Tomi Adeyemi’s debut novel, Children of Blood and Bone (2018) and the first of the LEGACY OF ORISHA series, is in many ways a typical debut YA novel that can feel a bit rote. On the other hand, its setting and stark presentation of theme make it stand out more than a little from the other such YA novels and add an importance to it that makes it well worth recommending.
Long ago in Orisha the maji wielded great power, but then the King (Saran) found a way to strip magic from them and commenced a great slaughter, though he did not kill those younger than thirteen (“diviners”, marked by their white hair) who had not yet come into their power (and now never would). Zélie is a diviner whose mother was murdered before her eyes when she was six. Since “The Raid,” Zélie’s people, referred to as “maggots,” have been oppressed, abused, pressed into slavery and indentured labor, and taxed beyond their means to pay. Much to her brother Tzain’s dismay, Zélie’s defiant attitude and tongue is always putting her family at risk. Meanwhile, Saran’s children, Princess Amari and Prince Inan, are living a life of comforting oblivion, though having such a brutal man as their father means their life isn’t all pampered ease. Events drive Zélie, Amari, and Tzain together, and soon the three are on a time-sensitive quest to bring magic back while being pursued by Inan.
The setting and basic mythology of Children of Blood and Bone is loosely African (the spell language is Yoruba) and as always, when I get a non-Western European setting, it feels like a breath of fresh air. Not that there aren’t some great medieval Western European stories out there, but it’s always nice to get some variety. The mythos here is wonderful, as are some of the beasts we see — huge lion and panther-like creatures — and a few singular settings, which are vividly conveyed, such as a temple and a naumachia. That said, I felt at times the world outside of those areas was a little thin and would have liked a more pervasive, and consistently immersive, sense of it. And every now and then the underlying sense of a new world was undermined by some too-modern language/tone.
The thematic tone, on the other hand, is fully, consistently omnipresent and painfully visceral. It doesn’t take much effort to see our modern world in the way Orisha’s oppression plays out across society and in individual encounters, enacted by both systems (the “justice” system, the method of taxation, etc.) and singular people in ways both sweeping and intimately personal (if the modern analogue does somehow evade the reader, hard as that is to imagine, an author’s note at the end announces the connection). The tools of the oppressor are legion, and Adeyemi catalogs many of them: slurs (“Maggot”), a spectrum of violence (intimidating closeness, shoves, beatings, lashings, lynchings, sexual violence), withholding of basic rights and needs, surveillance, and the list sadly goes on.
When Zélie recalls the sight of her mother’s body in a tree, it’s impossible not call up photographs from our own all-too-recent history (as well as more modern news reports of nooses hung on school grounds). When minor transgressions lead to a character being violently thrown to the ground or beaten (or worse), it’s impossible not to see all those shaky cell phone videos that play out on nightly news and across the net of the same — a girl at a party, a girl in a classroom, a boy in the street. I’d say Adeyemi is unstinting in her portrayal, sparing the reader nothing, but depressingly, she could have gone far darker. That is in no way a complaint; I would just hate to leave the impression that the vividly depressing/infuriating ugliness we see here is a perfect match for the real world because it isn’t; the real world can be far uglier and Adeyemi’s restraint shouldn’t allow us to pretend otherwise.
I’d also not want to leave the impression that the above catalog of ills is merely an intellectual exercise, a calculated checklist of parallels in a “see what I’m doing?” kind of way. Thanks to being within Zélie’s point of view for a good portion of Children of Blood and Bone, the reader feels the impact of each of them, large and small, as emotional punches to the gut. And thanks to one of the magic forms being a kind of telepathy, we feel Zélie’s pain and anger and fear translated through another character as well, an example of one of my favorite facets of fantasy — making the metaphorical (in this case, trying to feel another’s pain) literal (being able to actually feel that pain). It all plays out as a strong metaphor for the need for empathy, the power of empathy, and the limitations of empathy. This meshing of raw emotionality with the broader social themes is, I’d say, the strongest aspect of the novel.
As for its weaknesses. As mentioned in the intro, there is a rote feel to much of it with the loss of magic, the quest, the evil monarch, the yoking together of different personalities so “I hate you!” can become “You’re the best!” and so forth. I can’t say anything in here surprised me and the relationships that form are easily, maybe even a bit wearily, foreseeable. Logistics aren’t always clear, the magic usage can be a bit fuzzy, as is the back history to some extent. The structure of alternating POVs can be uneven, with some feeling a bit perfunctory in that they cover some of the same ground while the differing perspective doesn’t offer much. Some more intriguing and unique plot points, such as coloration, are dropped, some things happen a bit too easily, and some characters shift a bit too quickly.
But while Children of Blood and Bone has its issues, it moves along a quick pace in engaging fashion (I read its 500 pages straight through), it has several strongly cinematic scenes (it’s easy to see this as an easily adaptable screenplay), and its main character is, for the most part, truly compelling (when she’s not, I lay some of that to my no longer being a member of the target YA audience). But more importantly is its importance, the way it uses fantasy to transplant elements of our world into another so that it becomes, oddly, all the easier to see and digest them. I wavered between a 3.5 and a 4 on this one, and went higher because if I were still teaching high school, I’d love to have my students read this book and as a parent, I want my own kid to. I look forward to watching how Adeyemi builds on it in book two even as she smooths out some of the issues thanks to more experience.