I just finished Tomi Adeyemi's Children of Blood and Bone. I won’t spoil it, but I want to do my part to convince everyone that they should read this marvelous novel!
Adeyemi’s book is set in the kingdom of Orïsha in a world that has been stripped of magic for eleven years. An evil (but believably evil) king took magic out of the world and used the opportunity to kill all the magic users, the Magi, easily identified by the white streaks in their hair. One of those murdered Magi was the mother of the novel’s hero, Zélie. Now, thanks to some fortuitous circumstances that are just believable enough we share some characters’ skepticism about divine intervention, Zélie has the opportunity to bring magic back into the world. The hefty 525 pages whizzes by as we follow Zélie and her allies on their quest.
It’s tricky to compare this book to others because I don’t want to make it sound derivative. It’s very imaginative and unique, and the ways it draws on other sources don’t feel cheap or exploitative. They aren’t really homages or allusions, either. Instead, Children of Blood and Bone feels like a fantasy that is tapping into deep human archetypes while doing something very new. That, for me, was the connection that made me think of other works. It’s not that Children of Blood and Bone copied any of them, but it was unique in a similar way. For example, I couldn’t help but think of Sang Kromah’s Djinn, even though the two books have little in common. Djinn is set in our world in the modern day but tells a Buffy-esque story involving Djinn rather than vampires. So what’s the connection? While Children of Blood and Bone and Djinn are radically different, both authors are drawing on elements of their own heritage and carefully selected bits of African folklore to breathe new life into fantasy, though in radically different ways.
Children of Blood and Bone also made me think of Mikko Azul’s The Staff of Fire and Bone, and not just because of the similar titles. Azul’s world is an expansive fantasy world much like Adeyemi’s, with a deep lore that goes back to a mythological cosmology at the beginning of these worlds’ creations. Azul also taps into elements of folklore from cultures other than the traditional European ones that tend to populate high fantasy. I love that about both books.
As I read Children of Blood and Bone, I also couldn’t help but think of Karen Eisenbrey’s Daughter of Magic. Both novels contemplate the way a society where only some people have magical ability might navigate that inescapable power imbalance. The two novels imagine that happening completely differently. In Ayedemi’s, the Magi are feared, slaughtered, and their children repressed to prevent magic from returning. In Eisenbrey’s, the wizards become something like civil servants, healing, investigating crimes, and preventing natural disasters. Yet there’s still a distrust, and Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone makes me wonder if the wizards of Eisenbrey’s world could easily find themselves in the same situation in the universe she’s created in Daughter of Magic.
Adeyemi’s world also made me think of Avatar, the Last Airbender (the wonderful cartoon, not the horrible movie). I’m hesitant to even mention that because the worlds are so different. But both center on a conflict between people with magic and an authority that wants to wipe them out to consolidate its power. Adeyemi’s novel is more pointed in this regard. To its credit, it made me see Avatar, a cultural product I love, in a deeper way. Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone is more explicitly a parable about the way colonial powers and white authorities in them have treated People of Color and especially Black people in our world. Adeyemi graciously avoids making the novel explicitly about race which makes more sense in the narrative of her world, but I wouldn’t have minded if she had because I read it there right under the surface and appreciated it. Not only was this novel wrestling with questions about the moral dynamics of fighting back against oppression (Outright violent rebellion? Revenge? Working within the system without aiding the oppressor? Staying loyal to a country that is clearly doing evil?), but it focuses on the human cost of that oppression, making us feel each death, each torture, each loss of a loved one. Adeyemi reveals her intentionality in her afterward where she lists some of those names we can never hear too many times, Jordan Edwards, Tamir Rice, and Aiyana Stanley Jones. The novel made me think even more about the survivors, and I was glad to read the name Diamond Reynolds in the afterward, too. She, along with her four-year-old daughter, was in the car taking the video when Philando Castile was senselessly, unconscionably, unforgivably murdered. Children of Blood and Bone, though set in a fantasy kingdom of swords and magic, give us many characters who are like Diamond Reynolds, survivors who have to figure out how to live with the horror they’ve seen. It also gives us characters who maintain that oppression and try to justify it to themselves in various ways, and that’s part of what makes Adeyemi’s novel work so well. The villains never twirl their mustaches and relish their evil acts, no matter how gruesome their behavior. They believe they are doing what they have to do to maintain stability, to demonstrate their loyalty to their country, and to subjugate the people they’ve been taught to fear. If we’re ever going to open our eyes and address the fundamental rot of racism in our country (and in the rest of the world, all of which is infected by colonialism), we have to try to understand why people maintain systems of oppression, recognizing the human frailty of the oppressors without making excuses for their (our, my) behavior. None of Adeyemi’s characters, no matter how heroic, have clean hands by the end of the novel, and that’s a powerful choice and a strong statement Adeyemi has made about oppression and the process of combating it.
So, don’t read Children of Blood and Bone because the author is Black and lots of white people are suddenly waking up to the inequities in the publishing industry that have kept too many books by too many great Black authors out of readers’ hands. That’s a well-intentioned motivation, and if it brings more equality to publishing, that’s great, but that’s insufficient for the quality of this novel. And don’t just read it because you enjoy fantasy and want to embark on a thrilling quest story in a richly conceived universe. Children of Blood and Bone will provide that, but if you just want to get to the end of a quest and see someone throw a ring in a volcano, you could read a different series. Read this novel because, like all great literature, it’s empathy practice. We learn to love people who never existed so we can strengthen our empathy muscles and use them to embrace real people we meet. This novel will make you feel about oppression and resistance, and, in the end, it will inspire you to rise.