Children of Blood and Bone
by Tomi Adeyemi
Balzer + Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2015
Tomi Adeyemi’s West African fantasy Children of Blood and Bone is one of the most talked-about YA releases of 2018, scoring the author a seven figure movie deal. Reviews have been gushing, but is it worth all the hype and hopes cast upon it? Well, yes and no.
The fantasy is set in a small island kingdom reminiscent of West Africa. There’s a pantheon of gods who gifted the dark-skinned, white-haired Maji people control over the elements — death and life, health and disease, fire, air, metal, etc. with the stipulation that the powers were to be used for the good of all. But sometime in the past the ruling Maji misused their powers, and so rulership passed on to another people, the copper-skinned Koridan. The Maji continued to serve the general population, but in an uneasy standoff with the ruling house. Twelve years prior to the story’s beginning the Koridan King Saran performed a pogrom on the Maji and their priests and attempted to destroy the sacred artifacts that linked them with their gods. All their magic disappeared, and unless the artifacts are gathered back together and a ceremony performed in, like, two weeks, the magic will be gone for good. It’s a clunky backstory and more than a little graceless, which, to be frank, dulled my appetite for reading further (though I did.)
In the first chapter the heroine of the story, Zélie, is introduced, the daughter of a poor fisherman and a Maji mother known as a Reaper – one with the power of death and the ability to control souls. Initially, Zélie was a cliché – the simmering rebel whose propensity for acting before she thinks (including speaking against injustices) lands her in trouble, though it’s clear the writer wants us to laud her for it, not think of it as a personal flaw like her family does. It’s really a way to move the story along, a McGuffin, if you will. Her family is being taxed to death because King Saran wants to bankrupt and destroy the remaining de-magicked Maji. He’s not doing this arbitrarily because he’s the bad guy; his first family was killed by Maji during an attempt to reconcile the two peoples, and he decides that magic corrupts societies and must be destroyed. It’s a valid point given how the Maji met their downfall, and adds to his shading as a villain. He’s probably the most-rounded character in the book.
When Zélie, whose mother was horrifically killed in Saran’s purge, meets Princess Amari, Saran’s teenage daughter, the plot begins. Amari read like a character added later in the writing process by the author. She’s not really needed for plot to work, but in the second half of the book, she adds depth. Again, she starts out as a cliché – the princess who doesn’t want to be a princess because of the twittering tedium of court life and her expected role to play in it. When Saran kills her favorite Maji handmaiden, Amari impulsively steals one of the artifacts necessary for the Maji ceremony and runs away, a plot turn that, to me at least, seemed shoehorned in and might have been handled better. Eventually she, Zélie, and Zélie’s brother Tzain are drawn into the quest to find the other artifacts, with Amari’s older brother, Crown Prince Inan, pursuing them on the orders of the king.
The story is told in first person present. The POV hops between Zélie, Inan, and Amari, and I do mean hop; most of the chapters are short, giving a choppy, slightly seasick effect. They were labeled by each character’s name, so I wasn’t confused. But they were not very distinctive from each other, either, and they all sounded like mouthpieces for the author. A sense of verisimilitude was missing; I didn’t feel any of these three could exist outside of the book. Admittedly first person present is not my favorite voice to read. I never know who the narrator is supposed to be telling the damn story to, for one thing. The technique worked well in Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda, because Simon was telling it in stream-of-consciousness, organizing his life as he experiences it into a narrative to try to make sense of it. But in Children, as well as in Red Queen and Wither, which I’ve also read, the author seems to be using it for sweekability: hooking the reader with enough immediacy to thumb past page after virtual page on a Kindle or cell phone app, even if they’re on a bouncing bus or in a noisy classroom. This sweekable voice isn’t structured like an oral narrative that requires introspection. It’s all sharp jolts and action, and past the first three chapters I got very tired of the characters’ constant listing of their anxious tics: hands gripping staffs, teeth grinding, stomachs churning, etc. as if the reader can’t guess how they feel from the dangers of the plot they’re subjected to. It’s a common mistake for new writers, to be fair.
The first half of the book was run of the mill for a YA fantasy, or any fantasy really, only the novelty of the African-based setting making things interesting. Some parts, like the lengthy detour the quartet make to the holy city where the Maji priests once lived, might have been cut. The religion made sense as being Voudoon-based, not one with a hierarchical clergy and stiff rules about this and that, which seems more Western in nature. There’s a part there with a cut rope bridge aiding the characters’ escape, and Prince Inan ordering the bridge rebuilt to pursue them… ignoring the issue of how to get to their other side of the canyon to do that, if there’s no bridge.
But the story did pick up significantly in the middle, when Zélie discovers a hidden camp of diviners in the mountains whose magical powers are accidently activated by the artifacts. Though the encounter is cliché (the old trope where two groups who are really on the same side don’t know it because they can’t/won’t communicate properly) the ensuing tribal festival and the budding romance between the Prince Inan and Zélie make it magical. Then the action really starts when Saran sends his troops in to get the artifacts back and the prince’s loyalties are torn. At that point, the characters really began to learn and grow, and I was keen to discover how they did it. The story is resolved in a blockbuster way after a prison break and scramble to a secret island that only appears at the summer solstice where the magic ceremony must be performed.
So, 4 stars for the end, 2 1/2 for the beginning: I’ll round it out to three. Did I wish it was better? Yes. Will I be reading the next book? Yes.