Title: Children of Blood and Bone
Author: Tomi Adeyemi
Age Range: Young Adult
Genre: Fantasy, Adventure
Zélie Adebola emembers when the soil of Orïsha hummed with magic. Burners ignited flames, Tiders beckoned waves, and Zélie’s Reaper mother summoned forth souls.
But everything changed once magic disappeared. Under the orders of a ruthless king, the 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 leopanaires prowl and vengeful spirits wait in the waters. Yet the greatest threat may be Zélie herself as she struggles to control her powers – and her growing feelings for an enemy.
Content warnings: Graphic violence, depictions of colorism, depictions of torture
I’ll be honest – I was scared to pick this book up. I’d been hearing so many good things about it that I was afraid it wouldn’t live up to the hype. And I desperately wanted it to live up to the hype. As a POC myself, I am deeply emotionally invested in books written by POC and featuring POC characters. Representation matters, and this book is representation of the first water – a high fantasy novel, but with an all-black cast of characters, taking place in a fictionalized Nigeria. I prayed and prayed that it would be good.
I was not disappointed.
Partially inspired by Avatar: The Last Airbender, Children of Blood and Bone is the first in the Legacy of Orïsha trilogy. Zélie is a diviner, the child of a maji with ashe – the connection to the gods that enables magic – running through her veins. She should have been a Reaper, a powerful necromancer like her mother. But when Zélie is a child, before her powers manifest and she can transform from a diviner into a maji, two things happen that cut her off from her destiny: first, the maji’s connection to the gods suddenly disappears, stripping every maji of their magic; and second, the Raid happens – the genocide conducted by the king Saran, not content with removing magic, that rids Orïsha of all maji. Zélie herself witnesses her own mother dragged out of their home, brutally beaten, and then hung from a tree (a pretty significant image when you consider that these characters are black). Zélie and her brother Tzain live in poverty and oppression with their father for years before fate and the gods send them on a quest to return magic to Orïsha. With the help of Princess Amari, daughter of King Saran and future queen of Orïsha, Zélie and Tzain go on a quest to restore the maji and end the king’s tyrannical rule. As they go on their journey, they are pursued by the crown prince, Amari’s brother Inan, who struggles between right and wrong as he finds himself falling for Zélie.
First of all, Tomi Adeyemi is such a gifted storyteller. Her world-building is nothing short of amazing. She draws heavily on African mythology to weave the legends of Sky Mother and the deities that give the maji their abilities. It was fascinating to read about, and even more fascinating to research the different terminologies, phrases, and real-world nods Tomi uses in her story (for example, did you know that an orisha is actually one of the deities of the Yoruba people in Nigeria? And that Lagos, the capital of Orïsha, is the actual capital of Nigeria?). The descriptions of the different cities that Zélie, Tzain, Amari, and Inan travel to in the course of their quest are so vivid that I can actually see them in my mind. My favorite was of the village of Ilorin, Zélie and Tzain’s hometown. It’s a village out on the sea built on stilts, with a floating market in the very middle. As an island girl myself, it definitely sounds like my ideal home.
Tomi’s characters, too, are just as beautifully worked out. First you have Zélie, whose status as a diviner (called ‘maggots’ as a slur in-universe) as marked out by her white hair. Every thought she has, every word she speaks, you can feel her pain and her rage. This is a young woman whose mother was murdered before her very eyes, who suffers taunts and gropings and mutters and hatred for something she can’t change. And yet, despite the wretchedness of her existence, you can tell there’s more to her than anger. She is warm and loving to her father and brother, and becomes a true friend to Princess Amari. She cares deeply for her people and would do anything to save those she loves.
Her brother Tzain is the same. An agbon player by profession, he gives all his winnings to his father and yet somehow also finds the time and energy to contribute to the fishing for the extra income. Upon his mother’s death, he also promises to never leave Zélie’s side and to always care for her. He is, first and foremost, a family man, doing things like scolding Zélie for taking needless risks, and yet staying by her side when she is determined to see something through. He’s handsome too, eyed by the girls and especially Princess Amari (yas, kween). He’s loyal, steadfast, brave in battle, a compelling leader who can make people listen, and he adores his little sister. He’s, essentially, King T’Challa of Wakanda – don’t fight me on this, I will win.
Unlike Zélie and Tzain, the royal siblings, Amari and Inan, grew up in the lap of luxury. But they are as different as the sun and the moon. Despite the brutality of their upbringing – King Saran will not stand for weakness and raises his children to be soldiers and warriors – Amari remains gentle and compassionate. Do not mistake this for weakness though. Once she grows a spine and turns on the death and destruction wrought by her family, Amari becomes a force to be reckoned with. Bitterly ashamed at how ignorant she has been of her people’s suffering, Amari decides to help Zélie and Tzain overthrow her father and vows to be a better queen.
Her brother, on the other hand… Ah, Inan. Quite possibly, the most interesting of the four main characters. I love the internal struggle he goes through as he chases after Zélie, Tzain, and Amari. Throughout the book, he constantly wavers between the maji and his father, beginning to wonder if everything he’s been taught since he was a child has been a lie. I think he’s supposed to represent the unlearning of oppressive behavior and language. After all, removing yourself from that mindset doesn’t happen in just one day. The struggle he goes through is thought-provoking and deeply profound: he has a duty to Orïsha as its future king, but he is also a son trying to live up to his father’s expectations, and a brother trying to protect his little sister and make up for all the harm that has come to her through his actions, and aside from that, he’s also trying to reconcile all that his father has taught him about the curse of the maji with the suffering that he begins to see before his very eyes, as well as his growing feelings for Zélie. I mean, damn, can’t the kid get a break?
Children of Blood and Bone is nothing short of a masterpiece – an incredibly relevant one, mind you, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement and the political atmosphere in the United States. Black people are being persecuted by the police in America, there’s no two ways about it. Tomi herself says it in an interview: every time she gets into her car, she doesn’t know if she’s coming home. She could have an encounter with the police that goes sideways. It’s happened before. It’s happening now, most recently with 22-year-old Stephon Clark, who was shot in his own backyard. Children of Blood and Bone is a fantasy novel, but it’s also the story of growing up black in America, of being oppressed and profiled and living in fear every day of your life because of nothing more than the color of your skin.
I don’t want to appropriate the story or take away from black people in any way, but I’d also like to add that, as a woman of color whose country is undergoing political unrest, a lot of the themes of this book really resonated with me. Doing away with certain ‘dangerous’ elements of a nation’s people so that the rest of the nation can feel ‘safe’, oppression of the poor through unreasonable tax rates, the increasing divide between the elites and the masses, the sowing of hatred amongst the people as a way to divide and conquer – this is literally what is happening in the Philippines right now. The selfsame methods a tyrant king in a fictional novel uses to keep the people down are being used by the president, a dictator in all but name, to maintain control – which I do not feel, because I am part of the upper middle class that is safe from these fascist edicts.
If you follow me on Twitter, you’ve probably seen two lines that I quoted which I feel really describe what’s going on in my country:
The safety of Orïsha before my conscience. But these villagers are Orïsha. They’re the very people I’m sworn to protect.
He wants to believe that playing by the monarchy’s rules will keep us safe, but nothing can protect us when those rules are rooted in hate.
To end this review (which is – wow, almost 1,500 words, what the hell, self) on a lighter note, I’d just like to thank Tomi for giving me all my unfulfilled Zutara needs by writing about Inan and Zélie falling in love. My shipper’s soul is satisfied.
Buy it here!