The prologue of The Broken Kingdoms, the follow-up to N.K. Jemisin’s well-received debut The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, picks up right where the first novel left off, as Oree Shoth, a blind Nimaro girl, witnesses the conflagration caused by the freeing of the gods and the (re-)birth of the Gray Lady. After this brief prologue, the story jumps about ten years forward. Oree is now an artist who scrapes together a living by selling art and trinkets to pilgrims. Right in the first chapter, she is a direct witness to two unimaginable events, although at first she doesn’t realize the true importance of the second one. First, she discovers the body of a murdered godling in an alley, and shortly after this she finds a glowing, silent man who she decides to give shelter in her own home. It’s the true identity of this man that’s the real stunner — and while anyone who has read The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms will realize quickly who he is (maybe helped by the unlikely nickname “Shiny”), it takes Oree quite a while longer to understand his true nature and the impact of the events she is quickly becoming part of.
The Broken Kingdoms is a great way to continue the story begun in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms: even though there’s a brand new protagonist and ten years have passed, this second novel feels like a completely natural continuation. The story effectively builds on the events of the first book, and the returning characters, who are sometimes almost unrecognizable because we now see them from Oree’s perspective, play important roles in the new plot without taking away from Oree’s development. Especially the background information about the Gods’ War adds a welcome new dimension to the back story of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms.
The narrative style of The Broken Kingdoms is very similar to its predecessor, with Oree telling her story in the first person much like Yeine did, frequently stopping to interrupt herself or consider her words, which occasionally leads to several short segments of text in a row. While this staccato-style narration can sometimes be a bit much, it does give the story a pleasant, personal tone, as if the main character is sitting with you and telling you the story one on one. In contrast with the occasional hesitancy of her narrators, there’s a real confidence to N.K. Jemisin’s prose that was quite surprising to find in a debut novel, and it’s nice to see that this carried through in this second effort.
As for the new narrator, Oree is an interesting character in her own right, but she doesn’t have the same pull as Yeine, who made the first novel such a pleasure to read. While The Broken Kingdoms is a fascinating story, it doesn’t have the same hook as Yeine being thrown into a complex court and a disputed succession. The (admittedly highly original) relation between mortals and gods in this world is by now also familiar to the reader, making this new novel feel like an interesting second chapter, rather than the burst of originality and intrigue found in the first book. (To be fair, the book does introduce an interesting new aspect to this relation, but explaining it here would constitute a spoiler as it’s the hinge-point of the entire plot.)
There’s also a large helping of tortured romance to be had, once again of the mortal-in-love-with-a-god variety, which maybe echoes the first book a bit too strongly. Nevertheless, N.K. Jemisin knows how to write of (and with) passion, so if you don’t mind a dose of romance in your fantasy, this might be exactly your thing. Jacqueline Carey fans, you really ought to check out these books.
One thing missing again, unfortunately, is a more in-depth look at the greater fantasy world. For a series of novels that starts out suggesting one hundred thousand kingdoms, and continues with at least plural “kingdoms” in its second title, it’s a bit disappointing that by far the largest chunk of the action so far is still set in just one city, and aside from a few scenes here and there and some vague references, we haven’t really had a good look at the layout of this theoretically huge world. It would be nice if this fantasy world got fleshed out a bit more in future novels (although a map detailing thousands of kingdoms probably wouldn’t be practical.)
In the end, The Broken Kingdoms is a healthy second helping of what made the first book good, but with a different narrator, some new godlings, and a few new twists. It’s hard to imagine that you wouldn’t enjoy this novel if you liked The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. The Kingdom of Gods, the final volume in the INHERITANCE trilogy, will be released by Orbit in 2011.