I picked up this book because I’m actively trying to read more by BIPOC writers because my literary background is rooted in fantasy, which is traditionally woefully Eurocentric. I wanted to read some Afrocentric fantasy, and my friend and editor, Breanna, recommended Children of Blood and Bone. It had been out a while and got huge accolades, so I figured I’d see what all the hype was about.
My first impression is that it is dark. Don’t expect any levity or really many laughs. Even the lighter moments are tinged with darkness, straining under the heaviness and oppression that the main character carries.
It came as something of a discomfort for me because I usually prefer books I read for pleasure to be more lighthearted fun, an escape from whatever I’m struggling with, but Adeyemi’s author’s note made it very clear what events pushed her to write this book, and I felt a bit humbled and ashamed that I wanted more humour to soothe my white nerves. This is a book for our age. This isn’t a fun adventure story about the heroes forging friendships through daring do- it’s 500 pages of anger and fear and loss and exhaustion. It’s beaten and broken people pushing through internal and external obstacles for a glimmer of an impossible feat that could give them a hope of surviving genocide.
It’s intense. It’s hard work. It’s worth it.
It’s hard to like Zelie. I’m a person who holds emotion close to her chest, so I struggle to identify with people who don’t, and that’s a problem in my personal life, too. But Adeyemi does a good job of making you root for Zelie, all the same. She is defined by her rage and the very raw pain she feels over every loss she’s ever suffered, and she’s carrying an enormous burden that’s almost too much for a healthy person to carry. But she’s also selfish. Though she justifies her decisions as being the best for everyone, she rarely discusses them with others, and it’s clear that she uses the others to distract from the fact that she does do things for selfish reasons. Yet, you can’t fault her for it. After all, survival is selfish, and the poor girl has to work harder than others to survive.
Which brings me to Tzain. Tzain is noble and steady and only wavers once (though, it’s difficult to believe he’s serious, and events transpired in such a way that we’ll never know), yet through Zelie’s eyes, it’s hard not to see his privilege. He gives so much to Zelie because he has so much to give. For him, this quest is a gift to her, his survival isn’t dependent on it. He was a star athlete at home, he is a man, and a good looking one. Zelie was a pariah from birth, marked out by her white hair.
Amari is the character I identify with most. She’s a princess of the realm, the daughter of the man responsible for the subjugation of people like Zelie. She makes the decision to steal the tool that could bring magic back, directly challenging her father’s policies of genocide. She and Zelie clash terribly at first because she’s even more privileged and out of touch than Tzain. That mixed with her family connections infuriates Zelie, no matter how hard the princess tries to show that her intentions are genuine. I feel like she could almost be an analogue for white allies who try to use their privilege to help Black activists and just end up as liabilities. She does learn, eventually, and earns Zelie’s trust by fighting as hard as she can against the powers of the king.
Inan- what is there to say about Inan? The crown prince is weak, he just is. He struggles with his own budding magic, but can’t seem to fully disconnect from the psychological abuse and expectations on him. He wavers between sympathetic and tragic, and frustratingly inert.
Saran is a complicated character for me. From a writing standpoint, he feels flat, evil for evil’s sake. His backstory of his first family destroyed by magic is very meh. It’s not enough to make him sympathetic. But I suspect Adeyemi didn’t intend to make him sympathetic. How do you justify genocide? What is a tragic enough backstory to make that seem like a path any of us could take? There’s almost a fetishistic need these days to hear and validate both sides of the story, and y’all, sometimes the other side is just evil. That’s it. And it happens in real life, in real history, in the real world today. Sometimes the other side’s argument is not valid and doesn’t need to be respected. And I think that’s the message, here.
The settings in this book are rich and vibrant, from the fishing village of Ilorin to the capital city of Lagos, to the desert city of Ibeji with its colosseum of massive naval bloodsport, to the beautiful temples of the vanished gods. I just now, when checking my spelling, realised that these are the names of real cities in Nigeria. So again, I’m kind of embarrassed at not knowing that previously. Adeyemi does an excellent job of giving each settlement and community a strong identity and feel unique from the others.
I’ve been resisting talking about the plot because it’s so damn depressing, but that’s the point. It’s a finely crafted epic with big impressive settings, complicated and deeply flawed characters, and big big themes. That alone is an intense story. But running through it is this dizzying hope of a broken people clawing their way out from under crushing oppression, mingled with the absolute certainty that it will fail because their history is bleak and every step they take toward their goal is fraught with betrayal, loss, and doubt. Even down to the very last sentence, it’s difficult to say if they succeeded or not.
And now I need to read the sequel. *shakes fist at cliffhangers*
The themes in this book are not subtle, but we live in an age where subtlety benefits the oppressor. Not for today is the ‘who is the real bad guy?’ debate. In her author’s note, Adeyemi clearly outlines her inspiration for this book- the hundreds of senseless killings of Black people at the hands of law enforcement, and calls for sympathy for the victims and critical examination of the officers. This book is meant to enrage, to frustrate, to break your heart over and over, because that is the daily experience of the Black community in this country. It’s a history of genocide, of mistrust, of hatred, of internalised self-loathing, and of weak people who believe that if they side with the oppressors, they can fix the problem from within. It doesn’t work. As Martin Luther King Jr said, ‘Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor, it must be demanded by the oppressed.’ I suspect this is the reason for the accolades this book received. I can imagine many Black people saw in Zelie their rage, their grief, their feelings of hopelessness, and I’m sure that her quest to restore the power and dignity of the Magi was a source of inspiration for them.
Children of Blood and Bone is not a fun book, but it is a good book, and I feel that it is an important book. The protests following incidents of police brutality are growing bigger and lasting longer for every instance because people are fed up. We’re in the midst of a revolution because while things have gotten better since the end of slavery, things are still very skewed against the rights of Black Americans. The statistics are clear and not open for debate. Anyone with eyes, critical thinking skills, and compassion for human life must be outraged by the injustices that continue to be perpetrated, often on film, with no consequences for the offenders simply because their job gives them permission to kill and immunity from justice.
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