Title:Children of Blood and Bone
Author: Tomi Adeyemi
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
Publisher: Henry Holt Books for Young Readers
Publication date: March 6 2018
Tomi Adeyemi conjures a stunning world of dark magic and danger in her West African-inspired fantasy debut, perfect for fans of Leigh Bardugo and Sabaa Tahir.
Zélie Adebola remembers when the soil of Orïsha hummed with magic. Burners ignited flames, Tiders beckoned waves, and Zelie’s Reaper mother summoned forth souls.
But everything changed the night magic disappeared. Under the orders of a ruthless king, maji were targeted and killed, leaving Zélie without a mother and her people without hope.
Now, Zélie has one chance to bring back magic and strike against the monarchy. With the help of a rogue princess, Zélie must outwit and outrun the crown prince, who is hell-bent on eradicating magic for good.
Danger lurks in Orïsha, where snow leoponaires prowl and vengeful spirits wait in the waters. Yet the greatest danger may be Zélie herself as she struggles to control her powers—and her growing feelings for the enemy.
Stand alone or series: Legacy of Orïsha #1
How did I get this book: Review copy
Format (e- or p-): ebook
There is so much to say about Children of Blood and Bone, this YA debut novel by Tomi Adeyemi, I don’t even know where to start. I know easy comparisons are a dime a dozen when talking up a book, but truly and honestly, Children of Blood and Bone is a superb, exciting, astonishing mix of Avatar: the Last Airbender and Black Panther.
Full disclosures: Avatar: the Last Airbender is my favourite thing in the whole world and it was such a pleasure to see how Tomi Adeyemi (who has talked about her love for ATLA before) has taken that source of inspiration and made it truly her own. Yes, the ATLA vibes are there but the story diverges from it in surprising – and big – ways. One of the most important ones of course, is the source of magic which is based on West African mythos that become the foundation of the worldbuilding. Incidentally, I am from Brazil and have not only studied Yoruba religion at university (among other things, how it was brought over to Brazil by enslaved West Africans) but also grew up in a household where our religion was directly descended from it – a variation called Umbanda, a syncretic Afro-Brazilian religion. I am not in any shape or form an expert, but those elements incorporated in the book felt both respectful and authentic to me. I am also a white Brazilian and I am very much aware of the privileges this entails – just as I am aware of how vigilant I need to be approaching this review, as a white ally within the YA-sphere, knowing how many of my colleagues have let WOC down recently. This is all the more important when considering that one of the cornerstones of Children of Blood and Bone is the positioning and importance of good allies. Of people who listen and act and support those who will rise.
For someone like me who often thinks they have read everything and that there are no surprises left when it comes to storytelling, here comes this debut author and throws everything up in the air. It’s possible Fantasy YA is never going to be the same again after this. I wasn’t expecting this book to gut-punch me in the way it did, nor was I expecting to be truly shocked by some of the bold narrative choices made.
This is a book about magic, about oppression, about the roles of allies when fighting for justice, about two young women finding their place in the world – all disguised as an adventure fantasy quest.
And it starts with a visit to the market to sell some fish. That’s a fib of course: nothing starts in a moment, everything is history. All paths lead to that one moment though. Then everything changes. But let’s once upon a time this summary.
For a long time, the land of Orïsha thrived with magic. Magic that seeped from ten Gods and Goddesses who shared them with their human brothers and sisters – the magi, who were able to yield fire, control waters, raise the dead and more depending on which God they were aligned with. But the monarchs of Orïsha – themselves distanced from magic – started to distrust and fear those who could use it. And then, the Raid happened: one night when magic was gone and the King ordered mass executions of all adult magi. Zélie Adebola was a child when her Reaper mother was gruesomely killed in front of her family, leaving her father a shell of the proud man he once was and her and beloved brother orphaned. Ever since then, Zélie has known little else but fear and oppression. Born with the dark skin and white hair that mark her as a potential magi but without the power that would, should have been hers, Zélie tries to find other ways to live, including learning how to fight to be at least able to defend herself if the time comes. But the systemic oppression that her people live under – often enslaved, always subjugated, feared and mistrusted – show no sign of weakness. And then one day she makes an impulsive mistake that leads her and her brother to the market to sell some fish. And that’s when she meets the crown princess, Amari.
Amari grew up in a gilded cage, fearing her own father, abused by her mother, loving but mistrusting her brother and knowing little of the world outside. Her only ally is her best friend (and servant but can a servant from an oppressive minority be a best friend?) who is killed in front of Amari’s eyes after the King makes her touch a mysterious scroll. A mysterious scroll that immediately gives her friend powers, which is why she is summarily executed right there and then.
On the run after impulsively stealing the scroll, she bumps into Zélie at the market. The moment that happens, and upon touching the scroll, Zélie senses her magic for the first time. But right behind Amari, is her brother Inan, the crown prince, the captain of the guard and the true son of his father: distrustful of magic and bent of destroying it.
Amari and Zélie escape, eventually come to learn that the scroll is one of three artefacts that can bring magic back to the world. They become uneasy allies, running against the clock and trying to evade Inan.
Zélie, Amari and Inan share the narrative in alternating chapters. While Inan’s role grows and he eventually becomes Zélie’s love interest (more on that later), the book really is Zélie’s and Amari’s. It’s their evolving roles that are the most important arcs here. Amari is the crown princess that comes to realise that her role has consequences. That there it is her duty to open her eyes to the way things are, that understanding the system of oppression she has always been a part of is not enough and that actions speak louder than words.
Zélie is the magi that will bring back magic into the world, who needs to do that through the fear that she has known all her life and the grief over the mother’s death. That fear is important because it shapes the way Zélie interacts with the world: because of who she is and how she looks, she has always been a target and living with that knowledge has molded her. In deciding to take up that mantle, Zélie knows everything that is at stake and the danger she will be under. Our main character Zélie tells us over and over the stakes are high and we believe her.
This book does not sugar coat the way systemic oppression works. From top to bottom of how the world works including its legal system, policing, taxes, unfair imprisonment. It also does not pull punches when it comes to the violence perpetrated by oppressors. Rarely have I seen a speculative fiction YA novel take its worldbuilding so seriously to lead to its inevitable conclusion. An oppressive system has many arms and one of them is direct, physical violence. People get killed and tortured here, and yes, that includes some of the main characters. It’s a violence that feels earned by the developing of the worldbuilding instead of being cheap or manipulative. (It also means that I cried buckets of tears while reading this book.).
Going back to the characters for a little bit, I briefly touched on the third main character, Inan. At first I was wary of this character and his role as Zélie’s romantic interest as well as what appeared to be a redemption narrative. Inan is a complicated character, he is super volatile and he has internalised most of beliefs of his father. He believes magic to be a bad thing and that the end justify the means – and as he gets to know Zélie better through an unexpected and magical connection, his views continually change. But his arc shows many things: it shows that change doesn’t happen overnight, that sometimes redemption is not possible, and that being a romantic love interest should not excuse or forgive terrible choices and terrible actions. If I have to name one thing that surprised me more than anything here, is how the Inan/Zélie/Amari arcs converged and diverged. I found it not only unexpected but refreshing.
All of this and I haven’t even touched on how this was an exhilarating book. I had goosebumps all over reading it and multiple scenes were riveting, fuelled with righteous anger and awesome fighting sequences. There is brutality, death and oppression here yes, but beauty too – in relationships with ancestors, with family and friends and between brothers and sisters. With one’s closeness with their gods and their land, and the developing relationship between allies. There are super cool animal pals, even cooler magical powers and the book ends on an amazing cliffhanger that puts a period on this first book while opening up a stream of potential awesomeness for book 2 with its two awesome female characters.
My expectations for this book were sky-high and as you can probably tell, every single expectation was met and surpassed. What else can I say other than: Orïsha forever!
Rating: 10 – Perfect and already a top 10 book of 2018