1. I wanted to like this.
2. I did not like this.
I will elaborate.
(NB: I waited a couple of weeks to actually sit down and write this review, because I was so aggravated while reading I was afraid my review would come out more scathing than the book deserved. I’m glad I waited. Rant reviews are fun on occasion, but I prefer to be more level-headed for the most part.)
I wanted to like this because:
- There are not enough diverse voices being published traditionally, and especially in fantasy. Publishing diverse groups of authors instead of just one or two (usually white, usually male) who all have very similar viewpoints theoretically will bring all kinds of new perspectives and new stories for us all to read and enjoy.
- I have read lots and lots and lots of white people fantasy. I would like to read other kinds as well. It’s fun to read the kinds of books you know you will enjoy (romance wouldn’t be such a successful genre if that weren’t true), but it’s also fun to read something new.
- This book was marketed as an African-inspired fantasy, with an all black cast of characters, and the magic system was purported to be based on the culture of the Yoruba people. That was something I thought I had never read before, and I was very excited to read a new perspective on the genre I love. Imagine what worldbuilding there could be!
- The cover of the book is beeaaauuuuutiful.
- And the story type, young group of people fight against tyranny to bring back magic, while not sounding like the most original premise, definitely had promise. There’s a reason that type of story is so common; it usually works very well.
Admittedly, that’s some pressure to put on a book, and the book got great advance reviews so I wasn’t too worried about it, but now having actually read it, I can’t help but feel that a lot of those great initial reviews came from people who don’t read a lot of fantasy, let alone YA fantasy. Because despite the setting and the race of the characters, this felt like the worst kind of cookie cutter YA fantasy. It felt like a story I’ve read a hundred times before dressed up in new clothing.
I did not like this because:
- This book has one of the most derivative, predictable plots I have read in quite a while. Being derivative isn’t necessarily a capital offense for a book to make if it’s got something else to offer you. I have quite frequently enjoyed a good fantasy quest story with a predictable plot because the narrator is charming or witty, or the prose is amusing in some way, either satirically, or because it’s beautiful or atmospheric. I have loved a generic fantasy because of its characters, who are three dimensional, clearly realized, and have good inner conflicts. I have loved a generic fantasy because its characters loved each other, because they transcend their plot with their chemistry or their banter or their conflicts. I have loved books that could have been nothing but cookie cutter fantasies, but their authors understood how small, specific details in the worldbuilding and in the prose of the book itself can turn something generic into something specific and memorable. This book, for me, had none of that to offer. It read to me like the author was unaware that everything she was writing had been done before.
- (An example. Key sequences are blatantly stolen from the beloved and wonderful cartoon, Avatar: The Last Airbender. I thought at first it might just be coincidence. A lot of magic systems are based in forces of nature. Then there was a key plot point of characters racing somewhere before the summer solstice, else magic would be lost forever!! Then there was the evil prince in disgrace following them on orders from his evil father, but secretly he’s good, you guys! She openly acknowledges the cartoon in the end notes, so this was definitely on purpose. I suppose the more generous way to look at this would be to say it’s an homage, but the rest of the book was so generic, these instances really stood out, and I don’t think they in themselves were successful. The solstice plot point was so poorly plotted and paced, especially in comparison to the cartoon, she did herself more harm than good in borrowing it, I think.)
- Then there was the actual writing. I found this to be a book full of mostly bland, non-descript characters, forced dialogue, and dull prose written as if it were supposed to be beautiful and meaningful. There was a shit ton of showing not telling, the worldbuilding was sloppy and confusing, and there was no sense of pacing to speak of. Key sequences are rushed through, while we dwell endlessly on things that do not contribute to the plot or to character development. Key moments have tension undercut by insufficient lead up or explanation. The plot hinges on the search for three meaningless McGuffins, the purpose or history of which is never explained, and which are found with ridiculous ease. One of these objects, which has been supposedly lost for ages, just shows up out of the blue with no explanation, and our characters find it with no effort. Another (incredibly secret and dangerous) is just left in a character’s bedroom, laying out on a desk for another to pick up. The book is written so that characters do things so the plot can happen, and not the other way around. Character should drive plot, and here it mostly doesn’t.
- The book is written in first person present tense, which is my nemesis. Only a really talented author can handle this POV, because it very easily washes out character. And that is exactly what happens here. There are three narrators in this book, and all three of them have the exact same voice. They use the same types of words, the same melodramatic, at times over the top poetic tone. The same sentence structures. They think the same types of thoughts in the same types of ways. Close first person narrators should be an author’s best friend in elucidating who a character is. Instead, here we get three characters who are indistinguishable from each other. I could not tell you more than one or two identifying characteristics of Zélie, Amari, and Inan, and I spent over 500 pages with them.
- I already mentioned the lack of worldbuilding, but it’s worth mentioning again. There is no context for anything. The world in this book doesn’t feel lived in. The best part about fantasy, for me, besides the chance for characters to do things that aren’t possible in a non-magical setting, is experiencing the feeling of being in a totally new place. That feeling comes from experiencing new landscapes, cultures, languages. It comes from specifics, little details. There is very little of that in this book. I couldn’t tell you anything specific about the world that Zélie lives in besides that they at one point had a nebulous deity called Sky Mother. What were the beliefs of this religion? How did those beliefs shape the cultures who believed in them? Where did the belief in Sky Mother come from? What kinds of people believed in her? Also, there is a king who hates magic, but we’re never told why beyond a vague sense of, “They are powerful and could kill us!” Okay. How about we go a little more specific than that?
- Which leads into my next point, which is that this story might as well have been full of white characters for all their race mattered to the story. There is nothing here that I haven’t seen in a million white people chosen one stories. There is no specificity in anything. You could transplant the book entirely to medieval Europe, ancient Rome, or some other fantastical version of a place white people are frittering about, and barely anything would have to be changed. I suppose there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, except that it indicates poor worldbuilding, as mentioned above, and because the marketing pushed this specifically as something new and different, a black fantasy.
- The romances, both of them, come of out of nowhere. I feel like this is just an outgrowth of lack of characterization, plotting, and dialogue. I might have bought into the weird, hetero-pairing off of the two boys and girls, but none of it felt earned to me. And then there was a damn love triangle shoved in near the end. Hisssss.
- I try to take books on their own merits. It’s good to know what an author had in mind when writing, but if the book doesn’t convey it on its own, I don’t think they should get brownie points for intention alone. The end notes mention Adeyemi’s anger and pain while watching the news, as black children have been killed by police brutality. I can sympathize with this, and I’m glad the book helped her to work through her pain on that. But without that note, I would have had absolutely no idea that this book was partially inspired by those scenes on the nightly news. The guards (that is what they are called) read like any other generic policing force of a tyrannical government, and are of a type I have read many times before. I feel like Adeyemi could have done a lot more detailed work on showing us the power dynamics there. All we really get is Zélie’s one story, about the death of her mother, and some mentions of labor camps. Most of the story is concerned with the details of the rather inane and predictable quest, when the real focus would have been better served elsewhere, showing us how the oppression of magic users has actually shaped this world and these characters. I swear, half the book is made out of descriptions of Zélie’s “limbs,” and other physical descriptions of actions that did nothing for character development. And who calls them limbs anyway? Just say arms and legs! That is a word that works best in third person. Or in ironic dialogue.
- (If you haven’t yet read NK Jemisin, here is where I suggest you do. Her Broken Earth trilogy does what I think this book wanted to do, which is to comment on systems of power that dehumanize people, and to portray fictional races of people in such a way that they illuminate the way our society functions, specifically in regards to oppressed groups, and she does it using magic as a metaphor. And it is so bloody good.)
- This line, and others like it: “His touch makes every part of my body explode.” I do not find that imagery sexy.
I recognize that a lot of my issues with this book could be chalked up to personal taste (particularly the style of the prose), but I think that many of my reactions are due to actual faults in the book, and some sloppiness and inexperience on the part of the author. The whole thing zooms along at a fast pace if you’re not in the mind to look for plot holes, and I can see that maybe for readers who haven’t read much fantasy, this could be great. For people who regularly read fantasy, I think this is going to be a disappointment. I do think I will see the movie when it comes out (the rights were sold before the book was even published). The underlying story could be compelling even if we’ve seen all the pieces before, if it had a voice, and we could see the visuals, and not have to read the prose. I liked the Twilight movies, and the first Fifty Shades of Grey movie much better than the books for this very reason. Movies can be better than books under the right circumstances. And with the right director and a talented screenwriter, a movie could add depth where I feel the book is lacking.
There is nothing really objectionable about this book, which is why I didn’t give it the one star, but there wasn’t really anything I truly liked about it, either.
I will admit that the last sixty pages of the book were the most bearable. They were still vague and confusing (I’m not entirely sure I understood what actually, physically happened), but once she was out from under the McGuffin plot, things got a tad bit less predictable and more specific. I do think there’s a chance worldbuilding could improve in the next two books as she gets deeper into her world, but I don’t think I will be continuing the series to find out. Never say never, I guess, and knowing myself I will probably be curious. But I think I will be doing both myself and fans of the series a favor perhaps by reading something else.