One of  the aims of this blog is to challenge the idea that women don’t like Fantasy fiction. There are masses of keen and knowledgeable female readers of SF and Fantasy and some of the best adult Fantasy novels of recent years have been written by women. This week’s recommendation – `The Broken Kingdoms’ by American author N.K.Jemisin – is a shining example. Officially this is Book Two of `The Inheritance Trilogy’ – not to be confused with Ian Douglas’s SF `Inheritance Trilogy’  or Christopher Paolini’s dragon-centred `Inheritance Cycle’. The fictional world of Jemisin’s trilogy is a strange and intricate one. I suggest that you enter it via`The Broken Kingdoms’ and then go back in time to `The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms’ and forward again to `The Kingdom of Gods’.  All three books are available in paperback or as ebooks.

In the beginning there were three great deities, Itempas the Bright Lord, Nahadoth the Night Lord and Enefa the Goddess of Earth. The Three lived in harmony for aeons, creating innumerable gods, goddesses and mortals. After a terrible divine quarrel known as the Gods’ War,  Enefa was slain by her brother Itempas, while Nahadoth and the deities who supported him were condemned to become the slaves of a human family known as the Arameri. For thousands of years the ruthless Arameri enforced the worship of Itempas and ruled the world from the palace of Sky but in `The Broken Kingdoms’  there has been a great change. A new goddess, the Gray Lady, has arisen and created a gigantic World Tree which now dominates Sky. The enslaved deities have been freed and the power of the Arameri has been weakened but not overthrown. In Shadow, the city at the base of the World Tree, the human population must get used to living alongside the minor deities known as Godlings.

Oree Shoth has come to Shadow to earn a living selling her artwork to pilgrims. She knows that she is a beauty with unusual near-black skin and weird eyes because people have told her so. Oree is blind and can’t see herself but she can see gods, anything magical and her own paintings. She describes herself as `a woman plagued by gods’ and is trying to get over a love affair with Madding, the God of Debts. Oree’s other problem is the mute stranger she calls `Shiny’. She impulsively took him in after finding him in a rubbish dump but he isn’t an easy house-guest.  Shiny doesn’t seem to have any powers but he may be a Godling because he glows every morning and comes back to life whenever he is careless enough to get killed, which seems to happen rather often.

When Oree discovers the body of a murdered Godling in an alley it brings her unwelcome attention from the Order-Keepers, who punish unauthorised use of magic. After Shiny unexpectedly intervenes to save her from interrogation by a priest-magician of Itempas, Oree is forced to go on the run. She and her former lover, Madding, try to find out who is murdering and kidnapping Godlings before the Night Lord takes revenge by destroying the whole city. Soon Oree herself is kidnapped by a group who want to use her as a weapon and it becomes increasingly unclear whether the enigmatic Shiny will help or destroy her. If she and the Gods are to survive, Oree must learn to understand the true nature of her inheritance.

I have several reasons for suggesting that new readers start the series with this volume. The first is a personal one. I’ve just come back from Norway where I kept seeing references to Yggdrasil, the World Tree of Scandinavian mythology, and `The Broken Kingdoms’ has its own magnificent Tree of Life. Jemisin’s imagination is big enough to create a tree 125,000 feet high and make me believe in it. Secondly, `The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms’ and `Kingdom of Gods’ are epic novels  dealing with the entire history of the Divine Family of this universe and with the interlinked rise and fall of the Empire of the Arameri but `The Broken Kingdoms’ is on a more intimate scale and tells the story of a single relationship that will eventually influence the outcome of the main plotline. Thirdly, while each volume of the trilogy has a different first-person narrator, big-hearted Oree is the one who is easiest to like and understand. She’s no kind of super hero, just a smart, quietly brave young woman whose strong sense of compassion gets her into trouble. Oree has a nice line in self-deprecating humour about her failed love-life and she’s determined to be independent in spite of her disability. Jemisin handles the challenge of having a main viewpoint character who is blind very cleverly. Sharing Oree’s limited view of Shadow makes it easier for the reader to get to grips with this bizarre god-haunted city.

Both `The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms’ and `The Broken Kingdoms’ start off like standard `feisty girl in peril’ tales and then transform into `something rich and strange’ as a pantheon of deities joins the cast. Jemisin’s divine characters are much more like the gods and goddesses of ancient myth than deities in Fantasy fiction usually are. These are beings who are virtually immortal, can change forms, family roles and genders at will, have benevolent and destructive aspects and are not bound by any of the rules of human morality. Is it possible to imagine what the mental and emotional worlds of such beings would be like? I would have said no, but Jemisin has done it and made these extraordinary beings, and their complex relations with each other, almost comprehensible. Her portrait of Sieh, the capricious Trickster God of Childhood is particularly outstanding but he only makes a cameo appearance in this volume. Jemisin has also thought hard about what it would be like to be the god or goddess of a particular aspect of the world – whether it is something as great as Life and Death or as trivial as Junk. She asks whether the strength of a deity’s affinity makes him or her less free to shape their own life than the humblest mortal. For example,  can the God of Order ever learn to embrace change?

On another level, these troubled deities with their  role-playing and power struggles, intergenerational conflicts and fear of loneliness, aren’t so very different from us. I wasn’t too surprised to find out that Jemisin is a counselor as well as an author, though I hope that none of her clients have problems quite as dramatic as the incest and murder that goes on in these novels. The `Inheritance Trilogy’ is packed with all the magic, mystery and excitement that readers of Fantasy expect, but basically Jemisin is writing about relationships. In this fractured divine family there are no real villains because everyone has understandable reasons for they way they act and `Life is never one thing’. `The Broken Kingdoms’ could be classed as a Paranormal Romance but it examines many aspects of love, including whether it is possible to love one person (or god) without making others feel excluded. At the start of the story, Shiny believes that mortals are so unimportant that he won’t even speak to them. Oree gradually changes his mind by teaching him the meaning of friendship and self-sacrifice. Jemisin’s skill at characterization makes this an outstanding and moving  novel. Until two weeks time….