In 2018 I ventured a bit more back into YA literature than I had in several years, and overall, I continue to be impressed and heartened by the quality of books available for young readers. One of the hot YA titles of the year was Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone, a book so popular that I couldn’t even find it at airport bookstores while it was on the NY Times Bestseller list. Fortunately one of my students let me borrow his copy, since if I had gotten on the library list, I would still be waiting 6 months later.
Children of Blood and Bone presents a modern take on the classic hero’s journey rooted in West African culture and mythology and set in a fantasy version of our world. To quote Publisher’s Weekly, “Eleven years ago, King Saran cemented his grip on the throne by banishing magic from Orïsha and slaughtering the realm’s maji—Zélie Adebola’s mother included. The maji’s descendants—dark-skinned, white-haired people called divîners—have lived under tyranny ever since, but now there is cause for hope. Thanks to information gleaned from Saran’s kindhearted daughter, Amari, 17-year-old Zélie has a chance to restore magic to Orïsha and activate a new generation of maji. First, though, Zélie, Amari, and Zélie’s brother, Tzain, must outrun the crown prince, Inan, who is determined to finish what his father started by eradicating magic for good.”
I really enjoyed it. The novel was very well done for the most part, and Adeyemi is particularly adept at world building. Her writing is incredibly evocative with regards to settings and descriptions, and each locale was carefully distinct in its culture, population, and purpose. Clearly Adeyemi knows, loves, and respects the traditional fantasy canon and is a skilled enough writer to push the boundaries a bit. Her world building, like the rest of the novel, is clearly rooted in West African myths, but also feels a little bit Tolkien, a little bit Harry Potter, and a little bit Star Wars, all in the best possible ways.
Structurally, she also draws from Tolkien, alternating first person perspectives in each chapter. Her main narrators are Zelie, Amari, and the crown prince Inan. The structure is intentionally crafted and is particularly effective in creating multiple lenses for major events. It also allows Adeyemi to play purposefully with the timeline a bit. Time jumps were never so big that you felt like you lost information, and time repetitions always felt purposeful and added new information, all of which really upped the anticipation and excitement.
A few things, though: Tzein is a main character, yet he is the only one of the 4 main teenagers who does not get to highlight his own perspective. No chapters are narrated by him. Maybe adding a 4th narrator would have been a lot for Adeyemi to handle structurally (this book is a beast at well over 500 pages with a massive cast of characters), but I would have liked to have heard directly from him. Since the other 3 main characters all got to tell their versions of the story, it just felt a little odd that he did not. Because of that, I felt like the story lost something in places, particularly when the major conflict between our young heroes arose.
AND HERE BE SPOILERS!!!! LIKE SERIOUS SPOILERS!!!
I felt like Inan’s conversion to Zelie and team’s side was abrupt, no matter what he learned to prompt that conversion. It felt too immediate given the extreme, almost fanatical, nature of his previous feelings and approach. Obviously, his perspective shift signals a separation from his father, a key moment for his own character growth, but it felt disingenuous. Similarly, the resulting relationship between Zelie and Inan gave me whiplash. It got real hot and heavy real fast and, again, in a way that felt abrupt and not rooted in the reality of their situations. For a book that is 530 pages, the rushed nature of these two elements definitely affected the emotional impact of the ending for me.
And let’s talk about that ending! This ending has caused a lot (and I mean A LOT) of people frustration because it ends on a cliffhanger. But honestly, not a big deal. Why? Because I had the advantage (which I will now pass on to you) of knowing going into reading this book that is the first in a planned trilogy, something that is not immediately apparent…or even apparent at all until the last 3 pages or so. And though the penultimate section felt very Harry-Potter-and-Dumbledore-near-the-end-of-book-7, I wasn’t really bothered by it. I do believe, though, that’s because I knew there would be more coming, and by sharing this tidbit with you, I would like to spare you the angst of the many readers who came before us.
Overall, I think Children of Blood and Bone is an excellent addition to the YA canon, especially for representation and the teaching of empathy and understanding in genre-fiction (the fantasy and sci-fi genres, in particular, being historically populated by white male heroes and “diversity” coming mainly from non-human characters). In fact, challenging genre norms and creating a specific example of inclusion and representation while celebrating everything that’s great and engaging and exciting about the fantasy genre is why Adeyemi started this series. Yes, these characters look different from me, but it’s still the same kind of teen empowerment fantasy that I read as a kid, and that’s key–it doesn’t feel different or less than in quality, nor does it feel like I can’t connect to these characters. But for young readers who rarely see themselves in this kind of genre fiction at all, they now get to not just see themselves but see themselves as the hero in an excellent example of quality fantasy writing. And that’s huge. The novel highlights cultural differences and the more universal aspects of the human experience at the same time. It does exactly what good children’s and YA lit is supposed to do: teach compassion, empathy, kindness, inquiry, and a desire to learn and build relationships. And it does so within the structure of some mighty fine fantasy writing. So whether or not you are a young reader or have one in your life, this is definitely a YA series worth spending some time with.