Review: Children of Blood and Bone

9 May

Children of Blood and Bone

-Tomi Adeyemi

I should note, at the start, that Children of Blood and Bone is written in a curious style. The author has used first-person, immediate tense (“I walk down the street”) and – for some reason – used three separate POV characters. I’m not sure why she did it, because – while it does lend the text a certain degree of immediacy – it also makes the first few characters harder to follow. Things smooth out as the book progresses, I concede, but there were a couple of times I nearly put the book aside and gave up. Thankfully, I kept reading. I’m glad I did, because Children of Blood and Bone is a very good read.

There was magic once, in a land called Orïsha. The magicians – the maji clans – were divided into a number of different subgroups, each one possessing a different magic. But, one terrible day, the magic went away … and King Saran struck, slaughtering the magicians as they reeled from the loss of their powers. The only survivors were the children, the ones too young to come into their powers. They were allowed to live, but kept under close supervision. All hope of rebuilding, and destroying the king’s tyranny, seems lost.

However, when a mysterious scroll with the power to reawaken magic surfaces – and hints of other artefacts come into view – all this may change. A trio of characters – Zélie, the daughter of a former maji; Tzain, her brother; Princess Amari, who runs away and joins Zélie after King Saran killed one of Amari’s friends for possessing magic – set out to recover the other artefacts and perform a ritual that will bring magic back. They are pursued by Crown Prince Inan, who is himself secretly a maji. They go through hell – and a great deal of personal development – before they finally perform the ritual, although it is clear that the story is far from over (and a sequel is due out later this year).

In some ways, Children of Blood and Bone reminds me of The Age of Misrule. The main characters have to search the land for a handful of artefacts, all the while avoiding attention from the bad guys. This isn’t easy, of course, and there are a lot of similarities between the two books. However, there is more than enough to Children of Blood and Bone for it to stand on its own.

The author’s worldbuilding is very good. It captures the flavour of an alternate Africa very well, resting comfortably – as it does – in African myth. The book shifts from place to place, each one strikingly different … from each other as well as the world we know. This is not – thankfully – Wakanda. The country is presented to us as a very human land, with glories as well as horrors. Some of these are deeply personal, from the curse of growing up under a tyrant’s rule to the pleasure of indulging in minor rebellion. There is much to like – and admire – here.

She also manages to give her three main characters life, crafting them as three-dimensional flawed people rather than archetypes or one-dimensional Mary Sues. Zélie is both an action girl and a deconstruction of an action girl, with a headstrong nature that tends to get her into trouble as much as it saves her life. (The book is aware of this, as is Zélie herself.) Amari, by contrast, starts life as a passive character who grows into a heroine. The two girls have a tendency to clash at first, a moment of realism in a genre where most questing parties trust each other from the start.

Crown Prince Inan is a far more conflicted character, one who constantly – and confusingly – changes his mind. He’s trying to catch the heroes – no, he’s trying to join them – no, he’s trying to catch them again … his viewpoint keeps shifting as he gets new information, driven by both self-loathing – he’s a magician, which in his mind makes him a monster – and a growing love for Zélie. It is sometimes hard to follow him, at least in part because the character himself is unsure of what he wants to do. He spends the entire book torn between his father and his own nature, unclear on what the truth actually is.

I’m not sure, to be honest, if that was the writer’s intention. On the surface, King Saran is a monster. There is ample evidence of his monstrosity. It cannot be denied. But, at the same time, he charges that the maji were monsters themselves, beings of supernatural powers that destroyed country after country before he found out how to break their powers and crush them. It’s curious that he didn’t slaughter their children as well as the adults. And when we see flickers of the once-great magic, it’s easy to see why muggles might have been scared of them. Zélie sees her dead mother as a heroine; others, perhaps with reason, might think otherwise. And even if they were, what about their children? The kids have grown up powerless and abused. What will they do when they get their powers back?

There’s no good answer to these questions. We – our society – hasn’t found any good answers either.

The book touches – very lightly – on racism, although barely more than enough to remind us that all of the characters are black. Amari’s mother tries to lighten her skin, apparently out of fear that Amari’s dark skin is a hint that her mother cheated on her father, but she’s the only one who seems to care. (Amari’s father may be displeased with her, even before she runs away, but there’s no hint it’s because of her skin.) Inan doesn’t seem to feel any loathing or disgust at his attraction to Zélie, something that would be odd for a dyed-in-the-wool racist.

Children of Blood and Bone is on firmer ground as an indictment of classism. The contrast between the lives of Zélie and Tzain, who grew up poor and powerless, and the royal family is striking – and Zélie doesn’t hesitate to rub Amari’s nose in it. There are all sorts of little moments that illustrate how hard it can be to climb up the social ladder – and how such a society breeds prejudices of its own. Tzain refuses to believe that Inan might genuinely be falling in love with his sister, charging that all Tzain wants is to have sex with her. We know he’s wrong, because we see Inan’s point of view, but he isn’t being unreasonable. It’s difficult for the characters to work together because they are blinded by their own fears.

The author herself draws a line between Children of Blood and Bone and police brutality in the United States. In some ways, this weakens the book. (Thankfully, she put it in the afterword.) The blunt truth is that the book’s society is nothing like America, at least as far as I can tell from my vantage point on the far side of the pond, and – as I noted above – it raises the question of who is genuinely in the right? (Or, more likely, who is unable to take their boot off the underclass’s neck for fear that the underclass will spring up and tear their former oppressors apart? The problem with defusing a ticking time bomb is that even trying might set off the explosion.)

That said, the only real problem lies with the narrative style. It is sometimes hard to keep track of the POV character, which leads to some odd moments; one character’s observations on a given event are different to another character’s observations. I’m not a great fan of mixing and matching first-person POVs, although – as the book picks up speed – the problems tend to smooth themselves out. By the time the book reaches the conclusion, things are moving along nicely.

Overall, I enjoyed the book. It has good – and nicely-flawed – characters, an interesting background that is both different and understandable, a definite hint that things are a little more nuanced than either side would care to admit and, perhaps most importantly of all, a complete story that leaves plenty of room for a sequel. I await this author’s next book with interest.

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