Title: Children of Blood and Bone
Author: Tomi Adeyemi
Genre: Young Adult/Fantasy
Page Count: 531
Publisher: Henry Holt and Company
Notable Notables: Nigerian-based mythology, all-black cast of characters
Recommended Readers: Anyone looking for diversity and beginner fantasy
You know, for once, I’m giving a rating that absolutely kills me to give. But you gotta be honest about your feelings, right? I just wasn’t blown away by Children of Blood and Bone. I liked parts of it, but definitely not all of it.
Is it because the hype was too high and I had greater expectations going into this than I realized? I’m not sure yet.
In this debut novel, maji used to conjure great and awe-inspiring magic, each of them connected to a specific deity. However, a ruthless king came to fear them, sealing their magic away and killing them, leaving only their children alive who never came into their own power. But with the help of an ancient scroll and a crown princess gone rogue, Zélie is determined to bring magic back to the land of Orïsha and inspire her people to rise up against their oppressors.
Let’s talk some about what I liked first. the world-building is one of my favorite things here and is fascinating. Maji communing with gods to connect to their power like clerics in DnD—yes, love that. Love the African-inspired setting, love the obvious Yoruba/Nigerian mythology applied to the world.
Adeyemi also addresses colorism and skin bleaching, even without the presence of a white race in her world to force it onto her Black characters. This wrong belief that lighter skin is inherently superior than darker skin is a very real struggle for Black and Brown people to wrestle with, not only because of how society favors lighter skin but also because the internalization of it causes self-hatred that needs to be challenged and broken. As a white person, I especially feel challenged to combat this way of thinking and am grateful that Adeyemi provided it as part of her fictional world.
The clear influences of current American culture like the Black Lives Matter movement and the brutal police shootings of young Black children like Tamir Rice and Treyvon Martin shine through in the world-building and certain story events, and these moments had the most impact. Additionally, getting to read an #OwnVoices author describe her Black characters’ different skin tones, hair color and quality, and clothing was deeply educational and enriching. I loved it.
I didn’t know this prior to reading, but I see that she is also reacting to the backlash against the Black characters in The Hunger Games film—which still makes me see red because those characters were also Black in the book. I’m still furious at how many people came after Amandla Stenberg for playing Rue, so in case you didn’t know: Rue. Is. Black.
But it takes more than world-building to make a great novel, and the truth is, Children of Blood and Bone carries a lot of immaturities with it, contradicting that mature and sophisticated cover and ultimately preventing me from falling head over heels, despite its pros. In short, I don’t hate it, but it’s nothing I can throw a lot of regard or recommendations on, either. It’s just okay.
I’ll say this, too: It’s no secret that there’s a huge dearth of diverse stories out there. The fact that there isn’t a single white character here is astounding—this wouldn’t have been possible in YA or other reading genres ten years ago, maybe even five. Therefore, I think it’s awesome that Black kids, Black teens, even Black adults have this novel, especially those that live in the U.S. and are currently experiencing the issues this novel addresses.
But so much of the storytelling and the characters could be better written here, too, and I caution anyone from rating a book too highly just because it’s “diverse.” The only reason I say that is, I don’t want us to settle. I don’t want there to be a mold of mediocrity for diverse works to be allowed to slip into. I want them to get better and better and better, told by wider and wider #OwnVoices authors. I want diverse characters to be allowed to be good, be evil, be everything in between without worrying about them being the voice of their whole race. In the latter, Adeyemi excelled.
With that said, though, here’s where I had issues.
The plot set-up, while unoriginal, is still an old favorite in fantasy: restore magic back to the land and overthrow the tyrannical government. However, despite the all-Black cast and the African-inspired setting, it was difficult to get invested and sucked into what was going on.
The chapters were also inconsistent in size, and it caused some weird issues with pacing. The book started with very long chapters, but as the characters collided, their POV chapters became incredibly short. It wasn’t just because they were switching back and forth and telling events through multiple eyes. I would read a two-page chapter by Zélie, for instance, and then the very next five-page chapter would also be Zélie’s. Why not… just make them one chapter? I didn’t get it.
Part of the problem with latching onto the plot came from my issues with the characters themselves. Note: I don’t have to like characters to enjoy them. As long as they’re well-written and compelling in some form—even if that form inspires anger and hatred à la Dolores Umbridge—I’ll love reading about them because it’s a whole experience. All I ask for is some consistency and some depth, even if we have to work to get there.
First is Zélie, a divîner barred from growing into her magic since King Saran took it away and blocked all connection to the gods. She witnessed her Reaper mother’s brutal murder and as a result harbors much hate and fear towards the king, his guards, and the kosidán.
Zélie means well, but she is reckless, often making the wrong choices because of how much she leans into her feelings.But her self-doubt and self-loathing gets exhausting, namely because there’s already plenty of that to go around with these characters.
Her voice definitely sounds young at times, making it difficult to connect with her on a maturity level. I got close—until Inan fully showed up, and then… I don’t know.
Zélie, I expected more from you. I wanted to love you, not constantly want to reach into the book and violently shake you out of near-constant frustration. I understand Tzain a little bit better now. I knew to expect some conflict from you, but what I don’t understand is why you were so conflicted. The reasons the book gave did not hold water, and I just can’t get behind them.
(Also, I’ll say it… Her use of “little prince” sounded so strange coming out of her mouth, and the overuse of it started to make me wince every time it came up on a page.)
Then, there’s Amari, the princess of Orïsha and daughter of King Saran. She is shaken out of her apathy and ignorance toward what is happening to the divîners after witnessing her best friend (and slave) Binta summon magic and die by her father’s hand.
For the first-half of this book, I did not care at all for Amari. Her sole drive seemed to only be Binta. Her death was the only thing that changed Amari’s heart and compelled any action. She was very passive as a character and timid as a mouse. I kept waiting on her to show me something—and at last she did. Amari came into her own and at last commanded the pages she was on, and she’s now the only main character I’m highly invested in.
Inan, oh, Inan… For the first half of this book, yours was the only POV that was interesting.
Look, I won’t lie. I sighed heavily when Inan—crown prince of Orïsha, disciple of his father’s harsh teachings, and Captain of the Royal Guard—balked at killing people. It wasn’t just that he thought, “What a waste,” and did his harsh duty regardless. He flinches at it. He tries to go around it. He acts ignorant of the fact that the guards have burned, raped, and murdered divîners, like he hasn’t been around enough to either witness or hear about it.
At least, that’s what the book is trying to tell me, I guess to make him seem more morally upstanding than his father, but I’m calling bullshit. It’d be one thing if he had been sheltered like Amari was, but he hasn’t been. He’s left the palace, he cut down his own sister when they were younger in a sparring match, he’s a Captain in the military—surely, in all that time, he’s seen something.
Despite that, I loved how he “changes” early on in the book. I loved watching him struggle with his hatred of Zélie as well as his self-hatred for what he is. I loved watching him worry about what his father would do to him with the knowledge and how he tried to make the “right” choices to please his father. He was being set-up to be a marvelous antagonist for Zélie and for a potentially long, well thought-out redemption arc—and then it all goes out the window because of one word: instalove. More on that later.
The rest of the book, I couldn’t stand him. His motivations and intentions changed with the wind, torn between Zélie, his father, and Orïsha, and all he became was a colossal moron, without a single original thought for himself.
As for Tzain, there’s not much to him, honestly, between being the protective big brother for Zélie and Amari’s convenient love interest. Which I believe he ultimately bristles at being the former, wishing he could be more, but his self-awareness isn’t enough to make him unique as a character. I tolerated him mostly, until he blew up at Zélie for cringe-worthy, double-standard reasons. So anyway, don’t care for Tzain, not sure if he’ll ever show me something. He’s lukewarm water on an already stifling summer day.
And then there’s Roën. He’s not a main character, but I wish he was. His brief presence saved me from putting this book down and quietly walking away. He enriched what was going on by just being present. If I continue this trilogy, it’ll be for him and Amari.
Now that I’ve covered the characters, I was getting into the plot around when the arena scenes were happening and from then on, it got more and more interesting—until the instalove thing happened. I’m not saying Zélie and Inan aren’t allowed to be attracted to each other. In fact, I was hoping for some slowburn love/hate tension, some self-flagellation, maybe a dash of despair. Y’know, the things that typically come when enemies fall for each other. But instead, I got…this.
The Amari/Tzain thing is tolerable because it wasn’t so openly rushed and they weren’t bitter enemies from the start. Their little crush made sense. But I couldn’t even fully enjoy the scenes in the valley with Zulaikha (and indeed, the majority of the book) because this rushed nonsense was happening in my face at every POV I turned.
It reminded me of the rushed Yukiko/Hiro thing in Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff, but that series had an incredible twist to them. I think Kristoff realized how fast it was and decided to build more out of it, which led to some great conflict and scenes. But instead, the instalove in Children of Blood and Bone covered the rest of the book, inspiring actions from characters in Greek drama proportions that were utterly ridiculous.
If I continue this journey, I can only hope that Adeyemi is the growing kind of writer and vastly improves this story in its next installments.
To all those future book writers out there, please reject instalove in your stories. It’s a book killer. In fact—[cue Sarah McLachlan]–countless books are destroyed because of instalove their authors allow to happen, but you can be the change these books desperately need. With just a little more ambition for yourselves and long-term plotting, you can save these books and future readers from their agony today. All it takes is just a bit of time, dedication, and proper editing.
I was hoping the ending could rise the book’s ranking for me, but we still fell short of the mark. I predicted a thing that happens, and I hate when I do that because it means the prediction was obvious and unoriginal.
Also, the sprinkling of moral purity in this book (and a lot of YA books lately) just killed me.
How are we fine with cutting down nameless guards, with that arena scene, but we balk at cutting down the man who’s most responsible? How? How many times are characters going to bemoan the blood on their hands and not wish for anymore instead of realizing their revolution will not be bloodless and getting some grit to see it through?
When are we going to take the notion of If I kill him, I’m no better than him line and actually analyze why we think that, and then chunk it in the garbage where it belongs?
Asking for myself and Roën because he agrees with me.