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Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi3 stars

Buy from IndieBoundIt’s been a while since a young adult fantasy has ridden a bullet train of hype like the one that’s given us Children of Blood and Bone. The first novel by 24-year-old Nigerian-American Harvard graduate Tomi Adeyemi, the trilogy landed a million dollar deal in what was one of the biggest YA debut acquisitions of all time. Movie rights were sold not long after. To this I can only say, congratulations. It’s especially good to see this level of recognition going to a young woman of color, and I hope her success inspires hordes of young kids from every imaginable background to pick up a pen and start writing.

But to answer the question posed by Entertainment Weekly — “Is Tomi Adeyemi the new J.K. Rowling?” — I can say with some confidence: No. Even in the first Harry Potter novel, Rowling was already a more accomplished wordsmith, with a greater facility for constructing a plot. The best I can say after cutting through the hype to get to the book itself is that Children of Blood and Bone is okay. Yes, Adeyemi does some things very well for a first effort. She knows her way around an action scene, and her world building includes some really deft adaptation of West African belief traditions. But she’s also got a lot of bad habits to shake. She’s a bit too married to YA tropes and formulas, and her writing doesn’t yet show that she’s developed a distinctive voice, instead falling back on stylistic conventions common to a lot of the YA bestsellers that have influenced her. To give one example, each chapter swaps between first person viewpoints, but the book’s two female leads sound basically the same.

The story is set in the kingdom of Orïsha. In the Nigerian religion of Yoruba, the orisha are spirits, manifestations of the supreme deity. In the novel, the maji of the Orïshan kingdom speak Yoruban and are the only people capable of channeling divine magic. Adeyemi constructs her fantasy world around this real world culture in a way that feels perfectly organic. And it allows the book to stand apart in a genre that has, historically, adapted its world building much too frequently from medieval Europe.

But while the world building here feels fresh and original, the plot itself, not so much. Zélie is a young girl, a divîner descended from the original maji, who, years before, watched her mother slaughtered by soldiers in a purge of the ten maji clans ordered by the brutal king Saran. The surviving divîners are now a despised class, visually marked by very dark skin and white hair, and slurred as “maggots.”

Zélie’s life changes when she comes into the possession of a scroll stolen from the palace by none other than Amari, the princess, who fled after witnessing the murder of her dearest friend and handmaiden by her father for the crime of being a latent maji. The scroll, if put to use in a ritual alongside two other magical items, one of which remains missing, has the power to reawaken magic across the land, a thing Saran fears with a single-minded obsessiveness.

And with that, we’re off on a good old fashioned quest fantasy, with Zélie, her brother Tzain (who has no magic), and Amari doggedly pursued across deserts and rivers and forests by Inan, the prince and Amari’s brother, who struggles to suppress the magic awakening within himself.

Sometimes I think I ought to teach a class at my local community college for fantasy villains whose problems would simply go away if they didn’t make dumb decisions. Question one, students: you have been given a magic scroll which will enable your enemies to defeat you with near certainty. Do you A) toss the thing in the fireplace immediately or B) leave it lying around on your desk in your office for your pissed off teenage daughter to steal? A little common sense can avoid a lot of headache later.

Adeyemi’s narrative has this habit of presenting contrived situations so that the plot can be moved forward or a thematic point can be hammered home. One major sequence has our heroes arriving in a desert trading outpost, where there happens to be an arena massive enough to be filled with water so that dozens of ships can stage mock sea battles. Exactly where they get this much water in the middle of the desert isn’t clear. But the purpose is simply to illustrate the cruelty of the culture: hundreds of slaves dying of thirst, and the idle rich are wasting millions of gallons on bloodsport. Oh, and of course, the grand prize offered to the ship that wins one of these battles — go ahead, guess what it is.

This kind of storytelling would sink a lot of books, I’ll be honest. But Children of Blood and Bone does show its quality in its kinetic action sequences, and Adeyemi’s vivid evocation of her world. It all feels quite cinematic, which I’m sure was no accident, plus everybody rides around on enormous panthers and lions with horns. There’s no way that isn’t cool. Most effective is the way certain themes are woven into the story and explored through the behaviors of the characters and how their adventure changes their understanding of the world. As Zélie begins to comprehend a little more of the magic she’s trying to awaken, she realizes that without training and discipline, Saran’s fear of magic might well be justified. A newly awakened maji could wreak untold havoc, especially if they use the feared blood magic. Merely shifting the balance of power back to those who were formerly oppressed doesn’t automatically guarantee a peaceful outcome.

But for every good idea the novel has, it hits us with a bad one. Despite acknowledging the hazards of magic in this universe, Adeyemi’s actual magic system feels underdeveloped, which readers are very likely to notice if they’re used to books with rigorous magic system detail. And in what must be the most eye-rolling storytelling choice, we get Instalove™, as two characters who have up to this point been unwavering blood enemies fall into each other’s arms within the span of a few pages following a moment of epiphany. Sure, Adeyemi allows the situation to create tension by driving a wedge of distrust between our heroes, but still, of all the half-assed YA tropes, why this one? Obligatory romance is annoying enough as it is. Here it only has the effect of robbing one key character of the internal conflict that made him interesting, mainly because his magic is empathic, and it would have been so much more interesting to see how this might have added to his personal struggle rather than immediately changing his alignment.

In the end, Children of Blood and Bone is ambitious and frequently exciting. But it doesn’t work as often as it does, though even in its weakest moments, it conveys enough of its author’s sense of commitment that you want to keep rooting for her all the same. There’s no denying that Tomi Adeyemi believes passionately in what she’s created, and I do think there’s an audience who will connect with her message of empowerment despite all the clichés and clunky technique. If the ultimate goal is to inspire, then Children of Blood and Bone, warts and all, may end up working its magic better than its author ever dreamed.

Followed by Children of Virtue and Vengeance.