Friday, April 22, 2016

What we're reading: A nontraditional epic fantasy

When you think of epic fantasies, what comes to mind? Probably among your first thoughts, if you are a reader, are The Lord of the Rings books, by J. R. R. Tolkien, or the Chronicles of Narnia, by C. S. Lewis? maybe A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin (otherwise known as the Game of Thrones series)?

What do these fantasy series have in common? Author N. K. Jemisin observes in an article in The Guardian that the traditional epic fantasies present "a virtuous status quo threatened by a dark and eventually defeated outsider." In other words, the protagonists of these fantasies are trying to return things to a previously perceived (conservative) ideal. Return the rightful heir to the throne, restore the kingdom, shut out the dark, confound the evil and let good triumph. But is life ever this simplistic? And is the status quo always what you want to end up with?

Jemisin says no. As an African American female author, this paradigm doesn't interest her. Instead, in her version of epic fantasy, The Inheritance Trilogy, her characters challenge the people in power, threaten the ordered society, and question the perceptions of truth.

In the first book, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, the heroine is Yeine Darr, the product of an unsanctioned biracial liaison between one of the former members of the ruling class of the city of Sky and a "barbarian" with and for whom she accepted exile. Yeine has been raised in obscurity, and while she is high in status within her own small society, she is looked on with disdain by ruling class and servants alike when she is unexpectedly summoned to Sky. Soon she is pitted by the elderly head of the family in a no-win situation against the other two heirs to Sky's throne, and the only allies she can find are gods.

Apparently the gods have been at war, and the winner, Itempas, the patron god of Sky, has helped the ruling family to enslave the Enefadah, the other deities who formerly maintained the balance of the world with him. The ruling family, the Arameri, are heartless, cold people, and Yeine, at first awed and intimidated by them, soon realizes that whether she wins or loses, lives or dies, these people need to go! So she strikes up a perilous alliance with some really unstable and angry deities with their own agenda, and the adventure begins.

The series is also nontraditional in that the books aren't exactly sequential. They don't all follow the same protagonists, although the events are connected and take place in the same world. The second book, The Broken Kingdoms, is set on the ground, in the shadow of the World Tree (which holds up the city of Sky), and the protagonist is a blind artist. She takes in what she thinks is a homeless man, only to discover that he is much more than that, and his presence puts her--and her community--at risk. The third book, The Kingdom of Gods, returns to some of the characters from the first book, but now all the gods are free, and the future of the Arameri is about to be determined.

Jemisin is a lyrical writer, with an amazing breadth of vision and particularly potent characters. She writes with total intensity about fate, love, death, destiny, chaos, divinity, and life, and while I don't usually care for books in which a god or the gods take an active role, these gods were something else--both literally and colloquially. 

While all three books in this series didn't hold me equally spellbound (she lost my fascinated attention a bit on the third one), what I loved is that this fantasy series didn't follow the cliched tried and true for one moment. Reading this series was an elevating but somewhat exhausting experience. These books won't be for everyone, but for some they will be beloved.

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