Love and Ambivalence in The Inheritance Trilogy
The love of books, like most love, is messy. Treacly quotes about reading -- the kind accompanied by drawings of books without titles -- imply a simple love by ignoring the hard-to-write, hard-to-determine specifics. They resist embarrassment by rendering love and books in generalities. But love is often specific and embarrassing, separating us from those who don't get it, who are puzzled, or bemused, or disgusted by our love. Love is confusing, making us yearn for one story and disregard another, making us passionate for what we think we should hate and making us disregard what we think we should love. The explanations we offer for the whims of passion are inadequate, becoming incomplete within a matter of minutes, hours, or days.
With that in mind, I wish I had kept a reading journal throughout N.K. Jemisin's The Inheritance Trilogy. Its three volumes, for me, were a case study in the distance from and sudden arrival of love: first ambivalence, then enjoyment, and finally a love that reframed everything before and after. Appropriately, love is a major subject of the trilogy, set within a universe shaped by the love and hate of three gods: Nahadoth, who is chaos; Itempas, who is order; and Enefa, who is life and death. They are siblings and lovers both, hating and loving, resenting and desiring. Their relationships are the through-line of the trilogy, holding the three volumes together like a chain through beads, though the beads themselves tell separate tales. In the first, a woman is dragged into the intersections of "one family squabble pitted against another." Unfortunately for her, one of the two squabbles is among the Arameri, the vicious rulers of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, and the other is among the gods. Ten years later, in the second novel, an artisan stumbles upon a dead god in an alley and finds herself under suspicion by proximity, her life further complicated by the other, silent god she pulled from a trash heap. Finally, in the third, another hundred years or so later, the god of childhood is mysteriously made mortal as the world cycles up toward a war no one wants.
In my June column, on Sofia Samatar's (World Fantasy Award-winning) A Stranger in Olondria, I talked about my particular love for fictional worlds that are larger than I am -- larger, in fact, than any individual can hold. Magic, as an example, is interesting to me not necessarily because of what the characters can do with magic, but rather because of how the existence of magic -- of that specific magic -- changes the world, often with uncontrollable consequences. What I loved in The Inheritance Trilogy, and what kept me reading even through ambivalence, was N.K. Jemisin's steady hand on the richness of her world. Take the altarskirt rose, described early in the first novel: "Not only do its petals unfold in a radiance of pearled white, but frequently it grows an incomplete secondary flower about the base of its stem...The two bloom in tandem, seedbearing head and skirt, glory above and below." The beauty of the altarskirt depends on heavy inbreeding of the plant, fertilization by people, and the destruction of many ugly, incomplete roses -- ten useless flowers for every beautiful one. Thus are whole economies and power structures sketched in with a detail, the largeness of world told through a single, small part.
The richness of Jemisin's world was the backdrop for my changing feelings as I read. Thick world-building drew me in; moments of thinness lost my interest. The world felt incomplete in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, the first novel in the trilogy. Or perhaps I simply wanted a different novel than what Jemisin set out to write: I wanted a novel driven by the world while she had written one driven by being trapped within other people's plans and choices, a novel that by necessity is claustrophobic in its setting and in the way it clings to the perspective of Yeine, our protagonist. (In a favorite moment, Yeine says, "I'm tired of being what everyone else has made me... I want to be myself," and, fabulously, the god she is speaking with tells her to stop being a child.) The world opened more in the second novel, The Broken Kingdoms, as Oree Shoth, the new protagonist, moves through the world outside the palace. She bumps shoulders with priests, gods, murderers, and tourists, the world revealed in dozens of small moments. But the focus in the second novel is on the action -- the plot of a murder mystery and thriller taking control -- and the world fades to a thrum in the background, at times little more than light shading around the edges.
That I fell in love with the third novel, The Kingdom of Gods, demonstrates my love for large worlds, for childlike but strong-willed characters, for patterns that change as they repeat. The world became richer. As the oldest child, Sieh, our narrator, knew the Three -- Nahadoh, Itempas, and Enefa -- long before any other being and as such his tellings and retellings of their relationship reveal more than Yeine or Oree could ever know. His story also draws on the details from the two previous novels, allowing the references to echo off each other. For example, the altarskirt rose recurs here in a confrontation between Sieh and a shadowy enemy:
Amid dozens of black daisies that bobbed and swayed in the cool breeze, a single white-petaled flower stood utterly still...an altarskirt rose, one of a rare variety bred in High North. The white tower of my secret, repeating itself across theme and form.
We are reminded of Yeine's description in the first novel, in which the rose represented beauty hiding great destruction. Just as Sieh's secret is repeated in metaphor and image, the rose and what it represents is repeated in the trilogy, enhancing and enriching the world Jemisin has built. This is true, as well, for the relationships that form the basis of the story. Loves (plural) and hates (plural) begin to pile up against one another: the love and hate between mortal and god speaks to the love and hate between mortals and gods in general; the relationship between the Arameri and the people they rule intersects with the love lost and gained between and within the many nations and peoples that are ruled; the love and hate between the Three speaks to the need and conflict between chaos, order, life, and death; and all of it complicates and enhances the love between Sieh and the two mortals who befriend him.
The last novel was not perfect. One of my lingering disappointments -- small, but persistent -- was the lost opportunity in the makeup of the Three. While the god of order always appears male and the goddess of life and death appears female, Nahadoth, the god of chaos, can appear as either male or female. This ability is only used once, a disappointing limitation on what could be. As a result, the relationships seen directly on the page fit into a pattern of either an imbalanced heterosexual pairing (Yeine and Nahadoth, Oree and Madding, Sieh and Shahar) or a slightly more balanced male homosexual pairing (Sieh and Deka). Despite a multitude of complex female characters, this pattern implies a lesser role for women in a universe driven by relationships.
But just as the unloved cannot become loved by attaining perfection, the loved do not become unloved through imperfection alone. My disappointments in The Inheritance Trilogy were small compared to a heart cracking open, as mine did again and again, and continues to crack as I remember. A childlike god faces the death of the planets he had kept as toys, their destruction a sign of the changes wrought within as he ceased to be a god. The necklace of a lost love grows warm around a woman's neck. A man lays a comforting hand on an estranged brother-lover's shoulder as they mourn together. "By such small gestures are wars ended," writes Jemisin. And by such gestures are loves formed.