Fantasy, but Make it Yoruba

A book review of Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

Low-key spoilers ahead.

In Children of Blood and Bone, Tomi Adeyemi brings the full force and breadth of a high fantasy adventure novel to Africa.

High fantasy – typically described as fiction where action takes place in an invented magical world – is synonymous with J.R.R. Tolkien and his series Lord of the Rings. In this genre, dragons reign from the skies, clans and classes of humans and humanoids are divided by strict regulations, magic and power are interwoven inextricably, and there will be a Quest. This quest will likely take our rag-tag group of heroes through harsh landscapes and border-towns, seeking An Important Object Necessary to Fulfill an Important Task. In Children of Blood and Bone, Tomi Adeyemi brings the full force and breadth of a high fantasy adventure novel to Africa.

Children of Blood and Bone is a tumultuous and violent Young Adult novel about the struggle of those born with the ability to do magic – maji – to survive in a kingdom systemically bent on destroying them. Adeyemi expertly hits all the marks of a classic fantasy, while taking a fresh approach. Fantasy is becoming more diverse with series like The Broken Earth Trilogy (N. K. Jemisin), Akata Witch (Nnedi Okorafor) and An Ember in the Ashes (Sabaa Tahir), but authors like George R.R. Martin (Game of Thrones) still dominate. Children of Blood and Bone disrupts the assumption that fantasy needs to be male driven and predominately white. While the kingdom of Orisha is a creation of Adeyemi’s imagination, Yoruba and West African culture, language, and landscape give structure to Orisha the same way Celtic folklore and myth influenced Middle Earth.

Pacing in a fantasy novel can be tricky; it’s easy for readers to end up wishing the heroes would Find-The-Magical-Whatsit-And-Do-The-Quest-Already. Overwrought world-building, a never ending cast of colorful supporting characters, and tiresome expositions of arcane myth can stop even the most adventurous reader in their tracks. Adeyemi mostly avoids this fantasy quagmire with descriptive restraint and a deft handling of first-person perspectives from three different characters. Orisha comes alive as a vibrant land of jungle, desert, mountain, and sea, with booming metropolises and sleepy fishing villages. Magic pulses in and around Orishans, who live under a tyranny so brutal, you’ll wish it didn’t feel so familiar. Fantasy is at its best when it’s holding a mirror up to our society; through warring clans fighting over magic we see ourselves: our own prejudices, our own bloody history.

Like in war, morality in Children of Blood and Bone can be a hard thing to identify.

Adeyemi carefully balances overt themes of slavery, police brutality, oppression, and war with nuanced and complex characters. While you see echoes of our world reflected in the plight of the maji or the tyranny of King Saran, Adeyemi trusts her readers to recognize these, rather than inserting forced parallels to emphasize her point. Instead, she focuses on developing a swiftly advancing plot and thoroughly developed characters with the emotional bandwidth to be believable. Children of Blood and Bone stands apart from other fantasy novels, and certainly other Young Adult novels, because the driving motivations of the heroes and villains are complicated. Like in war, morality in Children of Blood and Bone can be a hard thing to identify. At the end of the book, I was left wondering: is our hero Zélie really doing the right thing, for the right reasons? Does it matter?

If you’ve ever wanted to read a book of fantasy or if you’re already big fan of fantasy, I highly recommend Children of Blood and Bone. It will be a movie before long, and at least one more book is on the way this summer. While the book is classified for a younger audience, it lacks almost all whiffs of the cheese that normally accompany a book for teens. Rarely did I have to suspend my disbelief for the sake of teenage romance or reasoning. I recommend this book to lovers of high fantasy, anyone who enjoyed the movie Black Panther (2018), and those who want an intense adventure novel with female leads that are powerful in manifold ways.

Author Tomi Adeyemi

Note: Children of Blood and Bone is an incredibly violent book, though not gory. The violence, in my opinion, is not gratuitous the way that it is in, for example, Game of Thrones. It helps convey the severity and pain of those suffering and why they go to the lengths they do to fight back. Children of Blood and Bone does not contain any rape or sexual assault scenes, but alludes to both. Children are killed and whole villages are destroyed throughout the book.

Cover photo by @Booksforthesoul on Instagram.

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