I've seen this one recommended on quite a few progressive/activist blogs as an example of epic fantasy without the normal faux-English trappings, so I may have gone into it with inflated expectations. It's solid, but not remarkable, so odds are I'll try something in the author's other series sometime next year.
The quick and dirty:
Rating: 2.5 stars
Length: Solid but not interminable (432 pages in trade paperback)
Publication: February 25, 2010 from Orbit Books
Premise: When Yeine Darr's mother dies under mysterious circumstances, she is summoned to Sky, the glorious civilization that her mother fled years ago in order to marry her father. She expects to make a quick visit and leave, but instead she is named as a potential heir to the throne...in competition with two heirs who have been trying to destroy each other for years. Ancient gods who have been trapped as enslaved weapons for the ruling Arameri family make the situation even more complex, and Yeine has to choose between more loyalties and dreams than she ever thought possible.
Warnings: graphic torture, implied child sexual abuse, past non-detailed account of rape
Recommendation: If you're really short on novels that place the gods as equal to mortals in some way, or sci-fi/fantasy with a non-white protagonist, this one might be enjoyable. Otherwise, enthusiasm for this one is tepid at best.
What gives this one a grand sense of scale:
The book opens with Yeine's journey to Sky and her expectation that she'll be able to make a short visit and go home to Darre. Her grandfather Dekarta is disappointed by her dark Darre looks but pleased that she has her mother Kinneth's eyes, and Yeine is enduring the visit until she is suddenly named as one of his heirs. This means that she is in competition with Scimina and Relad, who have been battling each other for years, and that she is given a fullblood sigil mark.This protects her from the gods who live imprisoned in Sky, those who once defied Bright Itempas, the god of the day. They obey her grandfather as the head of the family due to the nature of their binding, but they must obey any commands from Arameri family members as long as those orders don't conflict with his. Chief among the imprisoned gods is Nahadoth, the god of the night and of wild changing things; he cannot bear the touch of the sun in his god form, so during the day he is a diminished near-mortal. His three children are trapped with him: Kurue, a goddess of knowledge; Zharkkarn, a goddess of battle; and Sieh, a god who has bound himself to the nature of childhood. Rationally Yeine knows about the gods, but her terror when she first faces one reads as very real and makes a great introduction to the high stakes of her struggle.
Perhaps the best element of the worldbuilding centers on the gods themselves. Jemisin balances the constricted nature of their service with all of the untapped power that they could bring to bear in an instant of leeway. Sieh, the child-god, does this well; he flies around on a gold ball that is in some way also the sun, ready to both ask for bedtime stories and plot to murder the Arameri given the chance. The corrupt family has grown large and turned to perversity out of boredom, so some of them are darkly thrilled with the chance to sexually abuse a god-child who can't fight back. Despite the cruelty, he still wants to play tag or brush Yeine's hair, exploring the innocence in his nature. Every single one of their conversations is richly drawn, since she can order him to tell her anything and he'll have to do it, even if it's not in his best interests. She is too honorable to do so most of the time, but the power of a mortal against a god, a child against an adult, two differently captured prisoners against each other, makes for some beautifully shaded interactions.
Nahadoth, called Naha in his diminished daylight form, is more overtly divided into the human form and the deadly Nightlord, who is twisted into ruthlessness. In the hands of Scimina or the other Arameri he is a sharp-edged plaything, but when he is unbound he tries to shift into the forms of endless potential that he once commanded. One flashback shows how he destroyed the original city of Sky in moments thanks to an arrogant ruler who commanded him only to destroy the army near the city and not kill the ruler; he left the ruler unharmed but summoned something similar to a black hole, killing the innocent people of the city he was supposed to defend. His tenderness and regard for human life have been eroded almost to extinction, and he swings between hatred and frantic hope. He is inextricably connected to the night and to the stars, once snuffing out thousands in grief before he was bound; his affection for Yeine follows a similar pattern at first, shifting between cold fury when she won't be a tool and the desire to get to know her. Some of this is because Yeine has a strange relationship to the goddess Enefa, the sister of Itempas and Nahadoth, but he also reacts to her in the process.
The gods shape the way the Arameri react to the world, which in turn shapes their treatment of the gods. Rulers often have to climb over the bodies of their family to take the throne and the highest command of the gods, so they act ruthlessly to pursue power; they use the gods as tools against each other in addition to tormenting them for fun, and only the most dangerous people can hope to rise to the top. Those who show too much compassion are killed in the shuffle; Dekarta coldly says that Yeine won't have what it takes to win the throne when she shows a tiny reaction to the sight of someone who has been warped and tortured by magic but kept alive for later use. Sky itself can feel a little shallowly written, given that nearly family every member is either evil or a victim, but the mood of the power plays is perfect. Even Yeine in her compassion has to take a step down that path to help save her people, and she understands that she does indeed possess some of the family nature. Her mother's past also plays into it; in her childhood she saw only the fairy-tale romance and the escape from Sky, but people in Sky assure her that Kinneth would have been a ruthless ruler to rival her father Dekarta, and the struggle drives her search for her own identity.
The red pen:
Yeine's cultural background and the way it shapes her could have been great, but instead it feels like a brilliant idea that wasn't thought out thoroughly enough to be convincing. She comes from a matriarchal culture that values men as the last-ditch protectors of the home and as fathers, but she adjusts to the more male-dominated Amn society without batting an eye. She defers to her grandfather because she recognizes his power over the whole family, but she's not condescending or protective of men even though her whole life in Darre would have been focused on protecting those fathers, keeping them away from combat. Her reflections on it seem poignant enough, but her upbringing isn't something she can leave behind as soon as it would be inconvenient. When she reacts to Sieh or Nahadoth being hurt, it's out of pure compassion, not because of any cultural protective habit. About the only realistic thing was the way she reacted to Scimina, her female rival, as a threat to be respected while seeing Relad, the man, as a weaker figure; however, that's also because Scimina is a psychopath.
Many of the Darre customs seem more honest than Amn ones,
which is part of the point, but after while it becomes
impossible to respect the culture as the banner of innocent fierceness
that Yeine believes it to be. The long and short of it is that young
Darre warrior girls have to pass an initiation ritual consisting of a
month's survival alone in the wilderness followed by a duel to prove the
girl's worth in combat. The catch is that the girls come home to fight
male warriors; if they win, they control their own deflowering, and if
they lose then they are forced to submit. Yeine can spin it as a way to
learn how to do whatever it is necessary and rage at the character who
calls it barbaric. It is still objectively awful to throw girls
"barely out of childhood" (Yeine was about fourteen) into situations
where they have their first sexual experiences with people they don't
know at best and are forced into brutal public rape at worst. The fact that this ritual has to be hidden from Amn eyes so that it can continue isn't cultural oppression; it's a sign that a conquering nation's barbarism or cruelty doesn't make the practices of the conquered nation less barbaric or appalling. Goodness isn't a zero-sum game, and "well, we let our young girls be raped, but at least we don't do creepy bedroom things and torture people" is less than a compelling argument in Darre's favor.
This is more or less the same problem I had with Arlen in The Warded Man. Being from somewhere remote doesn't automatically imbue anyone with superior morals or a purer heart, and even the best-intentioned person is going to be wrong or act selfishly eventually. Yeine just feels saintly, without the darker side that frankly comes with mortality. She doesn't truly belong to either culture, but she was a ruler in Darre and functions well in Amn. She knows how to fight, but won't try to strike at anyone until she's been pushed severely, even though short scuffles to settle things are apparently the norm in Darre. She knows that she shouldn't want a dangerous murdering god....but his dark energy draws her to him and she keeps fantasizing about him. Their romantic story arc feels erotic at first, when they're dancing around each other and looking for weaknesses, but as soon as they get closer to being together the dialogue starts to feel like something out of an overwrought romance novel. A story about a young woman offering herself to a god who could kill her when she can sense her own death for other reasons has so much potential, especially when she's enmeshed in the gods' plot, but they just seem fascinated with each other for fairly shallow reasons. It's erotic in places, but when sexuality rises up, it kills the passion between them, all the connection and mystery and edge.
The writing style shifts between smooth short segments and horribly jagged transitions. Yeine is narrating the story to a second figure as she goes, and that person remains mysterious until fairly late in the book. The intrigue there has potential, but the execution is lacking. After a dramatic cliffhanger-ending chapter, Yeine says "I almost forgot" and then hops to something less interesting that happened earlier in the day. This would make sense once, but it happens multiple times and is deeply obnoxious. Early on in the book, when she's just started running from Nahadoth, she says "Should I pause to explain? It is poor storytelling." In that particular instance it's a short break and a debatable level of quality, but constantly trying to put the chapter order on shuffle to generate more false tension is poor storytelling and takes away from what little momentum the pacing has. As soon as Yeine learns about the gods' plot and struggle, her own battle to survive the contest for who will be heir falls by the wayside, cropping up only when it's convenient and will in some way change what's going on in the other story. A whole book about just the political aspect could have been great, since the existing politics feel shallow. In theory the representatives of the Consortium make decisions, but Yeine soon drops away from them and realizes that the Arameri do what they want anyway, taking away what could have been an interesting system of checks and balances. Yeine often feels more like a chess piece than a player; it seems believable in some places and as though she's just skating along plot rails in others.
The climax seems to counter that problem, flashing with battle and suspense and decisions, but once the day is won, the very ending feels more like a flashy video game cut scene than a truly satisfying ending. Yeine is once again right about everything and knows what to do better than anyone at all, so she uses power and the force of plot to bend everything her way before the frankly dull happy ending. When you put the plot in bullet points it sounds exciting, but it unfortunately doesn't feel that way. Two of the four gods barely get screen time; one is a token who's barely onscreen, and the other elegraphs her actions with embarrassing bluntness. Given that those two are the female gods of the set, that there are very few living female characters besides Yeine's plot-dispensing grandmother, and that Scimina is straight-up evil, it comes off in places as a way to make Yeine the only good woman in the book. It seems highly doubtful that that was Jemisin's intention, but the men of the book seem to have more character scope than the women for whatever reason, and it's disappointing. Yeine can find male allies and helpers and morally ambiguous companions, but the women seem to be some combination of evil people, obstacles, or information sources.
On a short but important note, Jemisin could have done some research on how fighting works before making her main character an expert knife fighter. Yeine is supposedly deadly with a blade after years of training, but when she sees something sharp out of the corner of her eye, she instinctively blocks.....with both palms out. This is without a doubt second only to trying to block a thrown brick with your nose in terms of sheer stupidity. Had she been trained, she would have reflexively blocked with her arm turned inward so that the blade would be less likely to hit the veins, tendons, and other tender things in the hands that are necessary to actually hold a knife. I've had less than three years of sporadic training that only occasionally includes knives, and this note about blocking is drilled into every new student on day one of the weapons class. It's jarringly unrealistic and made Yeine's alleged competence feel a lot shakier later on.
All in all, this was a decent read; the plot has plenty of potential, the characters' suffering leaps off the page, and this world had all sorts of room to play with political tension. On the other hand, Yeine's attempt to fence off the moral high ground so no one else can be as right as she is gets old, and it's hard to care about any of the major characters. This one is decent, especially if you're looking for something with a minority protagonist, but not really that much of a change of pace except for the role of the imprisoned gods. I finish most books for the blog in a few days, but I kept setting this one down and picking it back up over the course of a week and a half. It's not bad, certainly, but it feels very flat given how high the stakes are.
Prospects: The third book in this trilogy, The Kingdom of Gods, came out in April. In May, Jemisin released The Killing Moon, the first in a new series called Dreamblood. I'll likely take a look at it on here, because Jemisin is hitting my picky sweet spot of "good ideas, rough start" that makes me want to see her do something different.
Enjoyed this? Try:
~Mara of the Acoma in Daughter of the Empire pulls off the sheltered-to-dangerous transition much more smoothly than Yeine does, and the Tsurani culture feels like a far more vivid part of her life than the Darre culture does of Yeine's.
~Banewreaker by Jacqueline Carey. A god with a similar sort of ambiguity to Nahadoth's is the only one still walking the mortal world, and the moral struggles that spiral out of that don't leave room for anyone as black-and-white as Scimina is.