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REVIEW: The Broken Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin

Dear Ms. Jemisin,

Earlier this year I read your debut fantasy novel, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, and enjoyed it quite a bit. So when it came time for your sophomore effort to be released, I made sure to request a copy. The Broken Kingdoms is the second book of the Inheritance Trilogy, of which The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms was the first. It’s not a direct sequel; the protagonist is not Yeine Darr. But it is related, and events of the first book set the stage for this one. I’ll try my best to keep spoilers for the first book to a minimum but as a warning, that’s not always possible.

The Broken Kingdoms (The Inheritance Trilogy) N.K. JemisinOree Shoth is a blind artist who lives in the city of Shadow, which rests beneath the city of Sky. Well, I suppose it’s more accurate to say Oree is blind to everything except magic, which she can see. This quirk proves to be useful. In the decade since the events of Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, godlings have returned to the world. Some of them even live in Shadow. Oree’s ex-lover, in fact, was a godling himself.

Suffice it to say, Oree’s used to gods and godlings. Which is a good thing because one day, she finds a strange man in a garbage heap and takes him home. As you do. Now what do I mean by strange? I mean that he has an odd habit of dying and coming back to life. And not in the vampire or zombie sort of way. Even stranger, when the sun rises at dawn, Oree can see him because he… glows. I imagine people who’ve read the previous book can probably guess who this person is.

Meanwhile, godlings are being killed all over Shadow. This isn’t good because Nahadoth, the newly reinstated Nightlord, doesn’t take kindly to people murdering his children. Completely understandable. Unfortunately, when you’re the Nightlord and are infamous for destroying an entire continent and most of its people, paternal anger takes on a whole new light.

And so an ultimatum is delivered: find the murderer or the Nightlord will come to Shadow. No one wants the Nightlord to come to Shadow. Unfortunately for Oree, who found one of the dead godlings, this means she’s suddenly become a prime suspect and the focus of intense scrutiny. Scrutiny, might I note, that will eventually lead to revelations regarding her heritage and bloodline.

In many respects, I think Broken Kingdoms is more even than its predecessor. I can’t say for sure if that impression is because I came into this book with no expectations based on the cover copy. It is a quieter book in the sense that it doesn’t take place in a royal court. There is no battle for succession. I did not expect political intrigue and for the most part, that was indeed true. Oree is simply a blind artist who came to the city and makes a living selling novelty items. But I think that quietness is also the book’s strength. It portrays a mundane daily life made magical, by virtue of who Oree is and the people with which she surrounds herself.

Since this is set a decade after the culminating events of the previous book, it was interesting to see how things had changed and how things had stayed the same. In the previous book, the world followed one religion, that of Itempas, the sun god. With the return of the Nightlord and the Grey Lady, as well as many new godlings, it should come as no surprise to anyone that the iron control of the Itempan religion is not as it once was. Many people worship other gods. Some people dislike this. Some people would like a return to the old ways. And some others want to take things a step further and form a radical sect of the original religion. I enjoyed that aspect of it.

Much like Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, the narrative style of Broken Kingdoms is similar to that of oral storytelling. I don’t think the prose is quite as striking here, less dramatic if you will. On the other hand, I don’t think it needed to be. Oree’s story isn’t one of rulers and family dynasties and returning lost gods to the world. It’s more comforting in a way. And unlike its predecessor, however, the narrative style isn’t tied as closely to the plot and readers won’t learn the reason for it until the very end.

As for the ending itself, I expect this is the part that will get the most commentary and reaction from readers. Up until the climax of the novel, the plot featured a smooth pace that carried me along effortlessly. After the climax, however, the narrative became very choppy for me and what followed was a series of what could be called successive endings. The best comparison is to the ending of Return of the King. You’d think you were reading one ending… but then another would follow. And another. And another. I don’t know if this was deliberate — and if it was, it was very successful — but the effect was very jarring, to the point that some of these “endings” felt tacked on. I also think a certain aspect of the ending was cliche and borderline indulgent. I don’t know if it’s just me, and perhaps it is, but I expected better and more. I myself was not thrilled with it for those reasons.

But since this is a romance blog, I do think I would be remiss not to offer up the details of that ending because the second I finished this book, I emailed Jane. Jane read Hundred Thousand Kingdoms based on my opinion and was waiting for my thoughts on this book before picking it up as well. So when I finished, I knew I had to email her because the ending would not make her happy. I will make use of our spoiler tag so please, skip the paragraph that is about to follow if you wish to remain spoiler-free. It is for the ending of the novel, so please heed my warning.

[spoiler effect="blind"]Oree eventually gets together with Shiny, who if you’ve read the previous book and picked up on my hints, is Itempas in mortal form, after the punishment laid down upon him by Yeine, who has become the new Grey Lady. But making Itempas a mortal was supposed to be a punishment that would last a long time, not eleven years. It’s not much of a trial if Itempas can find something of a contented life with Oree. So due to pressure from Yeine and Nahadoth, Itempas leaves Oree. Now, I personally don’t find this particular separation to be that surprising. I spent the majority of the book skeptical about whether Oree and Itempas would actually get together and when they did, I knew it couldn’t last. The part I found cliche is that not only does Itempas leave, Oree finds herself pregnant with his child. Romance readers, of course, are very familiar with this trope but it is most often found at the beginning of a novel, not the end. And for that reason, because this book ends with the couple separated and the woman pregnant with a child to remember the father by, I can’t not mention it. Because I know it will disappoint some readers.[/spoiler]

To be clear, this is a fantasy novel and not a romance. I don’t think it’s fair to expect an HEA because this genre does not guarantee it. But reader preferences are reader preferences, and those preferences often carry over from one genre to the next. I simply wanted to offer up the details for those who wanted them because I know what it’s like to be enjoying a book, only to reach the end and have that experience be ruined by what was presented in those final pages. I think Jane has blogged about those moments here on DA in the past.

This is a solid follow-up to what I considered a great debut. Many of the quibbles I had with the first novel have been smoothed over and polished here, although I think the ending is still a little rough, if only in the other direction (choppy and dragged out rather than rushed and cramped). I just wish the ending hadn’t been so cliche and uninspiring, but perhaps this will lead into the final book of the Inheritance trilogy, The Kingdom of Gods. One can only hope. As for a grade, I’m assigning one based on it being a fantasy novel. I imagine romance readers would have a different opinion. B

My regards,

Jia

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Jia is an avid reader who loves fantasy and young adult novels. She's also currently dipping her toes in the new adult genre but remains unconvinced by the prevalent need for traumatic pasts. Her favorite authors are Michelle West and Jacqueline Carey. YA authors whose works she's enjoyed include Holly Black, Laini Taylor, Ally Carter, and Megan Miranda. Jia's on a neverending quest for novels with diverse casts and multicultural settings. Feel free to email her with recommendations at [email protected]!

18 Comments

  1. Christine M.
    Nov 02, 2010 @ 12:37:20

    The covers for that series are beautiful. Now I just have to wait for the third book to be released to buy them all.

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  3. Val
    Nov 02, 2010 @ 13:34:12

    @Jia: You mentioned the narrative style is similar. Does that include the jumping back and forth in the timeline? I remember Yeine in the first book would be in the middle of telling some story, only to break away to tell another story. It was annoying and made it pretty hard to get through the book, so much so that I don’t know I could handle another long tome full of it.

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  4. Dana
    Nov 02, 2010 @ 13:52:58

    I loved The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, and was really looking forward to this one, but a friend of mine bought an early copy (Borders put them out last week) and he told me that the ending sucked and that I would hate it. And after reading this review I’m wandering if I should just skip this book. Or maybe wait until the third one is out and see how everything ties together.

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  5. Jia
    Nov 02, 2010 @ 15:29:53

    @Val: It does jump back and forth. Not quite to the same extent as the first book, but it does.

    @Dana: The ending is the weakest part of the book, in my opinion.

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  6. orannia
    Nov 02, 2010 @ 16:38:00

    Thank you Jia! I’ve had The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms on my TBR list since I read your review. Unfortunately, I haven’t picked it up yet :( (TBR list issues :) I still want too…and it’s indirect sequel The Broken Kingdoms.

    And WRT the lack of a HEA – thank you for the heads up. I was a fantasy reader first, so I can (usually) handle it when a HEA does not make an appearance. (I say usually because every so often I did want one :) If possible to answer without spoilers, there is a definitive ending, yes? My big bug bear is hanging ending (whether a cliff-hanger or not).

    ReplyReply

  7. Jia
    Nov 02, 2010 @ 17:02:07

    @orannia: Having read more than my fair share of cliffhangers (thanks, YA genre!), I can safely answer that there is a definitive ending here.

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  8. Auraya
    Nov 02, 2010 @ 18:25:56

    Spoiler warning (same as under the cut)

    I’d pre-ordered this one and I’ve already devoured it. I see what you mean about the multiple endings. There was a perfectly first good ending, but I understood why she didn’t leave it that way. The final ending was for me a bit bittersweet and reminded me almost violently of the ending of pirates of the carrabian 3.

    I’m now mostly wondering whether the child and Shiny will be in book 3. It is supposed to be Sieh’s book, so maybe. I now I’ll be buying that one as well.

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  9. orannia
    Nov 02, 2010 @ 20:51:25

    @Jia – LOL. Thank you!

    ReplyReply

  10. BlueRose
    Nov 03, 2010 @ 02:02:41

    I *really* disliked the end of the first one – I loathe the whole “here is the story but Whoops here is a completely random and seemingly unrelated ending that gives your reader whiplash”

    So I wont buy this book but I will read it in the library. If she does the same thing again I doubt I will bother with the third.

    ReplyReply

  11. evie byrne
    Nov 03, 2010 @ 12:27:02

    The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms was my favorite debut fantasy of last year. Yes, the ending was a little “Wha…?”, but it was so gorgeously imagined. A year later I’ll still find myself thinking about the godlings and that amazing city–and that crazy god-sex scene that puts all other “and the universe exploded” orgasm scenes to shame. There aren’t many books that stick with me in this way.

    I’m disappointed that the ending of Book 2 doesn’t work, but I’d jump at any opportunity to visit that world again. I’ve avoided the romance related spoilers, I just don’t even want to know how bad it is. Perhaps if I go in with no hopes whatsoever, that bad thing, whatever it is, won’t be so bad.

    Thanks for the review, and the warning!

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  12. Marumae
    Nov 03, 2010 @ 12:29:24

    I was impressed with the writing of the first one, very well done-you could tell it was her first but very well done. The ending though…eh, I’m with blue rose, the ending sorta annoyed me for reasons I don’t want to spoil. I still liked the world though and I’m tempted to pick it up, though I’m not sure on that ending…we’ll take it out from the library and give it a chance.

    ReplyReply

  13. Jia
    Nov 03, 2010 @ 13:10:53

    @evie byrne: To be fair, I don’t think the romance resolution is that bad but I know it’s a dealbreaker for many people. Jane has no interest in reading the book now, for example, and a couple other reading buddies feel the same way.

    @Marumae: Endings seem to be the sticking point with these books. I thought the first book’s ending was rushed. I thought the ending of this book was just clumsy. Maybe the third time will be the charm.

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  14. loonigrrl
    Nov 05, 2010 @ 02:57:07

    Oh wow. Thanks for the heads up on the ending, Jia. I really enjoyed The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and was probably going to pick up The Broken Kingdom this weekend, but… that ending. Wow. Yeah, I think it’s a deal breaker for me. What a bummer.

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  15. Cheeky Booker
    Nov 06, 2010 @ 17:52:04

    I just finished this and I’m still trying to figure out how I feel about it…but there is something about Jemisin’s writing that is just so lovely…so cocooning if that makes any sense. There is something disconcerting and yet comforting about this story of gods who inspire awe and fear, but exhibit all the trappings of the human frailty they crave and despise. In each of these books I kept expecting some kind of fantastical ending, but I think the quiet almost restful ending is appropriate because power and dominion are so thoroughly woven through the narrative. It’s light and dark…life and death…cyclical. As a romance reader I wanted there to be a HEA, but I’m not sure there could have been one…at least not for long anyway…cyclical.

    ReplyReply

  16. Review of The Broken Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin | Fantasy Cafe | Reviews of Fantasy and Science Fiction Books
    Nov 11, 2010 @ 22:11:44

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  17. mezra
    Mar 06, 2011 @ 11:08:52

    Sadly, the ending to this book made me feel ashamed of purchasing it and wasting my $9.99. I felt like any happiness or pleasure I took from the beginning was ruined by a rushed and cliched ending. It saddens me that authors feel that a bittersweet ending will add more emotional worth to a novel than that of a happy one. I also felt a bit uncomfortable with the changing character personality of Yeine and Sieh. It seemed to me they were almost new characters – not quite the same as I remembered from book 1. Book 1, though not my favorite reading style, ended on a complete if rushed note. Book 2 seemed to go more the way of adding layers of unhappiness for simply getting a reaction and causing drama. Its a shame to see authors travel that route after a first successful novel. I’m hesitant to even bother reading Book 3 after ending on such a disappointing note with Book 2.

    ReplyReply

  18. N. K. Jemisin – The Broken Kingdoms « Fyrefly's Book Blog
    May 28, 2012 @ 06:03:09

    [...] Reviews: Dear Author, The Discriminating Fangirl, Fantasy Cafe, Jenny’s Books, Stella Matutina, and more at the [...]

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