**unmarked spoilers ahead**
**stop reading here if you do not want spoilers**
The 2018 debut YA fantasy, “Children of Blood and Bone,” by Tomi Adeyemi, may be the most-hyped YA novel of the 21st century. A combination of slick marketing, heavy promotion, and modern cultural trends—most especially the public support for the Black Lives Matter movement among book shoppers—have catapulted this lackluster novel into superstardom. At the time of this review, on May 20th of 2018, “Children of Blood and Bone” occupies the #2 spot on The New York Times’ bestseller list in hardback YA fiction. The #1 spot on that list is currently held by last year’s YA contemporary hit, “The Hate U Give,” by Angie Thomas. Frequently called, “the Black Lives Matter book,” “The Hate U Give” proved to publishers that the rising support for social justice movements overlaps strongly with the book-buying market. Which, in all honesty, I believe is a *very* good thing.
For years, the book-buying market has been clamoring for more diversity in fiction, and YA readers in particular have been clamoring for more work by own voices authors. Book consumers have had to be the driving force behind this change because the publishing industry, like any other corporate structure in the United States, operates within what bell hooks calls the “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.” Businesses only thrive/stay in business when they create a product that meets a market demand. When the market is dominated by this particular power structure, as is the case in modern America, then the products that are created to be consumed mirror that power structure.
The modern U.S. power structure in fiction means that a great many stories feature White Savior Tales with tropes such as the Magical Negro employed to assist the White Savior, and racist lines like, “You are a credit to your race,” or some version of it, cropping up in the story to describe token people of color who appear in the book. Covers are often whitewashed or feature white models even when the story stars people of color. Endemic misogyny frequently appears in the “not like other girls” trope that is still very popular in fiction, as well as in sexual scenes that are entirely derived from the pornographic imaginary. What I personally think of as the First Privilege of the able body is also prevalent in this power structure, with the most toxic forms of ableism (discrimination against people with disabilities) driving the main plots of many bestselling books. Authors frequently employ physical and mental disabilities as plot devices or thought experiments in their bestselling novels, which then perpetuate terrible stereotypes and stigmas against people with disabilities, without the vast majority of the reading public ever being the wiser.
To discuss the perpetuation of a power structure (or its ten-point vocabulary term: a hegemony), such as the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy in modern America, is to discuss the existence and perpetuation of discourse. Discourse encompasses all of the cultural forces that support, perpetuate, and transmit the hegemony. Stories, images, architecture, films, legal documents, economic transactions, even something as seemingly uninteresting as the allocation of corporate parking spaces—every interaction and physical structure in a society can impart some form of the hegemony. The most frightening aspect of this transmission is the fact that most people are completely unaware it is happening, because it is simply our day-to-day life. Hegemony is always operating in its most powerful form when it is completely invisible to the people absorbing it. When the existing hegemony is the code word for normal, discourse is operating at its most powerful level.
Similar to the biological existence of a virus, which can operate in positive and negative ways upon a host body, cultural forces transmit discourse and counter-discourses at the same time. Counter-discourse speaks out for the oppressed within the hegemony. The speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. are a powerful counter-discourse. Black Lives Matter is also a movement of counter-discourse, as is the push for more own voices stories in YA fiction.
Discourse and counter-discourse are both a necessary byproduct and creation of culture, tied to our human lives as closely as the virus is tied to our biological evolution. Viruses keep us alive and can create positive change, but some are deadly parasites. The same is true for discourse and counter-discourse.
Images transmit discourse and counter-discourse even faster than stories can, since the neurotypical human mind has evolved to instantly assess and prioritize visual data. The cover of “Children of Blood and Bone” is a powerful use of counter-discourse. To see a black female on the cover of a YA fantasy counters the discourse of the modern U.S. hegemony. Liberal, #BlackLivesMatter-supporting book shoppers understand this as instantaneously as the alt-right does. One glance at that cover, and you don’t need a media literacy class to understand the power it holds.
All images and stories, especially fictional tales, are transmitting discourse and/or counter-discourse. The question is not, “do they or don’t they?” but simply, “which type?” Not all discourse is negative or “morally wrong.” Not all counter-discourse is positive or “morally good.” But in modern America, the discourse of the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy is largely seen as negative/morally wrong, and the counter-discourse of stopping oppression and the Othering of minority groups is largely seen as positive/morally good.
Labeling discourse or counter-discourse as positive or negative depends on levels of privilege, social consciousness, and personal agenda to a level that I cannot begin to analyze in a book review. What I can say is that the discourse transmitted in “Children of Blood and Bone” is highly negative and overall damaging. Which is to say, the discourse of this novel supports the status quo and current disparities of power in the United States, more than it creates the type of positive/counter-discourse that the author explicitly claims was her intention.
In other words: the cover of this book leads the reader to believe that Tomi Adeyemi’s story is anti-hegemonic, but the contents of this novel simply support dominant discourse. The cover is as beautiful as it is misleading.
Why I believe that to be the case is the focus of this review.
“Children of Blood and Bone” is set in a fantasy version of West Africa; specifically, a fantasy version of Nigeria called Orïsha, where people can “do magic.” The author, Tomi Adeyemi, is a Nigerian-American writer who grew up outside Chicago, graduated from Harvard, and now lives in San Diego (current age: 24). Ms. Adeyemi has stated in interviews that she consulted her mother, a Nigerian immigrant, for Yoruba phrases for the spells that the characters recite in this book.
According to Wikipedia, “an orisha (spelled òrìṣà in the Yoruba language) is a spirit who reflects one of the subordinate manifestations of the supreme divinity in Yoruba religion. Orisha are said to have previously existed in the spirit world (òrun) or as human beings here on Earth (ayé). Others are said to be humans who are recognized as deities upon their deaths due to extraordinary feats.”
Since I grew up reading The New Testament, it struck me that the author naming this fantasy-Yoruba-speaking land Orïsha was like naming it “Holy Spirit.” Which had me scratching my head a bit, since the kingdom of Orïsha isn’t the only one in the story-world. A minority of the Orïshan people do use magic that comes from the gods, so I guess it makes sense, but it does make these people sound pretty arrogant. I kept thinking it would feel like the United States saying to the rest of the world, “well, because we have magic now, ya’ll can call us the Holy Spirit in our honor.” The rest of the world would roll their eyes.
The only religion the reader is introduced to in the novel (other than a passing mention that nonmagical people worship other vague “deities” in this world) is the Orïshan-Yoruba religion. I call it the Orïshan-Yoruba religion because the characters who practice it speak Yoruba in order to access their magic. Yoruba is called “the maji tongue” in this book (page 12), and this language is only spoken by people who can do magic, making them a distinct group of people from the rest of the Orïshans. I’m not trying to confuse real-life Yoruba religion with this fantasy religion in “Children of Blood and Bone,” I simply have nothing else to call it. If another term was ever used in the book and I missed it, I hope someone will comment on this review and correct me.
The Orïshan-Yoruba religion in the novel reminded me a lot of Puritanism, and the Calvinistic theology Puritans used. People following Calvinistic theology believe that God shows salvation and divine blessing with signs of good fortune on earth. These public manifestations of grace include good health, physical beauty, personal fortune, and being spared tragic misfortunes. Misfortune is often labeled the result of sin or alliance with devilry.
In fantasy Orïsha, people are physically marked on earth by the gods, so that everyone will know whether or not they are blessed—or “graced”—to do magic. In sharing their power with human beings, the gods are “selective” and will share their “ability with only those who showed great patience and wisdom” (page 161).
People who are chosen by the gods to do magic are “graced [at birth] with coiled white hair, an homage to Sky Mother’s image” (page 161).
In contemporary American life, a lot of people still believe that our physical and mental conditions at birth signal our moral goodness. For instance, many people believe that when we are born with an able body, physical beauty, and good health, then our physical appearance and health are divine signs of our moral goodness, and can even signal that we are already “saved” by whatever deity we will face upon death.
Similar to Calvinistic doctrines, many Hindus who believe in reincarnation and karma also believe that divine punishments are displayed in our physical bodies. Karma ensures that sinning in one life will cause a person to be reborn into a “lower life” or a less valuable body, such as the dark-skinned body of a female slave, or perhaps into a non-human body, like that of a worm or a slug, as a sign of divine punishment. In this religious ideology, avoiding sin is the only way to earn a better body the next time you are reborn. A sign of profound divine righteousness on earth would be to inhabit the body of a light-skinned male member of royalty: a person of great social power and great physical beauty. Such a person is considered to have earned their good fortune by being morally righteous in past lives.
I must be honest and say that I completely disagree with all of these beliefs. I understand that some people uphold these tenets of faith as the word of God or divine will on earth. Personally, I do not. The most toxic discourse—especially the most toxic ableism—is often given free rein in our society under the guise of religion and righteousness. But I personally do not see anything righteous or good about religious ableism.
Are people born into different kinds of bodies? Yes, absolutely. Do I need to believe that someone born with a physical or mental disability, or any kind of unwanted physical feature on their body, was born that way because they sinned in a past life, or because a divine presence marked them with sin, or because a divine presence wants me to know that they are damned to some kind of eternal place of punishment? No, I do not believe any of this bullshit. I believe that people are born with different kinds of bodies, but not that our physical bodies are manifestations of divine judgment or divine grace.
In the fantasy land of Orïsha, however, religious ableism runs rampant. As stated, people in Orïsha are graced by the gods with white hair and the ability to use magic. As one graced woman tells her graced daughter, “white hair was a sign of the powers of heaven and earth. It held beauty and virtue and love, it meant we were blessed by the gods above” (page 27).
To encounter ableism like this in a modern YA fantasy is absolutely horrifying. As an able-bodied woman myself, I cannot pretend to be fully aware of all forms of ableism in modern America. But as a reader of fiction, I have gotten better at spotting it in novels, and “Children of Blood and Bone” runs on the engine of ableism. This is due to the fact that value and worth are predicated on being born into a certain kind of body.
In Orïsha, a land of black people, everyone who is not divinely graced by the gods with white hair and magic are called the kosidán. The kosidán are people with hair that is typically deep brown or fully black. In the Orïshan city of Lagos, the kosidán outnumber those with white hair “three to one” (page 48). Population data is withheld from the reader, including whether this current “three to one” disparity is the same in smaller villages as it is in Lagos. By the time the story begins, it definitely seems that far more people in Orïsha are born without white hair and magic than with it. Like the Puritans in 17th century England, the graced in Orïsha are a minority within the larger population.
Of the Orïshans born with white hair, there are two types of people who wield magic: sêntaros and maji. The two types are closely related. The sêntaros “act as spiritual guardians, tasked with connecting Sky Mother’s spirit to the maji below” (page 161). This important “spiritual connection” between the gods and the magic they share is sealed “into the sêntaros’ blood” (page 162). As a sêntaro states on page 162: as long as the sêntaros’ “bloodline survived, magic did, too.”
What makes a sêntaro different from a maji is that a maji’s “connection to the gods is cemented in [their] blood” (page 165). I’m not really sure what that means, since both types of people have special bloodlines, but that is the distinction that the novel made, so I am sharing it. The other *big* difference (and the difference that felt *far* more important to point out) is that the sêntaros are “tasked with protecting human life” (page 163). They are not allowed to kill people (page 163). Maji, however, *are* allowed to kill, with or without using their divine magic.
If the maji were to kill the sêntaros, they would lose their “spiritual connection” to the gods and therefore lose their magic. Even though the maji have a connection to the gods “cemented in their blood,” the gods require that the sêntaros look after a set of three sacred objects to maintain their spiritual connection to the maji: a dagger, a stone, and a scroll (page 162). The dagger, stone, and scroll are frequently referred to in the novel as “the magical artifacts.”
Maji are graced by the gods from birth with white hair, but their ability to do magic doesn’t manifest until they turn thirteen. For that reason, white-haired children who are under the age of thirteen are called divîners (page 83). This point is made a few times in the novel.
Eleven years before the story begins, the maji of Orïsha were abusing their god-given powers and murdering kosidán (page 82).
The powerful magic wielded by the maji is separated into ten different types, or clans, and the maji that belong to each clan have their own titles. While all ten clans and their corresponding titles are listed for the reader before the story begins, the most important maji titles in “Children of Blood and Bone” are: Reapers, Burners, Healers and Cancers, and Connectors. Burners can incinerate multiple people in an instant. Cancers can instantly inflict multiple people with any number of torturous, fatal diseases. Healers can heal any damage or wound, or they can choose not to help the injured or sick. One maji warns her own young divîner daughter that Connectors are the most dangerous maji, since Connectors wield “power over mind, spirit, and dreams. […] They use magic to break into your head” (page 113).
Honestly, these maji sound scary as f*ck, like something Voldemort would dream up to conquer the world. Oddly, only one of the ten clans is called the “Maji of Life and Death.” They are the Reapers, maji who can create armies of the dead, the same way Voldemort created an army of the dead in the First Wizarding War. Though only one clan are called Reapers, I just want to point out that Burners, Cancers, Connectors, and other clans of the maji also wield enormous power over life and death. Not because they can all raise the dead into armies, but because they are all equally deadly when they want to kill.
Please imagine, for a moment, what 17th century England might have looked like if the Puritans had been “blessed by God” with powerful magic that can kill dozens and dozens of people in an instant, whether people are shooting at them or not, and whether anyone is even threatening them or not. I thank my lucky stars that the Puritans didn’t have divine superpowers to go along with their “we’re blessed by God and the rest of you are NOT” agenda. Yeah, I know they called themselves Saints, but the innocent people they burned, hanged, and crushed to death for being witches would definitely not call them saintly.
Apparently, the kosidán of Orïsha felt the same way about the maji, who were murdering people with their divine superpowers. Not only were the maji killing fellow Orïshans, they had become conquerors and colonizers who had wiped out other kingdoms. “The Britāunîs. The Pörltöganés. The Spãní Empire—all civilizations destroyed because those who had magic craved power, and those in charge didn’t do enough to stop them” (page 82).
Perhaps this level of colonialist carnage is what inspired the gods to take some magic away from the maji, in order to limit the destruction they were causing. Though the book doesn’t specify why, we are told that, “the gods broke that [spiritual] connection with royals generations ago” (page 82). Maji who were royals lost their magic because the gods took it away from them, and that loss made it possible for the current King of Orïsha to realize that magic could be taken away from *all* of the maji, not just the royals. If the spiritual connection between the maji and the gods were broken altogether—in other words, if the King of Orïsha murdered the sêntaros and destroyed the magical artifacts—then he could take magic away from the murdering maji, and stop their abuse of power once and for all.
What starts the King of Orïsha down this path of thinking is the fact that a Burner incinerates his whole family. In an instant, the King loses his young wife, his small children, and his own parents, who are all murdered with fire magic. Later in life, the King eventually remarries and has two more children. As the King’s grown son from his second marriage later states, “All the monarchy’s ever seen is the destruction maji can bring” (page 389). With Burners incinerating small children, maji murdering innocent people, and maji leaving Orïsha to conquer and destroy foreign kingdoms and empires, I would *definitely* want to take magic away from these people, too. While reading this book, I wondered why no one ever suggested that these Orïshan-Yoruba gods might in fact be “devils” instead, because they were allowing their divine gift of magic to be used for evil.
After the maji incinerate the young King’s family, he decides he is done trying to unify the kosidán and the maji. “There was a referendum going through the monarchy,” the King states, speaking of the time when he was still only a prince of Orïsha, before his parents were killed by the Burner (page 475). “A proposal that would integrate leaders of the ten maji clans into the nobility of our royal courts.” Though the book doesn’t say, I believe that the maji had to be integrated into the royal courts because all of the royals had been stripped of their magic by the gods (as stated on page 82). However, after a Burner incinerates the King’s family, he realizes the integration measure was completely misguided. “I thought the maji wanted to unify, but all they’ve ever craved is a desire to conquer us,” the King tells his grown son (page 475). To protect the innocent and powerless kosidán, King Saran decided to take away magic from all of the maji.
Given these circumstances, I have a lot of sympathy for King Saran. It seems clear to me that the maji were abusing their power and causing great damage. I certainly would not want to see a group of people like the Puritans conquering the entire world with divine magic. Given the fact that the maji of the king’s youth were destroying civilizations and killing children, they seem like a self-righteous cult of murderers, and I agree with King Saran that they needed to be stopped.
Apparently, a lot of kosidán agreed. Not only do they help King Saran take magic away from the graced, but then the kosidán expose their true feelings toward these people: they do absolutely nothing when his army descends into absolute evil, and commits genocide against the graced in Orïsha. First, Saran orders his army to butcher the sêntaros, and throw the magical artifacts into the ocean. Then Saran orders his troops to slaughter every graced Orïshan above the age of thirteen. He leaves the divîners alive, but he kills every maji he can. In the novel, only two graced people escape this carnage: one adult sêntaro, and one maji Seer who used her powers of foresight to save only herself.
This Seer, Mama Agba, is an important character in the beginning of the book. She describes how she escaped being murdered on the day of “the Raid,” the Orïshan term for the day Saran’s army slaughtered the graced. “Eleven years ago I had a vision of myself visiting a Cancer. I asked her to get rid of my white hair, and she used the magic of disease to take it all away” (page 89).
Other reviewers have pointed out that this line is confusing and medically inaccurate, since chemotherapy treatment is what causes most people with cancer to lose their hair, not the disease itself. But the capital C in Cancer is signaling that the Seer visited a maji gifted with causing disease. I had to read the novel twice and study the maji clan list at the beginning of the book before I realized that Cancer here meant a maji, not the disease the maji was causing.
In a similar way, the word “ryder” is used for any large, exotic fantasy animal a person is riding, not for the human rider atop the animal. Ryders in this novel are fantasy-jungle cats large enough to carry three adult riders at a time. They have big horns on their heads and can be tamed by any Orïshan, whether the person can do magic or not. Every time I saw the word ryder, and had to remember that this was the animal being ridden, not the rider atop of the cat, it served as one more reminder of how difficult and confusing this book felt to read.
But back to the issue of magical foresight, and what that implies for the genocide of the maji.
Mama Agba belongs to the Aríran Clan, the Maji of Time, called the Seers. I honestly find it shocking that such maji exist in this story, because *none* of them foresaw the Raid. Not one Seer foresaw that their magic would be “sucked out of the air” when the sêntaros were slain by the King’s army (page 89). The Seers didn’t even foresee that the sêntaros were in mortal peril, because the maji made no effort to better protect them. It was like the maji didn’t even understand how their own magic worked.
This is supported by the fact that Mama Agba herself doesn’t have any clue *why* magic disappeared. She has no idea that King Saran and his army killed the sêntaros, threw the magical artifacts in the ocean, and severed the spiritual connection between the maji and the gods. In Chapter One, Mama Agba tells a group of teenage divîners, “eleven years ago, magic disappeared. Only the gods know why” (page 15). After a heavy sigh, she adds, “One day magic breathed. The next, it died.” Mama Agba believes that the gods chose to take magic away, perhaps as a punishment (page 15).
The main character of “Children of Blood and Bone,” a feisty sixteen-year-old divîner named Zélie, is listening to Mama Agba say this. Zélie doesn’t believe that the gods took magic away. In her interior monologue, she tells the reader what she believes to be true: “Deep down, I know the truth. The gods died with our magic” (page 15). Zélie doesn’t speculate on how or why the gods died. She goes only so far to say that it was the death of the gods that ended magic.
In Chapter One, Zélie and Mama Agba both share misinformation with the reader, which makes them both unreliable narrators. Mama Agba is Zélie’s teacher and mentor, and Zélie is her best student. Neither character knows the truth about their own history and magical system. Because the backstory about the Raid is delivered piecemeal throughout the novel, I had to read the entire book twice to make sense of the magical system and the history of the Raid. The author frequently chooses to have her characters share misinformation with the reader, only to have another character correct that “truth” much later.
The result is that everything in the book is suspect. Truth becomes relative. When the reader cannot trust the protagonists in a story, or any of the facts those protagonists share, then what is the point of the story? For instance, did the maji really conquer foreign kingdoms and empires, or was that all a lie? I don’t know. No one ever asks the question, and the data is only shared with the reader by one point of view character, a character who was informed of this by King Saran. It saddens me that the genocidal sociopath is the one character I trust most. King Saran *does* know the truth about why the maji lost their magic, when even the sole surviving maji in the story (Mama Agba) does not. That is why I have included the information from the King in this review. Of all the characters, he was the only one who was never proven to be factually wrong.
Forcing the reader to trust a genocidal sociopath more than the protagonists of this story felt like a deliberately confusing tactic. Even on the last page of the book, King Saran was a far more trustworthy character than any of the three point of view characters who narrate the novel. “Children of Blood and Bone” is frustrating to read, and the relativity of any historical truth on the page just makes everything worse.
I kept asking myself: are there truly no historians in Orïsha? Are there truly no people who recorded the massacre of the sêntaros and maji, and described why it happened?
The answer, it seems, is that every adult in this novel is completely lacking in brain cells. This is a YA fantasy that runs on that popular YA trope of Teens Save the World. I can only assume that there are no historians in Orïsha because that would require an adult with a functioning brain. Only a thinking person could record the details of such a momentous event for posterity.
It is also important to note that no one in Orïsha ever revolts afterward, or tries to kill Saran in vengeance for what he has done. For comparison, please consider that there were at least fourteen attempts by citizens of the German Reich to assassinate Hitler before and during World War II. Despots are not universally loved. Moral people can still recognize evil as evil; we’re not all brainwashed by demagogues. But in the case of Orïsha, it seems that the only people who mourn the slaughtered sêntaros and maji are the spouses and surviving children of the dead. After the genocide of their parents, the divîners are all either brutally enslaved by the kosidán or left to survive on their own, largely orphaned and living in poverty.
The fact that the entire kosidán population just accepted and supported the genocide and enslavement of an entire group of people is another point of evidence that Saran wasn’t exaggerating the maji’s abuses of power. Only a group that was inflicting great damage upon the rest of the population could be slaughtered like that with no revolts, no protests, and no attempts to assassinate the King. The genocide of the sêntaros and maji is not only accepted by the Orïshans, but their surviving divîner children are reviled, viewed as worthless garbage, and the kosidán constantly refer to these orphaned children as “maggots.”
The hatred the kosidán felt toward the maji before the Raid must have been immense. In real life, history is full of revolts in which the powerless rise up to wrest power from the brutalizing despots in charge of a fascist system. Much blood is often spilled, as seems to be the case with the kosidán rising up against the maji in “Children of Blood and Bone.”
But therein lies the crux of the problem with this novel. After the divîners become an oppressed, dehumanized class in Orïsha—children reviled as “maggots” for having white hair—the reader is meant to directly equate their oppression with the plight of modern African Americans living in the United States. The book is *meant* to be about the racism modern African Americans face in the U.S., but given the details about the rise and fall of the divinely-superpowered and murderous maji in this book, I find this direct comparison completely problematic and wrong. Literary agents felt otherwise. The author pitched this book to literary agents as: “AVATAR THE LAST AIRBENDER meets BLACK LIVES MATTER” (link below), and the response was overwhelmingly positive.
The tremendous sales and acclaim for this novel have proved that the literary agents were right to recognize that a derivative version of the popular animated TV show “Avatar: the Last Airbender” (2005-2008) mixed with the social justice awareness of Black Lives Matter would be a huge hit. My biggest concern about this pitch is in directly comparing the plight of the divîners to the racism African Americans currently face in the United States. The published novel ends with an Author’s Note in which Ms. Adeyemi states that this book “was written during a time where [sic] I kept turning on the news and seeing stories of unarmed black men, women, and children being shot by the police. I felt afraid and angry and helpless, but this book was the one thing that made me feel like I could do something about it” (page 526).
The author goes on to equate the complete dehumanization and violence Zélie suffers as a divîner in this novel to the plight of black people growing up in modern America. Ms. Adeyemi names specific people of color killed by the police, providing key details about their deaths. She states that she wrote this book as a call to action, ending her note with, “We’ve been knocked down for far too long. Now let’s rise” (page 527).
The author has also repeated the book’s direct link to Black Lives Matter in interviews. According to one interview, “Every obstacle in this book is based off something in the real world, because that’s the other thing about fantasy. This is something that Black people are dealing with today, or as recently as 30 years ago. It’s this big fantasy, but it’s meant to be this glaring mirror” (link below).
I am honestly stunned by these words. In the novel, the divîners are largely enslaved by the kosidán, and repeatedly seen in shackles, as African Americans were treated in the U.S. before slavery was abolished. The divîners are constantly harassed and called maggots in public, which the author uses as a direct stand-in for the word n*gger. Divîners can be publicly raped by the King’s soldiers in a classroom or place of business, and they can be brutally murdered in public, even before the eyes of a very large crowd or an entire arena full of people, without protest from the kosidán. Honestly, the oppression described in this novel seemed more like the conditions for African Americans during slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation, rather than the racism in America in the past thirty years.
In the first half of Chapter One, Zélie is physically assaulted and almost raped by a kosidán soldier in front of her teacher and classmates, and the novel is full of scenes in which divîners are butchered in public. The kosidán seem entirely immoral and cruel. The only time they ever see a divîner as a human being is if a divîner goes out of their way to be servile and kind to their kosidán masters and oppressors. Such is the case with a character named Binta, a young divîner girl who is incredibly servile and kind to the Princess Amari, who eventually recognizes Binta’s humanity and thinks of her as a friend. But Binta is still brutally slain by the King without one word of protest (page 43). The oppression depicted in “Children of Blood and Bone” felt more like 1852 in America, when “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was published, than a direct analogue to the present day.
When asked about what themes she wanted to explore in this bestselling novel, Ms. Adeyemi answered, “Definitely police brutality and oppression. People hear a phrase like ‘Black Lives Matter’ and they will find a way to find fault with it. Really all ‘Black Lives Matter’ is saying is, ‘Stop killing us.’ That’s where it came from. It came from being repeatedly slaughtered with no cause and no justice. For me, it was important to take that very simple message and make it black and white. Every single obstacle, every point of conflict, every moment of violence in the book is tied to something that black people are facing today as we speak or faced as recently as 30 years ago in this country” (link below).
I disagree. Police in America today do not walk into classrooms calling out racial slurs against black students, demanding bribes or racist tax payments, and almost raping female students in front of their teachers and classmates. This is the situation that occurs in the opening pages of “Children of Blood and Bone” (pages 9-12). I try to stay informed about racism in modern America, but I know of no instances when such an event has occurred in the past thirty years. For the author to say that she is depicting modern police violence in America with *this* kind of behavior on the page feels dishonest and insulting. I recognize that there are corrupt police in America, corrupt police departments in America, and that black people are unfairly fined, imprisoned, and abused by the entire criminal justice system. But to say that modern police officers swagger into schools calling out racial slurs, demanding money, and that they interrupt class to threaten to rape black female students honestly feels like one of those moments when police officers in the United States are being denigrated as a monolithic group of mindless assholes.
I fully support Black Lives Matter, and all the work that everyone has ever done to stop dehumanizing people of color. The modern United States has a *massive* problem with racism, and I support all of the movements that continue the hard work of social justice in this country.
But I do not believe the King’s soldiers in this novel can be directly compared to modern police officers, and I feel the same way about comparing the maji and their children to modern African Americans. It is problematic and wrong to directly equate the divîners who are enslaved and brutalized in their native country of Orïsha with modern African Americans in the United States. African slaves in America were taken *away* from their homeland and brought to America. These slaves were not a former ruling elite armed with powerful, deadly magic graced to them by the gods. Nor could these slaves kill anyone with a chant in Yoruba. Neither were they destroying civilizations nor incinerating babies with magic. These people were mostly farmers and villagers, women and children, kidnapped from their homes in the dark of night, while everyone was asleep.
Yes, I understand that King Saran’s genocide of the maji is wrong. I do not support any of the slaughter that takes place in this novel. I don’t even support capital punishment in the United States, and I wish America would abolish it.
But the fact remains, the maji are NOT equivalent to African American slaves or their descendents facing police violence today. In Orïsha, the maji were butchering the kosidán, destroying civilizations, and even incinerating small children with fire magic. Were I one of the kosidán, I would *certainly* fear for my life around maji. When the divîners eventually regain the magical artifacts and start to use magic again, Zélie and the other main characters do not behave ethically, even when they have been instructed to do so (page 16). They torture people, including other divîners (page 289-290, pages 330-331), and Zélie justifies torture as necessary more than once (page 303, page 343). Zélie and the other main characters also support maji who incinerate people, they help inflict people with fatal diseases, and they use other spells to kill (pages 402-403, pages 440-447). The sole surviving sêntaro uses magic to brutally kill two ryders, rather than incapacitating the people riding the animals (page 181). This scene felt like watching someone deliberately fling a pair of horses off a cliff, rather than using their magic to bind and stop their human enemies.
Worst of all is the fact that Zélie raises an army of the dead numerous times, including the tortured spirits of divîners who died while enslaved. Zélie uses the dead to fight and kill on her behalf. They are not asked to do this, but commanded. Watching Zélie create her own version of Voldemort’s Inferi in this book was horrifying. As a Reaper, Zélie controls the spirits of the dead to create soldiers with misshapen bodies more than once in the story. The reader is even told the details about the trauma these dead people have suffered, trauma that has “trapped [them] in the hell of apâdi,” a realm of the afterlife where Zélie can use their spirits if she likes (page 202). Zélie states of these traumatized dead: “Bound to their pain, they stay in apâdi, reliving the worst moments of their human memories again and again” (page 203). As Zelie prepares her first army, she tells the reader that she “can feel the spirits’ torture, their unyielding agony, their never-ending pain” (page 203). Zelie creates bodies from dirt, water, and available debris for these traumatized spirits of the dead, and the bodies fall apart as soon as she is done with them.
I honestly could not understand how this behavior was ever seen as okay. If I am meant to sympathize with Zélie as a member of the oppressed class of divîners, then why am I watching her fight with traumatized spirit zombies like Voldemort? I never rooted for Voldemort. Voldemort is the man without morals who raised an army of the dead. Voldemort is the one who tortures people and justifies torture as necessary. But a teenage girl in a YA fantasy does it, and now it’s okay?
No. I will never be okay with Voldemort. Or anyone who is acting like Voldemort.
Zélie isn’t the only Reaper in the story who abuses her power over the dead. Her mother was also a Reaper with the power to command spirits. Twice in the novel, it is mentioned that Zélie’s mother made use of the dead to hold Zélie down as a child, so her mother could comb her curly white hair (page 304, page 482). The maji in this book have no regard for the dead as former living human beings deserving of any respect. To force the dead to do your bidding simply because you can is as abusive and violent as non-magical slavery.
I found all of these deadly maji spells that the main characters used in this story to be unethical and repulsive, and I honestly don’t think Orïsha or the rest of the fantasy world in this novel is safe with these people and the deadly power they wield.
This situation is *not* the same as discussing the racism that modern black people face in America. African Americans are not armed with divine spells that raise armies of the dead, incinerate people in an instant, or inflict plagues upon the majority population. The spells the magi use to kill people in this book sound like the alt-right propaganda against African Americans, such as when the alt-right blames the African continent and people of color for diseases like ebola, as if the African people were responsible for that virus. The alt-right spreads endless propaganda that people of color are trying to take over America, destroy the white race, and annihilate Western civilization.
The reason that the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy holds so much power in modern America is rooted in the fact that the alt-right actively *fears* people of color as an organized and powerful enemy. Much like the way King Saran views the maji in Orïsha, the alt-right looks at people of color today as a monolithic, malignant foe waiting to overpower and slaughter the white race, take over America, and rule the world in complete barbarism.
In contrast: the maji in Orïsha were in fact using magic to kill and destroy civilizations, and their divîner children use their magic to kill. This is not the same thing as talking about modern African Americans at all.
The magical system in “Children of Blood and Bone” makes any direct comparison to Black Lives Matter null and void. The graced Orïshans in this story are, in fact, exactly what the alt-right claims modern people of color to be: a serious threat to the survival of anyone who is not like them. Unlike modern American people of color, the maji once held power over their kosidán oppressors, who they easily slaughtered until King Saran destroyed them. Once magic comes back, the maji can return to power and start killing the kosidán again, just as King Saran fears.
If people of color in America were behaving the way the maji are in “Children of Blood and Bone”—raising armies of the dead and incinerating babies with divine magic—then I would certainly want them stopped. I do not support malicious behavior, torture, murder, or anyone behaving like Voldemort. Seriously, just no.
I cannot think of Zélie or the other maji as heroes. Abuse of power is not a heroic trait. Torture and zombie armies are not noble uses of magic or any non-magical human ability. Harry Potter and his parents would never act like this. They would never promote torture or using the spirits of the dead, especially not the traumatized dead. With “Children of Blood and Bone,” the publishing industry has finally mainstreamed an all-black YA fantasy onto the market, but the teenage protagonists are nothing like the white protagonists in Harry Potter. This saddens and upsets me a great deal.
I have read so many 5-star rave reviews for this novel that I know many fans of this book defend the direct comparison of the maji with modern American people of color. To summarize the most common arguments I have read in support of Zélie’s behavior: “The most important point of this novel is to say that no one is innocent. We’re all complicit in evil. We all do bad things. Everyone on the planet is racist, regardless of what color our skin is, and ‘Children of Blood and Bone’ is making that point. What is fascinating about the novel is that the victims of racism and colorism in this story—the divîners who survived the genocide of their parents—can arm themselves again with magic, kill their oppressors, and take over Orïsha again. It’s a story of empowerment, telling the black race to rise up.”
To which I say, this “kill their oppressors” argument actually sounds more like alt-right propaganda to me. The alt-right *does* fear that people of color will violently take over America and then oppress the predicted minority-white race of the future, the same way King Saran views the maji. This book feels like the story is throwing more gasoline on a hegemony fire.
I support flawed protagonists, but to say, “everyone on the planet is racist” is false. Almost all people are prejudiced. But only those who belong to the dominant power group can be racist, which is the application of prejudice within a system of oppression against a minority group.
Also, Zélie’s support of torture is not something I consider a “character flaw” but a major ethical problem that should not be justified by the story’s hero, especially given the author’s stated intentions for this book. I cannot believe that anyone who supports Black Lives Matter would also support the use of torture, religious ableism, or Zélie’s objectification and use of the dead. Black Lives Matter is about *stopping* these things from happening in modern America, not justifying or perpetuating them in society.
For as many problems as I have with this novel, I can understand why so many readers have praised the book and continue to recommend that everyone read it. The YA genre performs best when authors utilize the most popular storytelling tropes, and “Children of Blood and Bone” uses a number of bestselling tropes.
Here is a short list of the popular YA tropes I found the most notable:
- Born Special/Chosen One
- Teenagers Must Save the World/Savior Teens
- Action! Action! Action!
- Arena combat/Gladiator Tournament Starring Teens
- Super Urgent Timeline (see trope #6)
- Standard Medieval Fantasy Setting with Exotic Vocabulary Sprinkled In
- Evil Tyrant Antagonist, or Satan Incarnate Villain
- Teen Heroes join up with a well-organized Teen Rebellion to Save the Day
The trope of the Standard Medieval Fantasy Setting allows authors to write a world that resembles 18th or 19th century Europe and America, but does not have guns or any heavy artillery. Cannons and bullets often detract from the preferred fantasy setting, and it’s also much easier to write an 18th-century social mentality than a truly medieval one. “Children of Blood and Bone” features a standard YA setting that has become quite popular in recent years: standard fantasy with “exotic” or English-foreign vocabulary substituted for familiar items such as food, clothing, money, and architecture. This allows the reader familiar with the standard medieval European fantasy culture employed in these stories to engage with a “unique setting” like “fantasy West Africa” without having to invest any energy in learning a new culture.
Other popular “unique settings” in YA currently include fantasy Persia, fantasy East Asia, and fantasy Ireland. “Children of Blood and Bone” was the first big “fantasy West Africa” YA to hit the mainstream market, and the industry timed the release of this book to closely follow the release of the Hollywood film “Black Panther.” (A great movie!! I was fortunate enough to be able to see it twice, and highly recommend it!!) Careful marketing decisions like that help novels find visibility among more consumers, but “Children of Blood and Bone” reads like a product rushed to market before it could be thoroughly edited. Ms. Adeyemi has stated in interviews that this novel took a total of 18 months to write, during which time she completed approximately 40 drafts. While that seems like a considerable amount of editing work, this novel is 525 pages long, which leads me to believe that those 40 drafts were for more cosmetic changes involving line edits and proofreads, rather than the content editing this book really needed.
Even after those forty drafts, the prose of this novel is juvenile, repetitive, and extremely inconsistent. Because the story is plot-driven and solely focused on executing genre tropes, the characters think and behave as plot puppets yanked to and fro by the strings of the author. The three point-of-view teenage characters, Zélie, Amari, and Inan, are unreflective, incurious, and make enormous, instantaneous shifts in their worldviews and opinions whenever the author needs them to. Because the characters make little to no sense, their behavior makes little to no sense, and they engage in foolish or even suicidal behavior so that the story can deliver specific, expected, trope-heavy scenes to the YA fantasy reader, rather than following an authentic trajectory.
This happens so often that I will only describe three examples:
1.) Princess Amari has grown up witnessing her father hurting and killing people, she even caught him beating a young boy in the basement, he forced Amari’s own brother to almost kill her with a sword; the King holds all divîners in contempt, and Binta the divîner servant is Amari’s only friend, the only person who truly loves Amari. But in Chapter Three, when Binta is suddenly taken by the King, Amari just sits in her chair, doing nothing, nothing, nothing, until the author decides Amari should finally realize Binta’s life could be in danger. Amari is such a spineless, clueless person in that moment, but five minutes later, she forsakes her life as a royal and betrays her entire family to run into the wilds with no one to help her, determined to find a way to help Binta’s people regain their magic, even though Amari has been told all her life that magic will kill her.
2.) In Chapter Three, the King needs to know where the sunstone is. He is told by his top military officers that they are desperately searching for it. Meanwhile, a day’s ride from the palace, the sunstone is being used as a public prize in a giant desert arena that is filled with water each night, where wealthy nobles supply boats full of slaves to smash against each other in front of a massive crowd, competing to win the sunstone that the King is so desperate to recover. Thousands and thousands of people see this sunstone held up as the prize every night. The King’s top military commanders cannot find the sunstone on public display in a giant gladiator arena, but everywhere else in the story, the soldiers read as an omniscient horde appearing en masse to kill people.
3.) Zélie must hurry to get to the sacred temple with the three artifacts to bring back magic, or magic will disappear forever. Time has been running out, and the characters are all in massive danger, but since the book has not yet featured a prom-like scene with pretty dresses and makeup, the mission is stopped for a day for a big, useless party. Pretty dresses and makeup are put on, boys and girls are admired, and the YA trope of the main characters all romantically pairing up together is fulfilled. Before any steamy moments can turn into sexual intercourse, this nonsensical celebration quickly becomes a scene full of carnage as the King’s soldiers arrive to start a new wave of slaughter.
The pages of “Children of Blood and Bone” feature one plot contrivance after another. This book is a house built and owned by the deus ex machina. The action scenes in this novel make little to no sense, but are as gory as watching an episode of “Game of Thrones.” I may not enjoy storytelling like this, but other readers find action-packed, plot-driven novels to be satisfying entertainment.
Ms. Adeyemi has stated that one of her biggest motivators in writing this YA fantasy was the question, “What if Harry Potter had been black?” I love this question, and I love to consider different answers. I find Ms. Adeyemi’s writing motivations and goals admirable, and I support her intentions wholeheartedly. That is why I purchased a copy of “Children of Blood and Bone” and immediately started to read it. I wish Zélie had been a black, female version of Harry Potter, a hero in her own magical adventure, as Ms. Adeyemi intended. But Harry Potter never adopted Voldemort’s tactics in order to fight him or defeat him. The magic system in Harry Potter wasn’t founded upon religious ableism. And Harry Potter’s greatest weapon as a Chosen One was not his ability to do magic, but the strength of the love in his heart. In no way do I find it appropriate to compare “Children of Blood and Bone” to Harry Potter. Zélie’s behavior and Harry Potter’s behavior are diametrically opposed to each other.
But the hope for a franchise as successful as Harry Potter was a contributing factor leading to the financial success of this book. “Children of Blood and Bone” sold for a seven-figure book deal, and the movie rights sold again for another seven figures before the manuscript was even published. The acclaim and hype for this novel remain incredibly strong, and I’m sure this book will continue to sell well and become a financially successful film.
Some reviewers have pointed out that the only voices who should be allowed to criticize a novel like this are those of own voices reviewers, people who speak Yoruba themselves or have West African heritage. I found two own voices reviews online, linked below. Neither of these reviewers felt like the Nigerian representation in this book was as good as it could have been, and both found the use of Yoruba and Nigerian mythology in this book problematic.
Here is the link to Ojo’s review on Goodreads –
And here is the link to ijeoma Agbaje’s review on Goodreads –
For me personally, I have nothing to praise about this story or its execution. I will not be reading the two sequels in this trilogy, and I will not be seeing the movies. The cover of this novel is stunning, and I had hoped to fall in love with “Children of Blood and Bone.” But I cannot in good conscience recommend this book to anyone.
If you would like to share any comments about this review, please do so on my Goodreads link for this review (link below). Thanks!