without that aspect of her; it’s a fundamental part of her character.

Jodie: Yeah, I like that in the blog post you linked to above Jemisin says Oree's blindness is 'just one more aspect of who she is', even as she acknowledges that linking disability with magic is problematic.

On a purely dramatically level the fact that Oree can see magic helps readers who didn't start with 'The Thousand Kingdoms' to orientate themselves in this novel's fantasy world, without the need for Oree to spend a lot of time naively discovering the magic of those around her. The times when she can’t see also help to emphasise how special magic is, as the reader gets a real feel for how bright and colourful magic is, even when someone is radiating dark magic. There’s a feeling of power and an association of burning, or searing that comes from this magic being described as light and that adds something very tangible to the magic of Jemisin’s world.

Meghan:One thing I really like about this series is the way there are so many shades of grey to the characters, especially the magical ones. Gods are not necessarily benevolent, and demons are not necessarily evil, often completely contradicting the belief systems that the humans have. I felt like this book explored the possibility of that underworld more than the last one did - or perhaps continuing where that one left off - because of the different roles the main characters enjoyed. For me, at times Oree was sort of a window into that world, rather than a player in it herself.

Jodie: It’s very old school religion in these books right? There’s no modern, benevolent Christian God character. As much as Itempas’ followers may try to convince everyone in their world that he fits this model (and Enefa is the Eve character, while Nahadoth is the devil) the reader gets to see behind the scenes and the individual god’s often resemble the jealous, squabbling, destroyers of antiquity more closely. One of my favourite examples of the god's departure from the image of a kind, caring god figure is when Sieh appears as ‘Shiny’ (*wink*) is lying injured and begins to kick him. You kind of expect it from Sieh as he’s the most childlike god, but at the same time he’s a GOD, who you would hope has gathered wisdom and restraint over the thousands of years he's been alive. So, it is kind of shocking to see him attack Shiny.

I like that these older ideas about gods are then mixed with a kind of modern literary approach to demons (like you say all the demons aren’t bad). It’s an interesting world where a demon can be the heroine despite still carrying some serious evil inside her blood. The willingness to play around with traditional ideas about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ is probably what I like the most about modern paranormal and fantasy stories, because like you say it introduces such interesting shades of grey.

I definitely agree that Oree’s story functions differently than Yeine’s did in ‘The Thousand Kingdoms’. Yeine’s story is always about her. Even though a really important part of the novel focuses on the gods, Yeine faces so many struggles that are separate to her involvement with the gods that I always felt like she was the most important character, even before we learn that she’s carrying Enefa’s spirit. Oree’s struggles all seem to come from the gods if that makes sense, until we find out she’s a demon, which is when her individual story really takes off. The story does focus more on Shiny and the godlings, with Oree acting as the narrator and a useful access point for readers who don’t have any of the back story from ‘The Thousand Kingdoms’. I almost feel like we missed a huge chunk of Oree’s interesting story (how she built her live when she arrived in Shadow).

Do you think it’s almost inevitable that ‘The Broken Kingdoms’ ends up being more Shiny’s story, considering what has happened to him?

Meghan Yes - I suppose because he *is* meant to be that One God which current religions have, but it went wrong along the way. I think it’s almost natural that, because of that, we’re a bit more attracted to his story and what happens to him. He changes a ton over the course of the book, given that he starts out not even speaking to Oree and we have no idea who he is.

Regarding Oree, I completely agree, there was a lot of backstory there that we completely missed. There are little bits and pieces throughout, like we learn about her father and her one view of magic, but despite being the narrator she just doesn’t seem like the focus, something that coalesces even more in my head the further I spend away from the book.

I love this sort of exploration of the gods. It’s fascinating to see us exploring these mythological ideas through fantasy, something I think is very touchy to do in real life. Someone like Philip Pullman can manage it, but courts so much controversy doing so - whereas a book like this probes at those ideas without offending even though the concepts of a fallen, weakened god are similar.

What do you think about Shiny’s story?

Jodie: When I started the book I expected to be really ambivalent about his story, because, ugh Itempas. I'd just spent a whole book watching the horrible way he punishes others unfold and now I was being asked to care about him? Of course, the most successful writers can make you feel for anyone and by the end of the novel, after Shiny has made a real connection with Oree, I did hope he’d find a way to be happy and reconcile with his family.

At the same time I always think the best writers know how to help you care about unlikeable characters, but also know how to keep from shoving you towards sympathy. They know how to make you feel for their villains and they create great plausible reasoning that turns them into anti-heroes, but they never...idk...they never force you to love them, maybe. Does that make sense? For me, the fact that the reader is allowed to be slightly detached from Shiny, to still see the madness in him and to understand why Nahadoth can’t forgive him so quickly, is what made me care more about the whole world in ‘The Broken Kingdoms’. Like, this is a world where a crime must receive fit punishment, but punishment doesn’t have to be forever. Sorry, I’m probably a terrible liberal and way too angry, but I have a lot of trouble with the ‘forgiveness sets you free’ ideas about reconciliation that sometimes surface.

If I’d been pushed along and told to care about Shiny I’d probably have bought it while I was reading, but once I’d left the world I think the timeline would have crept up on me. Like, really, is ten years as an isolated human punishment enough for what Itempas did? I mean sure I’ve come to see the good in him and I want him to be happy eventually, but...he killed Enefa and he imprisoned a god. I’m not sure what the situation was with the Greek and Roman gods and maybe you’ll know better than me. Could the parent gods like Zeus/Jupiter punish other parent gods, without consequences? Like if Zeus took down Hera would that have been acceptable, or would that have been an abuse of power? I think it’s really interesting that there are repercussions for his actions, even though he’s one of the top level of deities...

Meghan: I do think Greek and Roman gods could punish one another, actually, but I couldn’t say for certain - I can’t remember if there were repercussions. But I don’t know if ten years is enough either. I mean - he’s a god. He’s lived HOW many years now, and ten years is going to make him sorrowful when he knows he has thousands to go? I’m not really convinced. Strangely enough, despite that I did like Shiny and hope for the best for him and Oree.

Like I said before, I think that’s another function of having Oree as the narrator. She doesn’t really see things from the gods’ perspective, exactly, so I felt a lot more sympathy for him through her eyes than I thought I was going to when I first started the book. I definitely agree that Jemisin struck the right balance there.

Jodie: I know I’m skipping to the ending of the novel by talking about this so soon, but how did you feel about Itempas’ ending and the way he and Oree are separated? Justified, or were you kind of sad, or both?

Meghan: The ending conflicted me - I did want them to be happy at the end of it, but I didn’t think it was going to happen, so I wasn’t surprised. I’m a total sap, so I ate up that bit at the end with the baby. I’m really curious to see how that’s used, if it is, in the final volume of the trilogy (currently patiently awaiting me on the shelf!). It was just enough to ensure she wasn’t going to forget him - something I think a god would do, anyway. What did you think?

Jodie: Ha, I kind of want the baby to doom everyone. No, No, I don’t really mean that! I like everyone too much to wish them all sad. Still, if I were picking the ultimate plot twist for this series it would absolutely be ‘Foolish sentiment allows demon baby to kill everyone’. I spent my childhood watching Xena though and I love shows where 9 times out of 10 mercy equals the death of humanity. My ideas about entertainment may be slightly warped.

Meghan:On another note, I loved the world-building in this novel. Oree has way more access to the underworlds than we’d seen before, so that scene where she actually ends up in the palace is massively different and provides a ton of perspective. As I’m thinking about this, I’m finding that to be true of all aspects of this novel; it shows us how a shift in perspective can change everything, which I think more people need to consider in real life as well. Even her own brand of magic was symbolic of that, what with drawing people into a new place for better or for worse, don’t you think?

Jodie: I think that’s a fantastic point. Like you, I think the whole narrative is built around the idea that approaching old things in a new way can lead to a totally different way of seeing things. Oree’s perspective on events (ordinary citizen) is different from Yeine’s (member of the Arameri family, invited to live in the palace of Sky) because she wasn’t in the palace when the god’s coup took place. As far as she knows Itempas is still in control. The Bright’s explanation for why godlings appeared ten years ago stands as truth, even though it is rather confusing. The appearance of the Lady Tree in Sky is a source of wonder, but a mostly unexplained miracle growth for regular people like Oree. I hadn’t thought about Oree’s painting being a symbol for shifting people forcibly into a new space/way of considering things, but it totally fits with the overall themes of showing the different ways people view the same situation and changing how the reader sees characters and events from the first book.

While Oree’s lack of knowledge can be a little bit frustrating for people who read the books in order (ok, me, I have no patience when it comes to waiting for characters to catch up to reader knowledge), it’s also a great reminder of how information is controlled by those in the know. Historically that creates an interesting parallel between the early control of the church (where regular people were often illiterate, so they relied on their priests interpretation of the Bible) and religion in Jemisin’s world.

I also like how even the name of a place, in this case the city Oree lives in, can be different when viewed from two perspectives. The Arameri family call it Sky after the palace they live in, which towers above the city. The people who live there, like Oree, call it Shadow, because Sky is the one thing they can’t see while in the city, since a huge tree appeared ten year ago. The citizens of Shadow are engaged in creating their own way of seeing the world right at the point when the reader arrives, as they break from the old gods to form ‘heretical’ groups of worshippers. With that and the unofficial renaming of their city it’s like they’re starting to build things for themselves, outside of the control of The Bright and the Arameri (although both still exert considerable ability to punish people who try to take too much control).

Is that maybe a theme too? Like change can happen, but that change takes time and is often painful? I’m thinking of Itempas’ punishment again there.We’ve both said we feel the amount of time he has to wait before he can be forgiven should be long, but I know I’m willing The Bright’s control to end and for the Arameri’s power to somehow be undone faster, without negative consequences, which is probably impossible. As much as I loved T’vril’s reappearance, I still think any one family having that much power is dangerous. So, I guess the novel contains an interesting gesture to the difference between the optimal speed of change and justified punishment vs the optimal speed of change and oppressive societies. Mostly I am just like - themes are awesome :)

Maybe we should finish by talking about demon blood? Such a cool idea.

Meghan: Yes - I loved the concept of demon blood! I think it kind of goes with my whole not-so-black-and-white idea earlier. It’s so cool that demons can actually kill gods - more, that gods can suffer without killing one another. We already knew they weren’t infallible because of the previous book, but it’s adding that extra layer of complexity in the whole world as it stands. I’m really curious to see if she uses demon blood in the next book somehow - in fact, I really just want to read it now and see how Jemisin goes further with this whole idea.

It all makes me think - what is a god, really, in this world? Are they only powerful because they subdued the demons, so conceivably could it go the other way and the demons could be gods?

Jodie: That is an amazing idea. Imagine a demon/god war where the odds are so much more evenly stacked maybe even than in the original gods war. I guess the only way to see where Jemisin takes the demons is to read on to ‘The Kingdom of Gods’. So excited to see how this trilogy turns out!

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Date: 2012-02-02 09:50 am (UTC)
nymeth: (Default)
From: [personal profile] nymeth
I decided to heed your spoilers warning and will be back once I've actually read the book. Not sure when that will be, but I really look forward to reading your discussion afterwards :D

Date: 2012-02-02 03:38 pm (UTC)
bookgazing: (Default)
From: [personal profile] bookgazing
I am avoiding the Chime comments so fair's fair :D I think some of what we spoil is really obvious if you've read the first book, but some is brand new information.


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