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Tomi Adeyemi’s “Children of Blood and Bone” is an enthralling tale that will revolutionize the perceptions of YA and fantasy literature. The young adult fantasy novel follows Zélie Adebola, a young woman who tries to restore magic to her home. Her snow white hair and dark skin are signs of the magic that runs through her veins, but also solidify her status as a second-class citizen within her nation of Orïsha. The magic has been gone for years and the old maji, including her mother, were mass murdered by the monarchy. After a run-in with a curious scroll and Amari, the crown princess of Orïsha, Zélie may have the chance to bring the magic back. Hunted by royal guards, Zélie journeys across Orïsha to restore its magic and save her people. The novel’s rich worldbuilding based on African cultural tradition is a refreshing departure from the standard Tolkien fantasy and cements Adeyemi as an author revolutionizing the fantasy genre.
Adeyemi’s characters are a breath of fresh air for readers of young adult fiction. Zélie, Amari, and Inan, the captain of the guard and crown prince of Orïsha, alternatively narrate the novel. These characters first appear as overwhelmingly self-absorbed YA tropes. Zélie carries unwarranted animosity towards everyone she meets, a common stereotype for feisty female YA protagonists. Amari is the confused princess, unaccustomed to the world outside her palace walls. Inan is the archetypal angst-ridden teen torn between the expectations of his cold father and his hormonal fascination with the renegade Zélie. Yet by the end of the novel, these characters transform from flimsy YA tropes to matured adolescents who understand their decisions have fatal costs. When Zélie considers sharing magic for the first time, her childhood hopes for the joy and beauty it could bring is replaced with “the pain that could lie in [the new maji’s] wake: Grounder ripping the earth under our feet; Reapers... losing control and unleashing waves of death.” Adeyemi tracks Zélie’s transformation particularly well, documenting her transition from a shallow protagonist to an authentic female protagonist that deserves to be at the center of the story. The trials, losses, and successes that the characters face serve as teaching points for the main characters.
“Children of Blood and Bone” poses a reality uncommon in the YA genre. In particular, the world of Orïsha is extraordinarily violent. It is riven with strife, hatred, and genocide, and Adeyemi does not shirk away from portraying them. She does not spare her characters from hurt or pain and does not grant immortality to anyone. Rather, Adeyemi will intimately describe and elicit empathy for a character on one page and kill them on the next. This willingness to kill characters leaves no plot twist off the table and creates an addicting high-stakes narrative. Losses and failures are real, but there are moments of happiness and beauty, light-hearted banter, blossoming romances, and strength. Adeyemi shows the temporary moments of joy in struggle: “The children of Orïsha dance like there is no tomorrow, each step praising the gods. Their mouths glorify the rapture of liberation, their hearts sing the Yoruba songs of freedom….They seem to light up the air with their delight—it's like the whole world can breathe again." The struggles in life, she argues, serve to make the joys that much sweeter.
Along with Adeyemi’s new take on young adult literature, “Children of Blood and Bone” has placed itself in the revolution of fantasy literature. The work moves the fantasy genre away from the reign of Tolkien and eurocentric worldbuilding in fantasy that have lasted for almost a century. Orïsha is a world steeped in African culture and mythology, which bleeds through every paragraph of the work from the very first page: “I think about the way her dark skin glowed like the summer sun, the way her smile made Baba come alive. The way her white hair fuzzed and coiled, an untamed crown that breathed and thrived.” Use of the Yoruba language, the novel’s allusions to West African cuisine (shuku shuku and jollof rice), and the vibrant displays of worship and community affirm that Adeyemi’s work is unapologetically African. Into this context she weaves an inspiring and immersive epic fantasy of hope and bravery. Adeyemi rebuffs the common trend of fantasy to exclusively focus on European cultures and mythologies and proves that fantasy is universal. “Children of Blood and Bone” shows that fantasy excels in worlds with a rich and vibrant African flair.
However, Adeyemi struggles at times to balance plot progression and worldbuilding in her writing and occasionally reverts to front-loading the exposition when details could be gradually incorporated into the storyline. For other aspects of her world, Adeyemi leaves the reader completely in the dark. Much of the specialized language is not directly explained, and that leaves the reader with the conflicting feelings of being hit over the head with exposition in one area and grasping for basic information in another.
The success of “Children of Blood and Bone” should not be judged independently of its evolutionary consequences on YA and fantasy literature. In writing of vibrant worlds and intriguing black characters, Adeyemi presents a fantasy with non-European influences. It is a shift in perspective that readers have been waiting to see for a long time. The novel is a gripping tale of a trio’s journey to restoring magic and maturing in the process. It is a work that will hopefully serve as an example that the fantasy genre is a place where stories of all kind can not only be told, but be told well.
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