Oh, my friends. I closed this book shut about five days ago and am still reeling from it. It was heart-pounding and gut-wrenching and soul-stirring. Children of Blood and Bone is worth the hype.
Anybody who follows literary news has heard of first time author Tomi Adeyemi’s debut YA fantasy — book one of a trilogy — at least once or twice in the last year. She’s made headlines for her record-setting book and movie rights deals at only 23 years old. But Adeyemi’s paycheck isn’t the top story here: It’s that the next big thing in YA is a fantasy adventure starring a cast of Black characters, written by a Black woman, in a genre whose stars have been Katniss, Hermione, Arya, and Tris. White kids. COBB is the story for the era of Black Lives Matter. Of the still-smoldering box office heat from Black Panther’s massive success. Zélie is a heroine whose time has come and it’s exhilarating to tag along for the ride, or should I say, rise.
When Zélie was a young child, King Saran gathered all the maji (magic folks) in Orïsha and executed them, including her mother, as he was determined to eradicate magic from the kingdom forever. This was known as The Raid. Zélie herself is a diviner, which is like a junior maji who hasn’t yet matured into their powers. There were many diviners left in Orïsha after the raid and all of them are treated as second-class citizens. The king’s guards collect extra taxes on diviners and their families, many diviners are enslaved in indentured servitude, and their appearance — dark black skin and bright white hair — is seen as a blight; diviners are called “maggots.” The king’s daughter, Amari, sees the world differently from her father and doesn’t agree with his treatment of the diviners. She eventually runs away from the palace, unwittingly teams up with Zélie and Zélie’s brother, Tzain, and the three find themselves on a quest to restore magic to Orïsha. They’re pursued by Amari’s brother Inan and the king’s guards, who stay hot on their trail in a breathtaking adventure through dangerous and enchanted lands.
That brief summary doesn’t do the book justice, but I’m going to focus less on a plot recap and more on some analysis. And Adeyemi’s given us a LOT of material to work with here.
First, it’s important to note that Adeyemi’s inspiration for this book was the Black Lives Matter movement or, more specifically, the disturbing rise of police brutality against Black people. In COBB, the metaphor is that the diviners are the Black community and the royals/upper class are whites (it’s important to note that Orïsha is an all-Black world but that the upper class are described as having much lighter skin because they don’t have to do the hard labor outside the way the diviners and other common folks do). In an interview with NPR, Adeyemi said that “this book, while it is an epic high fantasy, is about living in a society that teaches you to hate what makes you magical.”
I want to talk about Zélie’s appearance. I have to wonder why Adeyemi chose white as the haircolor for diviners. Red, green, or golden hair would have been just as striking and perhaps a nod towards Pan-Africanism. I’m led to assume that the author wanted something that was such a stark contrast to their rich, dark skin that it would almost signify a yin and yang effect. In this passage, I get a clue that I might be right:
We are all children of blood and bone.
All instruments of vengeance and virtue.
The reader is never under the impression that Zélie is a perfect heroine. She’s stubborn, she’s distrustful almost to a fault, and she’s a reluctant leader. There’s a scene when Zélie admits that she’s “always afraid” and that this is her true weakness. Watching her mother hanged before her eyes at such a young age hardened her, but broke her, too. Zélie has lived a life of fear, knowing that those who are in power can take anything they want at any moment without any recourse for their actions.
And it’s through Zélie that the reader can see the fear of what life is like for Tamir Rice’s mother. For Sandra Bland’s mother. Orïsha is America, where the powerful take from the weak, where institutional racism is modernized oppression. Zélie is literal Black Girl Magic who’s on a quest to restore her people’s power. On that note, I also want to mention that Zélie’s appearance changes as the journey moves along. Her hair transforms from long and wavy to its natural kink and ‘fro, and that’s not accidental. As she gets closer to embracing who she is as a diviner, she’s also reclaiming her Black self, her magic.
Amari is our other leading female protagonist and is the king’s daughter, a princess. Her heart is in the right place but it’s understandably difficult for Zélie to warm to her at first. Amari’s introduction to Zélie includes the Orïshan equivalent of “But I can’t be one of the bad guys; I have a Black friend!” This exchange between the two is cringe-worthy:
“I am trying to help you.” Amari clenches the skirt of her dress. “I’ve given up everything to help you people –”
“You people?” I fume.
“We can save the diviners –”
“You want to save the diviners, but you won’t even sell your damn dress?”
The conversation perfectly exemplifies the grievances that many POC (People of Color) have with white allyship: that it’s easy to say you support Black people and stand against institutional racism, but what’s really needed is action. Amari has trouble taking the proverbial and literal clothes off her back to help the person she claims to support. Amari’s own journey is similar to Zélie’s in that bits and pieces of her are broken along the way as she endures physical danger and emotional pain. And what we witness is her shedding her misconceptions, her privilege, and the belief system that’s been ingrained in her.
SPOILERISH STUFF AHEAD!
Inan is another protagonist – the book is actually told from three different first-person perspectives: Zélie’s, Amari’s, and Inan’s – and his character is the most complex, in my opinion. His may also be the most uncomfortable and hard to pin down because he vacillates between “good guy” and “bad guy” a few times over. Inan is Amari’s brother, which makes him the king’s son and a prince. He’s been pretty solidly programmed over his lifetime to place duty before all else and he makes some terrible choices as a result, not the least of which is hunting down his sister with the intent to maybe possibly kill her. But – plot twist! AND SPOILER! – he’s a diviner! Lo and behold, the guy who hates “maggots” and who does daddy’s bidding for him suddenly starts to develop a bright white streak in his hair. What is Adeyemi’s purpose for this character development other than to advance the plot? I think she wants us to examine what self-loathing looks like and how destructive it can be. I think she wants us to glimpse what mixed-race POC may wrestle with, when one side of their parentage instills in them that their race is superior and that society will shun the other side. I also think she wants Inan to feel true guilt for his actions so that he can feel true redemption when he is accepted and loved by Zélie. Adeyemi may be making the statement that those of us with white privilege can truly never know how differently society treats POC until we’re in their shoes (or hair).
I mentioned that Inan was an uncomfortable character and that may be because those of us with white privilege can recognize some of ourselves in him, and that doesn’t feel too good. When Zélie is insisting to Inan that she will never be treated as an equal by the royals and the upper class, no matter how hard he tries to convince his father, because law enforcement will always have an eye on her and await any opportunity to force her into the stocks:
“Inan’s eyes grow wide, but he presses, ‘The guards I know are good. They keep Lagos safe –‘
‘My gods.’ I stalk away. I can’t listen to this. I’m a fool for ever thinking we could ever work together.”
How many conversations have you had with someone, or witnessed on social media, about Black Lives Matter that involved someone chiming in with some version of “But the police are good! They’re there to protect us!”? That’s what this right here is. And so, Inan isn’t distinctly a “good guy” or a “bad guy,” as much as we reaaaaaaally want to like him. Inan benefits from the system. He stands to become king. He agrees to help Zélie on her quest to restore magic, but ultimately, he just tries to convince her that she should try to fit in by being his boo back at the castle because he’ll totally vouch for her, m’kay? Inan may have the hots for Zélie, but he’s not going out of his way to disrupt things and make his father mad. See above re: white allyship. Adeyemi has masterfully crafted a fantasy adventure that’s low-key a modern social commentary manifesto.
There’s a lot I’ve left out, including romance (with a scene of explicit and enthusiastic consent and it’s SEXY!), violence, at least one handful of tearjerker moments, and a cliffhanger [shakes fist at the sky in Adeyemi’s general direction]. But it’s the first in the Legacy of Orisha series so I trust we’ll have a resolution… hopefully sooner rather than later. In the meantime, geek out with me and find out which Maji Clan you’re in (think Hogwarts houses meets Myers Briggs). I’m a Connector (and a Hufflepuff at Hogwarts, so this totally makes sense). Click here to take the quiz.
I want to close with a final word about race. I am, quite obviously, a white woman. This book pierced me to my soul and I wept and cheered with every turn of the page. But I acknowledge that this book was not about me or for me, and I am grateful to Tomi Adeyemi for writing such an exquisite and exciting and emotive piece of literature for those of us who can benefit from a first-person perspective – even an allegorical one – of racism and racially-charged violence. From her NPR interview:
“Children of color need a mirror to see themselves in. And then people who don’t have that experience, they need a window. They need a really personalized way to see what people who are different from them are going through.”
With gratitude, thank you for the window, Ms. Adeyemi. We can’t wait for the next one.