My interest in Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone stems from a conversation that I witnessed between two mutual Christian friends of African descent on “ZukBook.” To paraphrase one of them, “I try to avoid reading black fantasy because [the authors] tend to delve into pagan mysticism.” This assessment alarmed me for multiple reasons.
For instance, high fantasy authors have conditioned us to consume literature already rooted in paganism of Occidental origin. Consider how often fiction draws from Nordic or Grecian mythologies (God of War in both instances; Age of Mythology) and Arthurian legend (King Arthur ; Merlin ; and the prologue of Transformers: The Last Knight ). Prejudice toward a novel like Children of Blood and Bone just because it sources from pagan African traditions strikes me as myopic, if not also a display of (internalized) racism.
Admittedly, the idea of “black fantasy,” or what Ebony Elizabeth Thomas calls the Dark Fantastic, was completely foreign to me, such that I was surprised to learn that this (sub)genre even existed to entertain, let alone to offend. I spent the greater part of the 2000s consuming literature such as Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist, and Nalo Hopkinson’s The Brown Girl in the Ring; notwithstanding the caveat that the latter features elements of magical realism, these novels have more in common with speculative literature than fantasy. With my limited exposure to black fantasy, I am excited to learn that authors like Adeyemi, N. K. Jemisin, and Nnedi Okorafor have spent the past decade dictating the Dark Fantastic for people like myself who were confounded by its elusiveness.
As an act of sympathy, in defense of the individual whose comments I found alarming, I offer this: perhaps their innate fear in the Dark Fantastic is rooted in their miseducation, which is no fault of their own. After all, the well-read are familiar with Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, written in an epoch when Europeans referred to Africa as the Dark Continent. When one is bombarded with ideologies describing Africa negatively or ignoring it altogether, then it is possible to realize how even someone of African descent might fear literature featuring characters casting spells in a language that is not in Latin, but in Swahili, Zulu, Yoruba or Hausa (shout out to the Dora Milaje of Black Panther lore), which unfortunately sound foreign than fabricated hocus-pocus.
Thus, my intervention in this ongoing conversation concerning high fantasy reading the literature of the aforementioned authors. Here, I begin with Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone. After all, we may hear more about it in the upcoming months considering recent talks with Lucasfilm concerning a movie adaptation.
“Magic is a gift from the gods,” he continues, “a spiritual connection between them and mankind. If the gods broke that connection with royals generations ago, I knew their connection to the maji could be severed, too” (82).
The crux of Blood and Bone, as I will reiterate in the body of the review, involves a mission to restore magic within the fictional land of Orïsha. Magic had ceased to exist until a certain individual comes into contact with a once-concealed artifact. Several relics of similar power serve as mediums between those who can cast magic, and their patron deities, the ultimate sources of their magic. Between ten tribes, there are ten deities based upon the Yoruba pantheon of gods (not unlike the Greek and Norse pantheons I referenced in this review’s introduction). Blood and Bone focuses on Ọya, though Adeyemi seems to borrow from the Candombléve version of the goddess, Iansã, who exercises power over the dead. The protagonist, then, learns to command the spirits of the deceased, empowering her fighting capabilities.
Those capable of casting spells do so in their mother tongue, Yoruba. This means that it is possible to verify the meaning of every spell via a Google Translate search.
“Everything is possible when it comes to the gods. All that matters is Sky Mother’s will” (157).
To restore magic in Orïsha, a revolution is necessary. Of course, the hegemony will have none of that. Therefore, expect no little amount of bloodshed from bludgeoning, stab wounds, arrow punctures, and burns. Imagine the violence that takes place in The Hunger Games and triple it. To put things into further perspective, the text describes brother and sister dueling, resulting in one of them suffering from a blow that sheers their spinal column in two.
The language is very light here. “Skies!” is an often-spoken euphemism for harsher words, though they never come. At worst, some characters may drop a “d**n.”
Drug and Alcohol
A few scenes take place in bars, though these places are where unauthorized social gatherings take place, so the text focuses on that rather than the beverage of choice.
Blood and Bone is a YA novel, so expect characters to make some foolish decisions while under the influence of hormones from the endocrine system rather than the neurons of the brain. Specifically, there is (heavy) kissing and some lusting over vaguely-detailed naked bodies during some skinny dipping in an uber-fantasy realm. In this way, Adeyemi is careful with her depictions of attraction while keeping things kosher within the YA context and not delving in erotica.
Racism (Depicted in the text as Tribalism) and Bigotry
Children of Blood and Bone was written during a time where I kept turning on to 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 (526).
If you cried for [spoilers] and [redacted], cry for innocent children like Jordan Edwards, Tamir Rice, and Aiyana Stanley-Jones. They were fifteen, twelve, and seven when they were shot and killed by police (526).
Before I even read Adeyemi’s afterword, the metaphorical relationship between the elite kosidán (“normal,” non-spell casters) and the divîner/maji (latent and awakened spell-casters, respectively) could not be more obvious. The elite kosidán intentionally treat divîners like animals, flogging them just because (sometimes fatally), levying heavy taxes that are impossible to pay, and behaving lasciviously toward the womenfolk. Furthermore, they enslave the divîners when the latter cannot afford these taxes. If none of this rings a bell, to state things plainly, Adeyemi sources from Jim Crow, apartheid, and the Prison Industrial Complex in her depictions of oppression. To underscore Children of Blood and Bone as metaphor, it deploys a racial slur, “maggot,” in reference to the divîner/maji caste.
Notwithstanding the authors mentioned in the Content Guide, authors writing within the Dark Fantastic are either cutting-edge or yet to be recuperated from a time when publishers would reject their manuscripts. One can even detect the hesitation of Adeyemi’s publishers at Henry Holt and Company given Children of Blood and Bone‘s genre and target audience. After all, 1/4 of the story—a prodigious proportion bordering spoiler territory— is summarized on the book cover:
Zélie Adebola remembers when the soil of Orïsha hummed with magic. Burners ignited flames, Tiders beckoned waves, and Zélie’s Reaper mother summoned forth souls.
But everything changed the night magic disappeared. Under the orders of a ruthless king, maji were killed, leaving Zélie without a mother and her people without hope.
Now Zélie has one chance to bring back magic and strike against the monarchy. With the help of a rogue princess, Zélie must outwit and outrun the crown prince, who is hell-bent on eradicating magic for good.
Danger lurks in Orïsha, where snow leoponaires prowl and vengeful spirits wait in the waters. Yet the greatest danger may be Zélie herself as she struggles to control her powers and her growing feelings for an enemy.
This is more information than I think is necessary to sell a book. However, What Henry Hold and Company do not describe, is the fact that the text delivers the narrative through the perspectives of three characters, including Zélie the divîner—Amari, the “rogue princess,” and her brother Inan. After witnessing her father, Saran, execute her best friend and servant, Amari runs away, stealing a powerful artifact with no real plan to escape the city walls. Coincidentally, Zélie happens to be in the city, and like a scene from Disney’s Aladdin, bumps into Amari who conspicuously still dons royal garb. The two manage to barely escape detection, with Inan placed in charge of the search party his father conscripts to capture his fugitive kosidán daughter and execute the enabling divîner.
Amari and Zélie by Jo Painter
This story reminds me of a (neo)slave narrative trope of the plantation master’s child joining the Underground Railroad to undo the sins of their father, yet the offended patriarch enlists the service of some unscrupulous patteroller to apprehend escaped slaves. A key difference here, however, is that as a divîner, Zélie evolves into a maji after coming into contact with the stolen artifact. She then embarks upon a quest to restore magic throughout all of Orïsha. Of course, Saran desires to prevent this at all costs. In this way, I recall how agrarian Southern states initiated a war at Fort Sumpter to maintain its powerhouse slave-based economy and way of life.
Children of Blood and Bone is best when it manifests these parallels palpably alongside a healthy layering of Yoruba lore and culture. Adeyemi’s work peaks particularly when the magic flows. Unfortunately, out of the ten clans or schools of maji, only six appear in the novel, and even out of this selection, I remain unsatisfied, not knowing precisely (or relatively) how powerful they can be. This is akin to the Phoenix Force possessing Jean Grey, yet her human side prevents her from utilizing the full extent of its power. And like the mutant power meter in the Sega Genesis version of X-Men, maji power is limited by their ashê (think mana); all this means is that magic becomes unavailable when it is needed most in order to create tension, but I desire more revolutionary action!
What really prevents Children of Blood and Bone from achieving greatness is that it too often conforms to young adult literary conventions. While it is plausible if not expected that the hormones of pubescent teens should prevent them from making wise choices, some of the decisions that Zélie makes in the name of “her growing feelings for an enemy” are just plain dumb; the target of her affections is not only far too predictable, but unearned and eye-roll fodder. One of these characters says something like, “If my allies find out, I will die,” and the other character says, “If I do not, others will suffer.” Sure enough, after a series of naïve choices, bad things do indeed happen. Adeyemi belabors this kind of indecisiveness for whole chapters, making her text occasionally repetitive and exasperating to read. Hormonal mood swings are not limited to sexual desire—crying in this novel is just plain excessive. Zélie nearly drowns in two different bodies of water, and yet their volume barely exceeds the number of tears these characters shed. Good Grief!
The main appeal of Children of Blood and Bone is that it is a rare foray into the Dark Fantastic. Nowhere else can one read a text where characters cast spells in Yoruba while riding on giant beasts called lionaires and in a setting where everyone is melanated. That in itself renders this book required reading for those new to and familiar with fantasy alike. I am just hoping that the next book in the Legacy of Orïsha trilogy, Children of Virtue and Vengeance is decidedly less sentimental, although the unresolved “ship” in Children of Blood and Bone worries me.
+ Palpable liberation allegories + Magic reminiscent of X-Men powers + An accessible introduction to the Dark Fantastic
- Teen drama - Predictable star-crossing - Author completely forgets that Zélie can use a staff to fight
The Bottom Line
Children of Blood and Bone is good enough to warrant continuing the series, but I had hopes for more than what it offers.