Most fantasy shares a certain set of features: magic and dragons, kings and princesses, swords and riddles and destiny — combined elements from the legacies of ancient epics, the Grimm Brothers, and JRR Tolkien.* Even a great, daring series like George RR Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire has a certain familiarity to it, with a quasi-medieval setting, squabbling noblemen, and supernatural threats. Fantasy, even the best fantasy, generally feels pretty similar to other books I’ve read before.
N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy, on the other hand, is not like anything I’ve read before. And it’s fantastic.
The Inheritance Trilogy is set in a world of gods. Thousands of years before the books begin, there was a war between the two oldest gods, Itempas and Nahadoth. Itempas emerged victorious with the help of his human lover Shahar Arameri. Nahadoth and the younger gods who sided with him were enslaved and bound to serve Shahar and her family. With the power of these gods at their command, the Arameri became the unquestioned rulers of the world.
In The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, young warrior Yeine is the daughter of an exiled Arameri heiress. When her mother dies, Yeine’s grandfather summons her to compete for the right to be the next ruler of the world. There she meets the enslaved gods, including the child god Sieh, goddess of wisdom Kurue, and the terrifying Nahadoth. The Broken Kingdoms follows blind artist Oree Shoth as she tries to help a mysterious god who keeps attempting suicide in her house. In the final book, Kingdom of Gods, two young Arameri heirs encounter a charming but dangerous god — and the meeting proves to have far-ranging consequences.
That is all I will say about the plots because you will have much more fun reading them for yourselves. Instead, I’ll tell you that I started The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms on an airplane and I was so absorbed that I didn’t put it down when the plane landed. I walked through the airport with my nose in the book (sorry, Mom, I know you told me not to do that) and I was actually disappointed when the customs line wasn’t longer. The Broken Kingdoms made me cry more than once and made me wish I knew Oree in real life. Kingdom of Gods is a complex, scary, and ultimately very satisfying conclusion to the trilogy. All three books are vividly written, suspenseful, emotionally affecting, and wonderfully romantic without being soppy.
Furthermore, the world-building is incredibly sophisticated. Jemisin is smart about the origins and limitations of magic in her world. She also never lets the reader lose sight of the fact that her gods are fundamentally not human. There’s a certain resemblance to people, but Nahadoth, Sieh and the rest think and act very differently from the way the human characters do.
In case this isn’t clear yet, I loved this trilogy and would recommend it to anyone who likes fantasy. Heck, I’d even recommend it to people who think all fantasy is “dragon-ridden crap” or think it’s just for boys. It’s that good, and that different from what most people assume fantasy is like. Each book has a different main character and tells a distinct, self-contained story, but I strongly recommend reading them in order. So go get a copy of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms already!
Rating: Buy it
* This is a total tangent but I’m going to include it anyway. I love fantasy (obviously) but I think the genre is over-reliant on the concept of “destiny.” Think Harry Potter, who is destined by prophecy to kill Lord Voldemort, or the Wheel of Time series, in which young shepherd Rand al’Thor turns out to be the only guy who can defeat the Dark One. The “destiny” plot is popular for a reason. It’s easier for most readers to identify with characters who start out thinking that they’re living pretty normal lives, and having someone marginal suddenly thrown into major events provides an easy opportunity for exposition. The problem with a character who is important because of his/her “destiny” is that s/he never makes any interesting choices — s/he just gets swept up in events. I think the most interesting characters are the ones who do have a choice and who choose to get involved. Hermione, for example, was always much more interesting (and I would argue more heroic) than Harry.