Thursday, May 7, 2020

Book 232: Children of Blood and Bone

"The children of Orïsha dance like there's no tomorrow, each step praising the gods. Their mouths glorify the rapture of liberation, their hearts sing the Yoruba songs of freedom. My ears dance at the words of my language, words I once thought I'd never hear outside my head. The seem to light up the air with their delight—it's like the whole world can breathe again."

Dates read: May 7-11, 2018

Rating: 6/10

When I was a little kid, I longed constantly for a sign that I was special. Not "in all the advanced classes" special, I already knew I was smart, but actual special. Someone was going to appear in my little small town, find me, and announce to the world that there had been a terrible mix-up, and I was urgently needed elsewhere so I could fulfill my glorious destiny. Or maybe I had to prove it, had to find the magic that was surely lurking within me and I spent more time than I should admit trying to do like Matilda Wormwood and move things with my mind. It never worked. No one ever came for me, and I grew up and took myself where I wanted to go, which is as it should be anyways.

I suspect, though, that I'm not the only one who nurtured these fantasies of being suddenly wrested from my ordinary experience to have magical adventures. Hence the popularity of "chosen one" narratives, particularly in the young adult genre. Tomi Adeyemi builds on the legacy of the Percy Jacksons and Pevensie siblings that came before, but for her debut novel, Children of Blood and Bone, she grounds it thoroughly outside of the "white people in Western countries" place it has lived for so long. She creates as her world Orisha, loosely based on Nigeria and the magic in her tales comes from the mythology of the region. There used to be magicians in this world, the maji, divided into ten clans with a special connection to gods and goddesses and their representative elements. But then a cruel, autocratic king cracked down and slaughtered the maji. The adults, anyways. The children were left behind.

The loss of her mother in the raid that ended magic haunts teenage Zelie even years later. She takes after her mother in that she's a Diviner, born with the distinctive white hair that marks her as a potential maji and therefore subjected to discrimination. Her brother Tzain, though, is "normal" like their father, who's never recovered from the loss of his wife. Their lives are forever changed when one day Zelie heads to the capital city to go to the market, and runs into Amari, the country's princess, fleeing her father and the palace with a powerfully important scroll. That scroll, along with other artifacts, has the power to bring magic back to Orisha. Zelie, Amari, and Tzain find themselves on the run from the King and his son, Amari's brother Inan, who discovers much to his dismay that he's not as dissimilar from the Diviners he hates as he'd like. An unexpected connection between Zelie and Inan could be what saves them all...or what dooms them.

This is not my usual type of book: I don't read YA particularly often, and it focuses heavily on plot over characterization and prose. Nevertheless, that plot moved forward so relentlessly that it was impossible to resist getting swept up in it, even when it veered toward the ridiculous. From nearly the second we meet them, our characters are under threat, and no sooner does one danger pass than another arises. Even as the story zooms, Adeyemi does some quality world-building, introducing the reader to a deeply earth-rooted system of magic in a way that gave enough detail to be intriguing without gratuitous information-dumping. It's refreshing to read a story that doesn't rely on the same familiar Christian and/or Eurocentric myths for inspiration.

That being said, while the details of the story are fresh, many of the beats are eye-rollingly familiar: enemies to friends, hate to love, capture and rescue. There are serious, serious deficiencies in character one feels like more than a set of keywords and relationships that the readers are clearly supposed to get deeply invested in are so thinly sketched that the "payoff" barely registers. Prose quality that might elevate the more rote elements is absent...the writing isn't at all bad, but neither is it ever more than serviceable. The book doesn't feel like it's meant to be taken in and of itself, but rather as a springboard: for a movie, for sequels. While it's compelling and compulsively readable while it's in your hands, it loses a lot when it's over and you have time to think about it. I maintain only a vague sort of "if it's on the Kindle for less than $5" interest in continuing the series. If you're into this genre and these kinds of stories, you'll probably very much enjoy this book. If you're looking for something to keep you entertained on the airplane, this is a solid choice. If this isn't the kind of story you're predisposed to like, though, this is skippable.

One year ago, I was reading: Battleborn

Two years ago, I was reading: This!

Three years ago, I was reading: Friday Night Lights

Four years ago I was reading: Vinegar Girl

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