Some Basic Info:
Title: Children of Blood and Bone (Legacy of Orïsha #1)
Author: Tomi Adeyemi
Genre: YA Fantasy
Publication Date: March 6, 2018
Date Read: April 25, 2018
Rating: 2.5/5 Stars
Goodreads Summary: Zélie Adebola remembers when the soil of Orïsha hummed with magic. Burners ignited flames, Tiders beckoned waves, and Zelie’s Reaper mother summoned forth souls. But everything changed the night magic disappeared. Under the orders of a ruthless king, maji were targeted and killed, leaving Zélie without a mother and her people without hope. Now, Zélie has one chance to bring back magic and strike against the monarchy. With the help of a rogue princess, Zélie must outwit and outrun the crown prince, who is hell-bent on eradicating magic for good. Danger lurks in Orïsha, where snow leoponaires prowl and vengeful spirits wait in the waters. Yet the greatest danger may be Zélie herself as she struggles to control her powers—and her growing feelings for the enemy.
Review: Beware of Spoilers!!!
Children of Blood and Bone is the book everyone has been reading since it came out last month. People have been gushing about how original it is, calling it a brilliant debut, an African Harry Potter. I must admit, I was pretty intrigued. Fantasy is one of my favorite genres, and the more I’ve read, the harder it is to find a book that really stands out. I’d heard nothing but wonderful things about this book, though, so how, I thought, could this go wrong?
Apparently, there are quite a number of ways it could, at least for me. Granted, I did think the elements of Yoruba mythology and language were extremely interesting and made for a refreshing change. I don’t think I’ve ever read a fantasy novel with a traditional African setting before and I really liked that this book tied those things in. The magic system, the different maji clans, the allusions to African colonial history: those things were unique, they were intriguing and new, especially to a European reader, and I fully applaud Tomi Adeyemi for including them. However, if you strip the book of the African elements, you end up with one of the most cliché YA fantasy plotlines ever and writing that could have benefited from a lot of additional editing. The saddest thing is that the idea itself was great. The synopsis sounded exciting. There were so many good points in here. This book had plenty of potential, and with a bit more editing, it could easily have been excellent. These are my thoughts on why I don’t think it was.
What struck me almost immediately about this book was that the writing could have used a lot more editing and some heavy cutting. Maybe a lot of people can ignore that, but for me, bad or mediocre writing is something that can immediately put me off a book. Maybe it’s because I write a lot myself that I tend to notice these types of things more. However, in this case, the writing was also one of the reasons I ended up having trouble with the characters and plot. Writing is the backbone of the story, and if it’s not polished, it affects how we perceive the story, too.
First off, there were the cliché lines that apparently have to appear in every YA book nowadays. Like the “breath characters didn’t realize they were holding”. This is used several times in the book, one example being when Amari steals the scroll from Kaea’s quarters: “The breath I did not realize I was holding rushes out as I pick up the parchment” (Adeyemi 46). You can get away with using a line like this once or twice. However, in this book, I noticed them everywhere. Already, using more original sentences here would have made the book feel more unique and less generic. This type of thing wouldn’t be that hard to fix at all.
As would all the cases of telling and not showing. This happens an incredible amount of times, usually when the author is describing character’s thoughts. To make it clearer what I mean, here is an example from chapter ten (you can open the book to any random page and find the same sort of thing, though):
I grip my shoulders to keep everything inside as Mama Agba dresses our injuries with cloth ripped from her skirt. Though we made it through the flames, small burns and blisters dot our skin. But that pain is welcoming, almost deserved. The sears on my skin are nothing compared to the guilt that scalds my heart. […] They’re in a better place, I try to ease my guilt. […] I close my eyes and try to swallow the thought. (Adeyemi 98, emphasis mine)
Everything I italicized in this passage could be cut – the reader already gets all of this from what is shown. We know the context of Zélie’s actions, we know she is distraught about what happened. With this knowledge, we know that Zélie is gripping her shoulders to keep it all together. Her telling us that she thinks her pain is deserved already tells us she feels guilty. There’s no need to explicitly state it. Zélie’s closing her eyes already shows us she’s trying to think of something else. As an author, you need to trust your readers to interpret character’s actions correctly; spelling it out just makes the pace of the writing drag unnecessarily and makes the characters seem overly analytical. This creates a certain distance to the characters – you don’t feel as connected to them as you would if you were just seeing what they’re seeing without getting an interpretation, too. I thought Children of Blood and Bone was one of the most extreme cases I’ve ever seen, which makes me wonder – why didn’t the editors catch any of this?
However, it was not only that there was too much telling. I sometimes thought the showing was a bit overdone, too. The prime example of this is when the author tries to convey Amari’s feelings of Binta. It seems like single time Amari thinks about the palace, her thoughts immediately go to Binta and what a wonderful person she was. For example:
Perhaps if Binta was still at the palace, I would risk crawling back with my tail between my legs. But even she’s gone.
This sand is all I have left.
Sadness swells inside me as I close my eyes and picture her face. Just a brief thought of her is almost enough to take me away from the hell of this desert. If she were here, she’d be smiling, laughing at the grains of salt that got stuck between her teeth. She’d find beauty in all of this. Binta found beauty in everything.
Before I can stop myself, my thoughts of Binta take me further, bringing be back to our days at the palace. […] (Adeyemi 193)
What follows is a three-page excerpt about Amari’s memories of Binta, something that occurs regularly in the story. And I don’t mind the memories per se. It’s just that every instance of Amari thinking about the palace is used to shove Binta and the awfulness of her death in the reader’s face, as if to say “Amari loved Binta more than anyone else. She is absolutely distraught about her death. Binta was perfect. Please accept this.” The problem is, all this shoving it in my face made me more annoyed than accepting. What, Amari is supposed to be this badass princess, going on quests and being clever without showing any grief and ever thinking of home and then suddenly, she has her required breakdown with lots of thoughts about Binta to show us that she really is grieving? I didn’t buy it. Sometimes, subtlety is the key and I think in this case, subtlety would have made Binta’s death feel much more raw and haunting.
Finally, I also think that the character’s voices didn’t sound distinct enough. Just from speech patterns alone, you would not be able to tell who the narrator is. With three first person narrators, you should be able to immediately tell whose perspective a chapter is written from. You shouldn’t need the chapter headers to tell you. No two people talk in the exact same way, and a character’s voice should reflect that.
I did enjoy the characters overall. Especially Amari grew on me. I liked that she was smart and less of a fighter, but still fought when she had to in order to protect those she loved. However, there were a lot of things I did not like, and it was mostly because I didn’t think the characters acted in a way that was realistic to their situation.
Take Zélie, for example. Almost her entire life, she’s been oppressed due to being a divîner. She speaks of the horrors the king’s soldiers inflicted upon her, her family, and her village, of the terrible things she’s seen them do. And what is one of the first things we see Zélie do? She confronts the soldiers demanding extra taxes, blurting out without thinking, “Maybe you should stop robbing us” (Adeyemi 10). Is it possible that Zélie has a strong, rash personality? Of course. But if she’s had experience with the soldiers and been terrorized by them her whole life, it does not seem at all realistic that she’d speak up this confidently. First of all, trauma will subdue your spirit and make you scared of speaking out. And, secondly, Zélie has had to have had enough experience to know that talking back will only make things worse and make the soldiers take it out on her village. Would anyone really be this stupid? I doubt it. At least not if they have experienced the type of trauma Zélie says she has. Somehow, Zélie shows no signs at all of ever having led anything other than a privileged childhood; if we weren’t constantly told (and I say told, not shown) of her mother’s death and the cruel practices after the raid, we would never guess that Zélie wasn’t a spoiled Western teenager.
The same thing goes for Inan. I found it fascinating that he was maji, when he was taught that being maji was the core of all evil. In the beginning, he reacted completely naturally, refusing to accept it and thinking he was bewitched. But then it takes all of two days after meeting Zélie for him to make a 180° turn and say with conviction, “We all desire the same thing. […] A better Orïsha. A kingdom where maji like you and your sister don’t have to live in constant fear. I want to make it better” (Adeyemi 345). What??? I mean, I do like a good redemption arc, but if you make it this fast, it is completely unbelievable and ludicrous. Not to mention that Inan’s newly found values coincide with an equally fast instalove, which is completely unbelievable on both his and Zélie’s part. They stood for everything the other hated! It won’t take two days and a few magical dreams to change it all! The enemies-to-lovers trope is one of my absolute favorites, but the relationship has to develop gradually over time. The characters won’t be madly in love and willing to risk their lives for each other in less than a week. This would have been such a good storyline if only the author had spanned it out over a few months instead of a few days… However, it seems that Inan’s convictions sway back and forth just for plot convenience. You need an evil soldier to chase after the protagonists? Sure thing, there’s Inan. You need someone to help reunite our protagonists after they get separated? Inan’s your man. You need to get Zélie out of the palace? Good thing Inan’s madly in love with her and willing to help. The protagonists have almost accomplished their mission? That would be way too easy! Good thing Inan has had second thoughts after all and does not love Zélie madly enough to not betray her and bring his evil father along to destroy everything. If a character’s motivations change, you need to give me a good reason! Don’t just do it to keep the plot moving along.
Also, the secondary characters were constructed in an extremely plot convenient way. Tzain (who could even qualify as a main character) has barely any traits other than being Zélies’s big brother and looking out for her, unless you count falling for Amari. Honestly, I barely know what Tzain likes and what his personal aspirations are! Lekan has known all along how to bring magic back, but he never thought to enlist help to do it. Instead he waits until someone asks him and there’s barely any time left? The jewel of life is simply handed over to the winner of an arena battle, who also happens to be a divîner? When the king knows that the stone is needed to bring magic back? Don’t the people in this realm ever communicate with one another? Also, what is up with the king? There’d better be more back story in the later books because no one is this evil just because their family was murdered. Plus, Zélie and Tzain have an awesome pet lionaire, but she’s only there for transportation? Doesn’t anyone have a connection to this animal? Doesn’t Nailah deserve a personality, too?
Finally, this book included one of my biggest fantasy pet peeves: characters getting extremely proficient at using their magic with barely any training. Inan didn’t seem to have any trouble at all invading Zélie’s dreams. Sure, Zélie struggled at first when trying to raise her spirits, but it takes her about a day to figure out how to do it and then she’s suddenly awakening hundreds of them. That’s not how it works in real life! I want to see the characters train to improve their skills, and I didn’t see much of that in here.
I didn’t have too many issues with the plot itself, aside from the points I already mentioned in the character section. For the most part, I found the plot to be action-packed and enjoyable, setting aside the problems I had with the romance and characters acting strangely for plot convenience. I liked that there was a lot of travel so that we got to see Orïsha in all its variety. The underdog trying to return magic to her people is also a storyline I enjoy. In addition, I thought the three perspectives we got to see the story from were very well chosen. They added a multifaceted view that we might otherwise not have been able to see. I thought it was especially interesting how the two royal siblings reacted so differently to their father’s policies and it’ll be fascinating to see how their relationship develops.
The only negative point I have to make is that I though the timing of the story was incredibly rushed. Why did this all have to take place over the course of a few weeks? Spreading this out more would have left time for more believable character development and a slow burn romance. It would have left time for the characters to become adept at using their newly found magical skills.
In the beginning, I also found it a bit strange that the whole magic system was dependent on a scroll. Here, I would have liked a bit more information on why the scroll affected people this way (I know, there’s this whole connection to the gods thing, but why do you need the scroll for that?). I would also have liked an explanation as to why some people are divîners and others aren’t. However, this could certainly be developed over the course of the series, so it isn’t that big of a deal in my eyes.
I really liked that the author didn’t shy away from showing violence because with this kind of regime, it’d be unbelievable if there weren’t any. For all the going on about Binta’s death later on, the actual moment of her being killed was so fast that it brought about just the right amount of shock. The scene in which Zélie was tortured by the king and Inan found her was horrifying, but excellent. At first, when Mama Agba was able to convince the soldiers not to rape Zélie just by talking to them, I was worried that this book would tone down the violence and become unbelievable in order to still make it marketable as YA. However, on the whole, I think it managed to find a good balance between still being suitable for teenage readers and not downplaying the terrors of a tyrannical regime.
As I mentioned earlier, I really liked all the elements of African mythology and the snippets of the Yoruba language in this book. That definitely made the setting unique and made for a cool magic system, the likes of which I had never seen before. Of course, I can’t tell how accurate these references are, but I do appreciate that the author did something different from the traditional European medieval fantasy setting. I did roll my eyes a bit at the divîners having white hair (Honestly, it seems like every special character in YA has to show their specialness by having a special hair color. Isn’t normal black hair good enough?), but I guess there has to be a reason for soldiers to be able to identify them. So far, so good.
However, there were times when I thought that the Western elements started to creep in. There is a palace with a king who is basically like any European-style fantasy tyrant ever. There are arenas, stocks, and villages who didn’t seem any different from the medieval European ones. This would have been a great place to add more details and embellish the setting! The cultural values seemed very Western. Yes, apparently there was a different belief system, but the characters hardly ever thought about their gods except when they were worried about getting their magic back. Shouldn’t their spiritual connection be deeper ingrained in their everyday life? Other than the characters swearing “Oh skies” every now and then, I didn’t see much evidence of that.
The way the characters talked also sent mixed signals. On the one hand, we have the ritualistic vocabulary of an older era. We have sentences like, “Sêntaros are not like maji. Your connection to the gods is cemented in your blood. That connection to Sky Mother is what’s needed to complete the ritual” (Adeyemi 165). Then, the American teenage slang suddenly pops up, like when Zélie calls out “Guys?” to her companions (Adeyemi 152). This may only be a minor detail, but minor details can go a long way towards making a world feel real.
…unfortunately, I didn’t like this book much on the whole. It had great potential – a unique world and a solid plot. However, the writing and the way characters were handled ultimately made this a big disappointment. Probably, a large part of this is also due to my expectations being astronomically high. Compare something to Harry Potter and I’ll have certain standards! Still, this was not an absolutely terrible book either and my negative opinion seems to be a pretty unpopular one. Most people seem to really have loved this! I also think this series has great potential – a lot of my issues had to do with the writing and characterization, but I did enjoy the plot itself, so I’ll probably give the next book a try to see if it gets any better… If you’ve read this book, let me know what you think. Do you agree on any of my points? What did you see differently? I’d love to know your thoughts!