I just went to YALfest, the biggest Dutch YA event (organised by different YA publishers, which is quite unique). Tomi Adeyemi was there to promote her debut Children of Blood and Bone. I already had this book on my TBR, because I was getting excited about all the buzz it was creating. It’s from a Nigerian-American author, and her setting is a fantasy version of Nigeria, with a full POC cast. And it’s a fantasy! All of that made me want to read this book. So when I heard Tomi Adeyemi was coming to YALfest, it got bumped to the top of my to read list and I finished it a few weeks before the event.
I really like all the potential in this book, and I think some things were very well chosen. But I also feel that it’s clearly a debut novel, and that Tomi Adeyemi needs to work on some stuff. I fully believe she is capable of that, so I expect I will be giving book two a higher score. First the three major points I really like about Children of Blood and Bone. The first one is the fact that it’s based off of Nigerian culture, but with a fantasy twist. It’s fully fantasy, but that would make it easier for non-fantasy readers to get into this story. Also, because it is rooted in real life issues, you can’t get around the comparison. Better to claim it for your own.
The second one ties into that, in the way that it purposely reflects real life issues and politics. Of course, every fantasy does this to some extent, but in Children of Blood and Bone it’s clear that this is the purpose of the story.
Thirdly, Tomi Adeyemi’s characters are ambiguous. Zelie is not an ideal person. She holds grudges, she is judgmental (she has a point most of the time, but she generalises like crazy). She also does before she thinks, and it has a tendency to hurt her family. Amari too: she is someone who you want to scream at to toughen up. She is extremely entitled, which is obvious in the way she thinks about and interacted with her servant Binta. But she also makes some very good points, and she is the softer side to Zelie’s zeal. She can be reasoned with, and she can negotiate.
The men are the same. Just think about the king, who became this cruel because his first wife and children were slaughtered. But honestly, it is Inan who is the best example. He has become the thing he hates, and struggles with it for all of the book. You see him going back and forth between acceptance and abhorrance, and his inability to decide makes him extremely unreliable. Making promises he already breaks a chapter later. In the end, he and Zelie cannot help but stand on different sides of the same argument, no matter what they might feel. You can’t stay locked in a dreamworld forever, and the politics of their situation is a very real reality.
So, now that I’ve described the things I really liked, I must also get into the things I did not. The first one also has to do with Tomi Adeyemi’s world building. Where she builds upon the Nigerian culture and the racism, her world has clear outlines. She is very good at showing the different kinds of racism people encounter (Zelie’s brute one , Amari’s subtle one for being a shade to dark, etc.). But when she gets into the magic part, and she builds on her own creation, it’s clear she doesn’t have the full story herself yet.
Zelie’s magic is not well defined. As readers, you can’t get a full picture of her capabilities and her limits, because these are not constants. For example: she raised ghosts before and they formed from dust. This is logical, because it’s what we reduce to after death. But in the arena, they form from water. Why? And how? There are specifically elemental maji, it’s clearly an ability delineated for a maji order to which Zelie does not belong. The way Zelie loses her magic is also quite messy. How does she lose it, how does she get it back, is this a mental block or not, is it a common thing or not? Tomi Adeyemi kind of needs to develop this aspect of her story more.
Another point is the fact that the story really drags in the middle. I was initially very unhappy with the way Zelie and Inan decide to go for one another. It was bordering on sappy, but then the story turned around completely and changed their dynamic for the better. I am now really excited for what is going to happen next, because that was an awesome ending. But the middle does have performance issues. I felt the same with the love story brewing between Tzain and Amari. I mean, really. Perfect pairings already in book one? And a full double brother-sister set at that.
As a final comment, I felt that there was a bit too much happening at the end. The addition of the divîner refugees, the strange guide from the unknown country, the abduction of Zelie’s father, her losing her magic… I think the story would have been served better if that had been trimmed a little. Because then it wouldn’t have felt crammed, and Tomi Adeyemi would have had more time to build her storyworld, which would also have improved the points I mentioned earlier.
The negatives I mentioned can all be attributed to the fact that this is a debut novel. It’s pacing issues, building a storyworld – that sort of thing. I started not to like the story in the middle, but it really turned itself around again and ended very strong. That cliffhanger! I mean, seriously, Tomi! I really am excited for book two and three, and I think Children of Blood and Bone is a great addition to YA fantasy.
I’m also giving her approach in writing a racism novel in a fantasy setting another shout-out. The book has a clear purpose and is tailored to it. It is so reminiscent of our real world that you can’t miss it. Usually, when authors base their fantasy worlds on real culture, they do so because they can’t creatively get there on their own. And while the magic has its issues, that is really not the case with Tomi Adeyemi. With her, this part is meant to be a bit “in your face”. I think we are going to see great things from Tomi Adeyemi. So read Children of Blood and Bone, and don’t miss out on this author.