Children of Virtue and Vengeance
by Tomi Adeyemi
Henry Holt and Co., 2019
I was impressed by Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone when it came out in 2018. It was something different, an African-based culture handled in a Western fantasy way. There’s a monarchy, magic-users who are persecuted, swords and armor, and exotic mounts based on predatory cats. The gods of the world are based on Voudoun deities, each granting their maji followers a different kind of magic. That, and the Yoruba-based language snippets scattered about, brought something special to the table. Though the book suffered from many of the problems current YA has been criticized for I was intrigued enough to see how the plot worked out and what happened to all the characters. The previous book ended with the maji’s magic returned to Orïsha and the villain of the book, King Saran, defeated. But victory came at a cost for the characters: there was betrayal, torture, family members murdered. The ending was ambiguous as to whether or not the magic’s return was a good thing, which I liked.
As it turns out, no and yes. In Children of Virtue and Vengeance the maji, the persecuted class of the previous book, now have full access to their powers, but some of their oppressors have developed magic powers as well. Called tîtáns, these nobles have powers like the maji’s but they don’t rely on clerical powers to call them forth; the powers are stronger, but also less controlled and more apt to kill their wielders. There’s also another class called cênters who are not only titans themselves but can the draw the magic and life force out of other tîtáns, to become super saiyan of a sort. Confused yet?
When they arrive back on Orïsha Zélie the maji, Tzain, her loyal brother, Amari the rebel princess and a new character, Roën the mercenary, must find and join with the other maji to school their awakened powers for a war, while Prince Inan – who wasn’t killed after all in the battle on the Holy Temple island – tries to steer the monarchy towards reconciliation and peace. But his mother, Queen Nehanda, is set against it, and she has become the most powerful tîtán and cênter of them all, a formidable, genocidal force.
War, hate, and genocide do play a big role in this book. Both sides are equally ruthless in their pursuit of victory. There are sweeping battles, betrayals, misunderstandings, misinterpretations, magical powers that mutate into even more magical powers, and torture both mental and physical. For the reader, it’s like being hit in the face with the shattered glass of a kaleidoscope for the length of the book. I hesitate to call it a book, even. It’s more like a thrill ride where you can’t process what you’ve experienced until you get off.
Which is not in its favor, for an adult at least. The structure is even more choppy than Children of Blood and Bone was and honestly, I can’t call it good, only addictive. Each short chapter rotates through the POV of either Amari, Zélie or Inan, and each is readable within five minutes in brief paragraphs seemingly constructed for the screen of a cellphone. Maybe it would have been better read this way, in short snatches. Strung together as a book, the constant drama and repetitiveness made it hard to read, much less process, for more than fifteen minutes straight. But I did very much want to see how the story played out.
Also tedious were the abundant scenes of magic use where the character’s skin glows, their hair floats, and they rise into the air with beams of light springing from their chests. I felt like I was bingeing on an anime series where the same transformation sequence is spliced in again and again. It’s not something that has the same effect in words as on a video screen.
Many of the plot elements felt tedious and contrived as well. Each short chapter ended on a startling cliffhanger, and most of them were deus ex machinas or conflict arising from easily resolved misunderstandings. Prince Inan is on the same page as the maji rebels, but somehow every time they try to broker peace, something happens that is mistaken as a threat by the other party, like Inan’s men disobeying his orders and following him, or someone overhears and misinterprets a snatch of conversation. This happened literally five or six times spaced evenly throughout the book, and each time it led to the exact same thing: dramacakes, which worked at odds to the resonant themes of the book (the hatred of the oppressed for the oppressors and vice versa, genocide) which should have been explored with more nuance and care. Everything was done for the sake of explosions exploding and displays of magic each more awesome than the last. In this book, even the dead are raised and the questions raised from their murder erased.
The idea of the series is sound. I only wish the author had handled it differently, less flashily. But, a lot of YA seems to be written this way, and a lot of young writers themselves write this way, from what I see available on Wattpad and similar sites. Maybe it’s a chicken-and-the-egg thing. I don’t know, and can’t judge it as the decline of traditional literature when it seems to serve a purpose in their development as writers.
So what can I say. Children of Virtue and Vengeance was tedious, it was interesting, and I will read the next one.