Saturday, October 17, 2015

Diversiverse: The Broken Kingdoms

This is me participating in the fabulous A More Diverse Universe reading challenge, in which a blogger reads a book by an author of color and then spreads the word about it. Simple, yet incredibly helpful for readers looking to expand their reading horizons. I know I'll be eagerly reading all these reviews to learn about more fantastic spec fic authors of color I should be reading.

I chose to read the Fantasy novel The Broken Kingdoms by N.K. Jemison, the second book in her Inheritance trilogy. I read the first book, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, a few years ago, and while I enjoyed it, I wasn't as impressed by it as I'd expected to be. I think that was less the fault of the book itself than how much I'd heard about it before I read it. THTK was nominated for a Nebula, and I'd read a lot of gushing reviews about how it was the most intense, dazzling original debut EV-ah, so when I read the book I was expecting to be totally blown away, and instead I thought it was a very well-written Fantasy novel with an interesting world and some fresh ideas, but also some re-hashes of stuff I've seen done better in other books, and a romance with way too much melodrama for my tastes.

But. The Broken Kingdoms. OMG. This book did in fact blow me away. The intensity here didn't feel at all like melodrama to me, maybe because most of the action is taking place on the mean streets of the city rather than high above it in a shmancy sky-castle. The violence and struggle of poverty becomes a backdrop for a struggle at the highest levels of human and divine power, and we see how the decisions made by kings and gods play out in the lives of those at the bottom of the power pyramid.

The main character, Oree, is a blind artist from a dispossessed people, and oh yeah, her ex-boyfriend is a god. The Inheritance novels explore the relationships between gods and mortals, but while in THTK that relationship was crashing, epic drama set against a backdrop of O Fortuna, in TBK it feels like experimental jazz fusion-- more casual and urban and complex.

Not that there isn't drama here-- the big stakes are classic Fantasy "entire world will be destroyed" stakes. But the littler stakes and story moments didn't feel overshadowed by that. Oree is a masterfully created protagonist: her identities as a blind woman, a black woman, an artist, a religious believer, and a possessor of strange powers all combine to make a character who felt fresh and totally un-stereotyped to me: passionate yet circumspect, determined to live independently yet longing for companionship, full of faith in her God yet having that faith shaken to the core when she actually meets him.

Lastly, I want to point to something I also appreciated about THTK: Jemison has created a Fantasy world in which race matters and racism is woven into the fabric of society. And not "race" as in "elves oppressing dwarves".I'm talking gulfs between humans with different racial characteristics. Light-skinned people creating a power structure that oppresses darker-skinned people. So often Fantasy flinches away from examining the everyday atrocities of racism, even while it has no issue with (and, some would argue, too eagerly embraces) depicting a male-dominated culture in which women are sexually brutalized. Racism and the challenges of cultural pluralism are some of the themes I'm most interested in writing about, so I'm always excited to read Science Fiction and Fantasy from the diversiverse.

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