I’d been waiting eagerly for Tomi Adeyemi’s debut novel Children of Blood and Bone as soon as I heard the buzz about it in the months before it hit the shelves. A magical YA fantasy set in a West African-inspired land? I was so excited, but none of the hype could prepare me for the payoff. This book is my new favorite.
Children of Blood and Bone is the story of how a seventeen-year-old girl named Zélie embarks on a treacherous journey to restore magic to her people, the maji, who were slaughtered and outcast under the rule of King Saran. With the help of her brother, Tzain, and their new, unlikely ally Princess Amari, Zélie must outrun the crown prince Inan, who hopes to eradicate magic from the land once and for all.
The first thing worth noting is that this book moves. I was immediately swept into the story from the first page. So many books start with a murmur; Children of Blood and Bone starts with a shout. We immediately learn that Zélie lives with the petrifying, constant fear of being imprisoned or killed for being a dîviner—the child of a maji. We see the consequences of being born a “maggot” (the slur used for dîviners, who are born with white hair) play out right from the first chapter.
Adeyemi’s use of pacing is incredibly effective. Every time you think the characters might be out of the deep end, something goes wrong, and the stakes climb infinitely higher. Adeyemi uses flashbacks in a moving, heart-rending manner to strike at the heart of Zélie’s grief and her need to restore what was taken from her and the other children of the maji.
The world-building of this story is fantastic. The different maji clans are so fun to read about, and the history and mythology of the origin of their magic is beautiful, described so engagingly. It makes the loss of these people and their way of life that much more heartbreaking, because Zélie identifies so strongly with her memories of the maji and her mother. The animals of this world are also exciting and new: Zélie rides a lionaire, a large, carnivorous creature that she raised from a cub. The villages and the landscape of Orïsha are described in loving detail.
The main cast of this book is filled out with characters who grapple with their own flaws and question themselves as they dive headlong into danger: Zélie, the brave and impulsive daughter of a magi who could yield death like a weapon; Tzain, the older brother who has taken on the heavy burden of caring for his father and his sister Zélie; Amari, the sheltered princess, who has experienced King Saran’s cruelty firsthand and struggles to be courageous enough to do what she knows is right; Inan, the crown prince, who initially believes his father’s fear of magic to be right, and grapples with his sense of morality as he is faced with the consequences of his father’s rule.
There’s definitely romance in the book too—I loved how the chemistry was written, but wasn’t a huge fan overall. I’m always looking for the inclusion of queer characters, and the romance subplots gave me some mild compulsory heterosexuality vibes, but that’s my only complaint about this book. I could literally copy and paste this paragraph into a review about 90% of other fiction books out in the world and it would be true.
There were a few frustrating moments in the book when I found myself thinking, Really? [Insert character] is changing their mind again? They’re doubting their beliefs? They’re second-guessing? But then I really thought about how I would react if I were in these characters’ shoes—forced to grapple with massive questions of power (and I’m not talking about just magic here), who gets to yield it, if the ends justify the means. Adeyemi makes her teenage characters face these questions that have confounded even world leaders. Of course they’re going to second-guess! I love that they react in such human ways, that they make the reader think about these questions too.
In her author’s note, Adeyemi states the inspiration for her book: police brutality in the US, and the murder of innocent black children. She says that though the magic and world of Orïsha is imaginary, the pain written into its pages is not. I felt that vividly as I read this book. She says that she wept before writing it, while writing it, and that she likely will in the time to come. I cried too, reading this story. Children of Blood and Bone is a beautiful and necessary agony, with so much love at its core. Read this book from cover to cover, and then read it again. You won’t regret it.
Children of Blood and Bone was published by Henry Holt and Co. on March 6, 2018, and is $18.99 in hardcover.
What’s your favorite new (or old) fantasy novel? Why do you think fantasy is such a great genre for exploring social and political issues?
Writer, reviewer, bookseller, book nerd extraordinaire. Fiction reader at Waxwing Magazine.