Fantasy has always been one of my favorite genres (along with mystery).
Magical stories about mystical forces that threaten supernatural kingdoms are too often overlooked as fantastical escapism; but they are the most effective mirrors of humanity.
Tomi Adeyemi’s debut novel Children of Blood and Bone is both a thrilling journey into the beautiful and terrifying world of Orïsha, and a evocative statement on the crippling effects of racism – both in society at large and on the personal, familial scale.
This story flawlessly weaves its compelling plot and real-world undertones, cleverly walking that fine line of relevancy and preachiness. Orïsha’s stand-ins for the privileged class are the kosidán, “normal” members of society born without any trace of magic.
The oppressed class are the maji, magical beings who possess power from the gods, and divîners, those capable of magic whose powers are still dormant. Years before the events of this story, magic was stolen from the world and all living maji were murdered by order of the Crown on an infamous night known as the Raid (History is littered with real-life events this is probably based on, so take your pick).
Divîner children, who have never known what its like to wield magic, were permitted to live. But the price of this “kindness” was to become the scum of society – or maggots. This derogatory slur has as bloody and violent a history in the world of Orïsha as the ‘n’ word does in ours.
Adeyemi brilliantly develops multiple POVs to give a glimpse into the minds of the most powerful in this world, and the weakest. The 3 perspectives we follow are that of Inan, the doctrine-following foot soldier, Amari, the kind princess who is blinded to the horrors of her world by the ignorance she is granted by her privilege, and Zélie, a poor and lowly divîner whose loving maji mother was murdered in the Raid.
The characters are all brilliantly developed. Zélie is an ideal protagonist: witty, brave, lovable, and flawed with room for growth. Amari is probably my favorite, and I think she could have gone wrong. This previously “spoiled princess” could easily have come off as dislikable, and her development into an educated resistance fighter could have seemed forced or rushed for the sake of plot.
The murder of her beloved Binta, her divîner servant and lifelong
soulmate best friend, at the hands of her father provided a believable entry-point for Amari into divîner/maji resistance. Otherwise it may have been hard to imagine a young girl with absolutely no idea how horrible life was outside her castle throwing away her comfort and riches to climb stone towers and cross a barren dessert for people she barely knows.
That being said, Adeyemi does not allow her ignorance to blow over so quickly. Amari is quickly forced to confront some harsh realities, and must reconcile with the fact that these atrocities have been taking place while she spent her childhood playing dress up with Binta and wishing her mother would let her have an extra lemon cake.
The choice of diverse POVs allows free reign to fully explore much of the dialogue and issues we are having in today’s world. World-building gives insight into the divîner taxes, fees that continue to grow as work opportunity for divîners shrink. It’s considered common knowledge that this practice (let’s call a spade a spade, this Systemic Racism) is a way of forcing divîners to pay off their debt in the stocks aka the modern prison system aka slavery. The guards don’t even bother pretending to want to keep divîners imprisoned in the stocks from dying of hunger, thirst or exhaustion; there will always be new divîners to take their place.
One of the conversations I found most provocative was the story’s handling of how privilege functions at every level of society,
including especially the “woke” members of the ruling class that don’t even necessarily want to benefit from it.
The conversation around white privilege from white people is usually one of defensiveness. A ‘privileged life’ sounds lucky and care-free, and plenty of folks who benefit from white privilege would not use either of those words to describe their lives.
In Children of Blood and Bone, our primary “privileged” characters are Tzain and Amari. These kosidáns can never imagine the constant fear and heartache that is the divîners’ everyday reality, but that doesn’t mean their life didn’t have it’s own hardships. Tzain lost his mother and had to assume the responsibility of caring for his family at an incredibly young age. Amari was raised by a hateful mother, abusive father, and a brother who was forced to harm her in an environment of total isolation.
Both of their lives were filled with loss and struggle. But of all the challenges they had to overcome, being a divîner isn’t one of them. That is white privilege. That is kosidán privilege. To steal a quote from the brilliant Hulu adaption of Little Fires Everywhere, “You don’t get to be the exception to the rule just because you want to be”. Tzain adores his sister, misses his mother, and always despised how the guards treated divîners. And yet he steal was able to benefit from his kosidán privilege within his community.
Another powerful moment was Inan, finally embracing his Connector magic, learns to actually feel Zélie’s pain. He can see her memories, feel her heartache, emotionally experience her past for himself… and yet he has to recognize that even his “Superpower Empathy” cannot allow him to understand how it’s felt for her to endure those things her entire life.
These messages seem so simple, but even intelligent adults have trouble coming to terms with them because of the intrinsic prejudices they aren’t even aware they have. If series such as the Legacy of Orïsha trilogy can introduce young readers to ideas grounded in such deep empathy at an early age, there really is hope for a better future.
There were a few technical issues that are fairly common in debut novels. Nothing major, but there were a more than a handful of scenes that didn’t feel properly set up. For instance, a chapter would start with a character’s inner monologue and dive into a dialogue, but I would be unclear on where the characters were or what they were actually doing. I’m optimistic these technical misses will be corrected by Book 2.
The sequel, Children of Virtue and Vengeance, was released on December 2019. There is no set date for the final chapter of this trilogy, but I am already looking forward to it!