In a recent Time Magazine interview, Tomi Adeyemi described her first volume of the Legacy of Orïsha series as a kind of answer to the question, “What if Harry Potter had been black?” If people of color were represented more widely in literature and shown to be leaders, heroes, empathetic characters, would the world learn to become more accepting of them in real life? Children of Blood and Bone is full of powerful and heroic characters, many of them female, all of them black or brown, all just kids — teenagers to be precise. As one might expect, these young women and men are filled with fears and doubts, anger and hope as they try to fix a world that their elders have managed to screw up. Children of Blood and Bone, while set in the fantasy realm of Orïsha, is a clear and forthright condemnation of the racism and bigotry that pervade our modern world, and as such, the novel does not shy away from descriptions of torture and genocide. It also does an admirable job of showing the moral dilemmas faced by young people who are trying to do what is “right” but whose loves and obligations make for complicated and difficult choices.
The Kingdom known as Orïsha is ruled by a monarch named Saran whose military might and cruelty maintain his power and the class system. Saran and the nobility are “kosidan,” brown skinned people who have inherited their power and status through the ages. At the bottom of the class system are the “Diviners,” also called by the slur “maggots.” These are black skinned people who produced the “Maji” (possessors of magic from the gods) before the Raid. The Raid was an act of genocide that Saran inflicted on Diviner’s/Maji in his quest to eliminate magic from the kingdom. Saran blames the death of his first wife and children on the Maji and believes that Maji were intent on overrunning and dominating the Kosidan. Diviners are descendants of the Maji who are now unable to tap into their magic. They are taxed beyond ability to pay and when they cannot pay are sent to the stocks, meaning that they essentially become slaves for Orïsha.
We first experience Orïsha through the eyes of Zélie, a Diviner whose mother had been a powerful Maji, killed before her, her brother and father’s eyes during the Raid. Zélie and other Diviner girls (whose white hair makes them especial marks for abuse) are being secretly trained in the way of the staff so that they can protect their people. Our next narrator is another teenaged girl named Amari. Amari is Saran’s daughter, a princess who has never set foot outside the palace and whose best friend was her servant Binta, a Diviner. When Binta dies by Saran’s order, Amari is devastated but also driven to action. She boldly steals a sacred scroll that can unleash magic in Diviners and flees the palace with guards, including her brother Inan, in hot pursuit. Amari and Zélie’s worlds collide, literally, and the mismatched duo begin an adventure that will mean life or death for them and for the oppressed people of Orïsha.
The third narrator of this story is Inan, and his story is perhaps the most complicated and interesting. Inan has always struggled for his father’s approval. He has tried to do and be everything a king should be, putting duty before self and fully embracing his father’s hatred of Diviners, Maji and magic. Some of his actions make him ashamed, particularly as regards the treatment of Amari, but he believes his strength is demonstrated by putting duty first. As Inan and the guards chase Amari, he gets a look at Zélie, who is obviously a Diviner and to be despised and he briefly makes contact with her. What happens to Inan as a result is one of the great plot twists of this book. I won’t reveal what happens, but Inan does find himself having to see what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes, to experience their pain and loss, and to see the other side of Saran’s actions.
Adeyemi spins a fast-paced and thrilling tale as the main characters go on a quest to find certain magical items and reach a sacred island in time to perform a ritual to bring magic back to the world. In addition to chases, battles, and Zélie learning to work magic, Amari and Zélie have to learn to trust each other and recognize their own strengths. Inan is not the only one to undergo a transformation and learn to see with new eyes.
The end to this first volume was both surprising and satisfying. Adeyemi writes for a YA audience but does not hide the brutality and pain that her main characters experience as a result of living in an unjust and cruel world. This book may be classified as fantasy, but the hatred and violence, especially toward children, are a real part of the world we inhabit and they always have been. Volume 2 is out and I expect to be getting on it later this year.