These are interesting days we live in. Interesting for our Western culture in general, but specifically for the fantasy genre, as well. In recent years, we have been questioning the status quo in our genre. Why do we do things the way we do them? Why are all our heroes white? Why do we buy books written by old, homophobic white men? Why do authors constantly use rape as a tool to develop female characters? Why the heck do female warriors not wear armor around their stomach? Why are so many barbarian cultures in fantasy depicted as black? Beyond these ethical questions, we are also looking for fantasy that deviates from those same old, constantly rehashed tropes of past generations. We don’t want elves and dwarves. We want original content. We want dark, emotional books that force us out of our comfort zones. Some of us may want vivid violence, others may want more creative world building, but whatever we prefer, we all want something new and enthralling.
This cultural shift has started a flood of new, modern fantasy. Authors like Brandon Sanderson, Peter V. Brett, Saladin Ahmed, and Brent Weeks challenge the traditional fantasy settings with deeper, more original world building, new cultures, and technological development. Authors like Mark Lawrence and Joe Abercrombie create grim stories filled with graphic and brutal violence. Authors like Daniel Abraham and K.J. Parker explore intriguing new themes.
No author of our generation, however, has embraced this new mindset as thoroughly and perfectly as N.K. Jemisin. In fact, anyone who follows Nora Jemisin on Twitter, Facebook, or her website will realize that she is the personification of all that is good about our generation. Jemisin is a smart, sophisticated, independent woman who isn’t afraid to speak her mind on current events both inside and out of the speculative genre. Further, her writing is layered with the elements I listed before. In her Inheritance trilogy, Jemisin explores non-standard themes and relationships in a refreshingly original setting. Her more recent Dreamblood duology closely resembles the more traditional epic fantasy in story and tropes, yet with an inventively authentic world and marvelous new societies that resemble nothing that’s been done in fantasy before. On top of that, it delves into themes of equality, gender roles, and assimilation.
None of Jemisin’s books, however, are as exquisitely creative and imaginative—bordering on literary fiction—as The Broken Kingdoms, the second volume in the Inheritance trilogy. That’s why I’m nominating The Broken Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin as The Great Fantasy Novel.
Standing alone in a trilogy
It may seem odd to nominate the middle book in a trilogy as the one novel that represents the fantasy genre like no other. However, for those of you who haven’t read the Inheritance trilogy—wait, why haven’t you? You should get ‘em right now!—let me explain. The events in these novels take place some time apart from each other. The Broken Kingdoms takes place a decade after the events in Jemisin’s debut novel, The Hundred-Thousand Kingdoms. While the ending of that novel directly influences the story of the sequel, The Broken Kingdoms can be read as a standalone novel. It tells the contained story of Oree, a blind mortal mixed up in the intrigues of gods. If you haven’t read The Hundred-Thousand Kingdoms, some details might be lost on you, but this novel can stand on its own and is worth reading solely for its own merits.
A layered work of themes
Like all of Jemisin’s books, The Broken Kingdoms incorporates a plethora of deeply contemplative, philosophic, and provocative themes. A great book might distinguish itself from other books with its multifaceted layers, causing different readers to have different responses to it. The Broken Kingdoms is a truly layered novel of mystery, compassion, revenge, remorse, dislocation, sacrifice, and the versatile nature of love. It is about the inevitability and momentousness of change and the question of how we deal with such change. This change is not merely evident in the personal development of the novel’s protagonists, but also in the society itself, which has drastically changed due to the events that took place in The Hundred-Thousand Kingdoms a decade earlier. Due to the revolutionary transformation of its world and the focus on the way both humans and gods deal with it, The Broken Kingdoms is also about the hypocrisy of organized religion and the meaning of mortality and immortality.
Ultimately, the Inheritance trilogy explores what will happen when gods dwell among humans, and The Broken Kingdoms is the best example of this within the trilogy. The endless drama of the gods and their interactions with human society, as well as the slow emerging of a world that has long bowed to authoritarian regimes, are central themes in this novel. Through her narrative, at once epic and intimate, Jemisin proves that it is possible to write about gods while maintaining a relatable story.
Best of Jemisin
What sets The Broken Kingdoms apart, though, for me to pick it of all Jemisin’s novels as The Great Fantasy Novel, are two things. Most importantly, its protagonist, Oree Shoth—with her first person narrative—makes The Broken Kingdoms a truly tremendous read. My love of reading stems from a book’s ability to project its story on my mind’s eye. The best books are the ones that create a movie in my mind, where I can visualize everything the characters see. Oree, however, is a blind woman. All she can see is the magic of the gods around her. Because of Jemisin’s skillful, artistic writing, the reader doesn’t visualize the story of Oree, but mentally experiences it through touch, smell, sound, and magical impressions.
Secondly, The Broken Kingdoms seems a tribute to Jemisin’s constant challenge of race and racial expectations. Though Oree cannot see, this is a central theme in the novel. Instead of focusing on skin color, Oree’s story is about the racial xenophobia for demons and humans born with the divine blood of the gods. The very fact that these racial fears cause Oree to have to hide who she is, even from the ones she loves, seems a metaphor of the themes that have become central in our society today.
The extraordinary narrative from the perspective of a strong and independent woman who stands up for those she loves and displays an amazing amount of courage in a world unrewarding of such behavior, combined with the philosophical and current themes central in this novel, make The Broken Kingdoms a true gem of fantasy literature and a truly unique reading experience recommended to any reader. Part of my love for the fantasy genre comes from the fact that it allows authors to continuously push the boundaries of imagination. There is no greater example of such a feat than N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Kingdoms, and I believe it is destined to become a fantasy classic—and perhaps even a literary classic.
This article is part of our search for “The Great Fantasy Novel.” For more information on this project or to nominate your own favorite fantasy novel, please take a look at the introduction article. Do you agree or disagree with this nomination? Let us know in the comments below!