How can you write about gods and still keep your story relatable? It's one of the biggest challenges for fantasy writers. The great wonder of N.K. Jemisin's The Broken Kingdoms is that she makes it look easy. Spoilers ahead...
The Broken Kingdoms is the second book in Jemisin's trilogy that began with The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. The first book was the wonderful, but occasionally frustrating, story of a woman who's caught up in court intrigues among the ruling family of a vast empire, and launches a daring affair with an imprisoned god of darkness. (You can read our review of the first book here.) In the second book, all the world-building (and empire building) that Jemisin did the first time around starts to pay off, big-time, and the story is that much richer.
On the surface, Jemisin's story follows much the same trajectory in the second book as in the first, but there are differences that become important as the story goes along. Once again, we meet a new protagonist, a young woman who gets swept up in huge events far beyond anything she's experienced so far. And there are hints that the young protagonist is more powerful, and more important, than she realizes, and that she's connected to the gods in a more vital way than she knows. The second time around, though, the story works even better than it did in the first book, and not just because Jemisin is a more experienced storyteller.
Everything is just cooler this time around — the setting, the characters, and the storytelling. Instead of spending the whole book trapped inside the somewhat sterile confines of the Arameri court, like we did in the first book, we get out into the city formerly known as Sky (now called Shadow, because it's in the shadow of a great magical tree.) The city is a fascinating place, full of merchants, soldiers... and mischievous godlings, demigods who are underfoot everywhere due to the events in the first book. Shadow feels like a place you'd want to spend a lot of time — except that you'd probably fall afoul of some of the town's more mischievous, or outright predatory, inhabitants.
Our main character, this time around, is Oree Shoth, a blind craftswoman who has a special gift — she can see magic. (Eventually, her gift turns out to be a bit more all-encompassing than that, though.) As the book begins, Oree has already been the lover of one godling, and she's not at all surprised when another god turns up in a rubbish bin. Because she's used to taking in strays, she thinks nothing of letting this lone god stay at her house for a while, but he turns out to be more than he seems. Oree is a great protagonist: fearless, clever, and not at all awed by the pantheons and leaders she meets throughout the course of the series.
Having a blind hero — who can see stuff that other people can't see, as a result of her magic sight — is a daring idea, but it also winds up being a brilliant one. It leads to a really different style of storytelling, in which Oree is often caught by surprise by stuff happening around her, but she also knows important things long before everybody else.
My biggest problem with the first book was that, in spite of her manifest courage, the protagonist Yeine was a bit too passive, and too much of a pawn in the larger schemes of gods and kings. So I was really thrilled to see Oree being more active, and much more of a player, this time around. There were a few moments where it seemed like Oree was about to put herself under the protection of a powerful male who would sort out her problems for her, but thank goodness that ends up not happening. Instead, Oree not only has to look after herself, but she's often the one who winds up saving the gods and mortals around her.
I don't want to give away too much of this novel's storyline, but suffice to say it's ten years after the first book, and a lot has changed in that time. Not only are there gods everywhere, but magic is a lot more common than it used to be. And this society's rigid monotheism, and the sense of total comformity that went with it, have gone by the wayside. In this world in transition, there are lots of people seeking to gain power or to take revenge, and the cracks in society are everywhere, still subtle but easy to spot for anybody who looks the right way.
(By the way, you don't have to have read the first book to enjoy this one, but it definitely doesn't hurt, and you'll probably wind up getting way more out of the second book if you read the first one.)
Sometime after Oree "adopts" the god she finds in a rubbish bin — who has a nasty habit of dying, over and over again — one of the local godlings turns up dead. And this is just the first of several — someone has found a way to kill gods, and unless Oree discovers the truth, the gods and this new god-slaying serial killer will tear the city apart between them. It's the set up for a really great mystery, but Jemisin manages to turn it into a thought-provoking, haunting story about the difference between loving gods as a worshipper and loving them as an actual lover, and whether you can ever really understand the gods.
You can read the first chapter here, and if that's not enough to hook you in, then I'll be amazed. Here's a particularly brilliant section:
I am, you see, a woman plagued by gods.
It was worse once. Sometimes it felt as if they were everywhere: underfoot, overhead, peering around corners and lurking under bushes. They left glowing footprints on the sidewalks. (I could see that they had their own favorite paths for sightseeing.) They urinated on the white walls. They didn't have to do that, urinate I mean, they just found it amusing to imitate us. I found their names written in splattery light, usually in sacred places. I learned to read in this way.
Sometimes they followed me home and made me breakfast. Sometimes they tried to kill me. Occasionally they bought my trinkets and statues, though for what purpose I can't fathom. And yes, sometimes I loved them.
I even found one in a muckbin once. Sounds mad, doesn't it? But it's true. If I had known this would become my life when I left home for that beautiful, ridiculous city, I would have thought twice. Though I would still have done it.
The one in the muckbin, then. I should tell you more about him.
It's a bit of a lighter tone, I think, than the first book, befitting the fact that unlike the barbarian queen Yeine who's stuck in a palace with stuck-up people who want to kill her, Oree is out and about in the marketplace, selling her crafts and dealing with tourists and the local authorities. The somewhat lighter tone comes in handy later, when Oree does get into some pretty deep water with people who have some very bad plans for her.
Even as Oree is discovering the truth about the god-killing conspiracy, she's also discovering her true magical powers and learning what it really means to be in love with a god. Because Oree is a painter (despite being blind — she uses magic) the two things wind up being intimately connected with creation. Oree accesses her magical powers by creating things, and she also must use all of her imagination and creativity to find ways to communicate with the gods in her life. The gods are immortal and far-seeing, yet petty and often selfish as well, and their feuds and drama can span millennia.
The endless drama of the gods is simmering in the backdrop of this book, and it's very much the meta-story of Jemisin's trilogy. (She explains here how this can be a trilogy, and yet also a collection of three separate novels with separate protagonists. Short version: It's the story of the gods, not the mortals who get caught up in their world, and the individual narrator/protagonists in each book are just part of the larger story.) As anyone who read the first book will know, the three "original gods" had a complicated history, in which the god of day, Itempas, the god of night, Nahadoth, and the god of dawn and sunset, Enefa, were siblings and lovers — until Itempas became jealous and killed Enefa. This trinity is still very much working out their issues in the second book, and their near-eternal grief and sorrow are the towering rocks against which all of the mortals' schemes and fancies are raised and dashed.
So how do you write about gods and still keep your story relatable? If Jemisin's work is any guide, the key is to have an engaging protagonist/viewpoint character, plus a collection of gods who are full of both raw emotion and vast, unknowable history. And to show us just how mortals can become swept up in the world of the gods in an intimate way, and yet still have no real understanding of what it is that the gods see. Most of all, the key is just to tell a great, exciting, engaging story that keeps you turning pages long past your bedtime. And Jemisin has definitely done that here.