If I were a more ambitious blogger, I’d go back and see how many Hugo nominees were first novels. I suspect it doesn’t happen that often, though Windup Girl was Bacigalupi’s first published novel. Anyway, here we have the first novel of N. K. Jemisin, who wrote my second-favorite short story nominee last year. She delivers an entertaining and original fantasy story right out of the gate.
The story takes place in a world where a war between a trinity of gods led to the prominence of a god of light Intempa, the enslavement of the god of darkness Nahadoth, and the death of the god of dusk and balance. The Arameri, human servants of the god of light, rule the world with absolute authority backed by the power of their enslaved god of darkness. They rule from a towering city called Sky. The narrator is Yeine, daughter of a self-exiled Arameri, who is called back to Sky to compete for inheritance of the throne (this is volume one of the "Inheritance Trilogy"). This involves a whole lot of wicked intrigue by Yeine’s devious cousins, and many smoldering glances between Yeine and the imprisoned and rageful Nahadoth.
One problem I have with the book is that it is so heavily focused on the rather clichéd romance trope of the dangerous/powerful/tortured/sexy male lead. I honestly don’t have a lot of patience for this trope. Still, Jemisin does have a deft touch with these characters. My other problem is becoming a running theme in my fantasy reviews. Even I’m sick of me saying this, but the world-building here just doesn’t quite work for me. I said this recently about Game of Thrones, and as I watched the tv show and dived into the next book, I began to realize my mistake. I was clearly wrong on that series, which is basically almost nothing but detailed world-building. I feel a bit more confident here. We get a lot on the capitol of Sky, but we don’t step outside it all that much. We get a few details of Yeine’s people, but even these seem more designed to add some depth (and trauma) to Yeine’s character than actually creating a believable ethnography of a fictional culture. This feels like a very narrow, confined world. I was actually a bit claustrophobic reading this, which is perhaps what Jemisin was going for, and at least Jemisin’s limited scope kept the novel short and brisk.
There’s some fascinating material, and I was very intrigued by the set-up for the sequel at the end, which promises to take us out of Sky and give us a new character to look at. I think Jemisin probably has some room to grow as a writer, but she’s certainly a talent to watch, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this turns out to be my second favorite of the Hugo nominated novels.