Title: Blood Heir
Author: Amélie Wen Zhao
Genre: Young Adult/Fantasy
Version: ARC – ebook
Page Count: 496
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Notable Notables: Anastasia retelling, POC characters
Recommended Readers: Fans of fantasy and X-Men
Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for this ARC in exchange for an honest review.
Please note: this is a review of the original ARC before the subsequent pull and re-publication of the novel.
Blood Heir by Amélie Wen Zhao follows Anastacya Mikhailov, the crown princess of the Cyrilian Empire, who is presumed dead and in hiding after being framed for the murder of her father, the Emperor. To clear her name and find the real killer, Ana enlists the help of notorious con man Ramson Quicktongue, who has dark ambitions of his own. However, Ramson’s ulterior motives aren’t Ana’s only concern. She is an Affinite, a person with a particular gift at controlling the world around them, but Ana’s affinity isn’t earth, wind, the mind, or even flesh—it’s blood, and it comes with deadly intent. As Ana learns more about the dark side of her country—particularly how rampant the human trafficking trade for Affinites truly is—she must face what she is willing to do to change it, including embracing herself and her own power.
I was deeply intrigued by Blood Heir ever since I read an excerpt for it on NetGalley, and I’m happy to say that the ARC as a whole did not disappoint. While there are a few things here and there that I would’ve changed or wanted to be expounded upon, Blood Heir proved to be a remarkably strong start to a series as well as a debut novel.
From the beginning, I was moved by Zhao’s letter to the reader where she explains why she decided to write this story, that since she moved to the United States during the height of Trump’s America, she has been targeted for her Otherness. Comments about her identity as an immigrant and a woman of color, slurs like “Get out of my country, communist!”—each has contributed to the narrative of Blood Heir, showing how Otherness can be demonized in a society. Even more so, it shows how those deemed “Other” in this Us vs. Them mindset can internalize this fear of not belonging and learn how to hate who you are.
Ultimately, though, Blood Heir also shows that there’s a path toward light and hope, of self-acceptance, of embracing who you are and all the things that make you different. That you can use what you have to fight for a better tomorrow.
That isn’t to say that the journey there is clear-cut and easy. Ana wrestles with many uncertainties as she tries to find the alchemist responsible for killing her father. From a young age, she’s been taught to fear and hate her own power, has internalized that she is a monster and therefore can be monstrous because a “teacher” of hers drilled that belief into her head. At the same time, she is confronted for the first time by how deeply the corruption runs in her country, that soldiers meant to protect the people accept bribes and turn a blind eye to the illegal Affinite trafficking happening right in front of their noses.
Modern-day slavery and human trafficking are huge societal problems explored in this fantastical world. Even though the Cyrilian Empire resembles Eastern Europe and Russia, Zhao has drawn on her experiences from living in China to tackle this issue that truly isn’t commonly discussed. It was this book that got me thinking how strange it is that we don’t talk about modern-day slavery very often.
Sure, topics like sex trafficking can be a one-episode plot line on The Blacklist, and human trafficking itself is a touched-upon issue in my home city of Atlanta, but it’s not exactly an issue of U.S. national concern, is it? Perhaps that’s because it’s cracked down upon in the background, starting with the FBI all the way down to the local law enforcement level—but that’s in the U.S. What must this issue be like in other parts of the world? Who is protecting the people caught up in human trafficking and arresting the perpetrators?
In the case of Blood Heir, the targets for human trafficking and indentured servitude aren’t based on age, race, or even necessarily for sexual favors—it’s based on whether you’re an Affinite and how rare your affinity is, and yes, it’s the Superhuman Trafficking trope.
I’m sure if you’ve read Children of Blood and Bone, experienced X-Men in any form or fashion, or exposed yourself to literally the hundreds of media that use the tropes Fantastic Racism, Muggle Power, and Have You Tried Not Being a Monster?, you know what Zhao is doing by creating Affinites for her fantasy story.
Affinites are of all different races and I’d also wager sexualities, and having them be the oppressed party in a fantasy setting is an entertaining but also thought-provoking way to get readers to talk about how we treat people in real life who we view as being different from us (Muggle Power), whether it’s in the form of race (Fantastic Racism) or gender/sexuality/disabilities, etc. (Have You Tried Not Being a Monster?).
By making Ana a blood Affinite, readers get to experience her wrestling with all of these issues, with her Otherness while also learning how to accept herself, figuring out how to use her powers for the good of her kingdom (even if that means inflicting harm on the bad guys), and being in a position to actually create and cause change.
Her journey was definitely the one that I enjoyed the most, and I was in love with her dark side as well as her light. Like Katniss before her, I suspect that she, too, is potentially of mixed race given her mother’s “rich russet” skin and her own “dusky olive” skin and “dark chestnut” hair. Ana is likewise described as “a mix of the pale-skinned Northern Cyrillians and the tawny-skinned Southern Cyrillians who dwelled in the Dzhyvekha Mountains on the borders of the Cyrillian Empire and the Nandjian Crown.” At the very least, she shares the darker complexions of many Eastern Europeans. Her brother Luka, meanwhile, has emerald eyes and blond hair, making me think he inherited those traits from their father while also backing up the latter claim.
Ramson Quicktongue was easily another favorite character of mine because smooth-talking con men who say “darling” and “love” are just a type for me. Plus, I love characters who are willing to get their hands dirty to get what they want. He undergoes his own journey throughout the novel, and the scenes between he and Ana are top-tier as each of them struggles to work together and contends with their own ambitions and brands of gray morality. Also, the relationship is a slow-burning one, fraught with complications and obstacles, and that is unequivocally the best kind of relationship.
All of those scenes with Ramson’s past, his father, and Jonah, though? Ouch. Hit me right in the heart, but what good storytelling. The same can be said with the scenes between him and Alaric Kerlan. A well-written torture scene? Zhao, are you flirting with me right now? I’m so proud of you for not being afraid to go there in a YA book.
For those wanting some character descriptions, Ramson is brown-haired and hazel-eyed. He is from Bregon, a country known for its navy and for sea-faring. I mention this because of accusations against the author for being anti-Black with her narrative due to the fate of another character, a young girl named May.
So here is May, described in Ramson’s POV:
She was Bregonian. South Bregonian, it seemed, judging from the tawny color of her skin, a shade darker than Ramson’s own North Bregonian complexion. Her eyes were a brilliant turquoise, the color of the southern seas, and her brown curls rippled like the waters of the Moon Lagoon. […] He brushed it away, but his eyes stayed on the little girl, drinking in the familiarity of her complexion that hit a little too close to home.
With that, I can’t honestly say one way or another if May is Black. I’m honestly leaning towards no both because of the continuous description of her “ocean-green eyes” and “the silk of her curls” and because of Ramson’s own identification with her. Given Bregon’s emphasis on the sea, they may both be closer to resembling Filipinos or a similar islander ethnicity. The ARC didn’t come with a map, so I can’t say for sure.
What I can say for sure is how much the gun was jumped on assuming Zhao was anti-Black or racist of any kind, particularly since May ultimately has agency over her fate (aka it wasn’t an accident or “plot-furthering” device; she has a choice and she makes it herself), and her fate is shared by others of different ethnicities throughout the book.
That being said, I do wish May had been a more fleshed-out character with more page time than what I got. While it was obvious that May and Ana were fond of each other, that relationship had developed before Blood Heir started, and I don’t feel that it grew or progressed in any way.
Nevertheless, the scene after the auction with the Affinite children in cages? I don’t know if Zhao wrote that before or after the news broke in the U.S. about the Trump Administration’s migration separation policy. You know, the one where migrant children were forcibly separated from their parents at the border and detained in chain-link boxes, cells, cages, whatever you want to call them. Whether Zhao did this intentionally or not, it’s a well-timed reminder, and the narrative’s commentary on the matter is suitably condemning:
There was nothing, absolutely nothing, forgivable about human beings who chose to put children in cages.
For freeing them alone, May is an absolute hero and worth every bit of love and remembrance she receives.
Ana and Yuri’s relationship in comparison was depicted better, simply because Ana remembered more of what Yuri was like with her in the palace versus the Affinite revolutionary he grew up to be.
Additionally, while the first and second act was highly enjoyable, action-packed, character-focused, and generally solid, the third act fell a little short. I wasn’t wowed by who the true villain turned out to be, and the confrontation scene felt more like reading a dramatic stage play than something natural.
However, the presence of Linn, a Kemeiran girl with “dark-moon eyes” and “black hair,” implying a Chinese-inspired race, held the ending together long enough for Blood Heir and I to make a strong finish together. Her duel with the Hound was incredible, and I don’t know what may develop between them—be it a rivalry or something else—but I am deeply intrigued.
Zhao explored many nuances of the Cyrilian Empire to form a sturdy foundation of her novel, but now I am eager to explore the rest of this world. I’m eager to see Bregon, to experience how differently Kemeira treats Affinites by making them Temple Masters, to learn more about ice spirits and the greater spiritual world, and to discover how people are born with an affinity and what determines their powers.
And of course, I’m dying to see where Ana and Ramson’s relationship goes, whether Ramson will run into his father, how Linn will repay her debt and find her destiny in the world, and what role Yuri will play in Ana’s rise to power.
Like Ramson realizing the truth about his dark path, I also really want Ana to realize that the Affinites’ oppression came to a head under her father’s rule because I don’t think she ever made the connection? I mean, sure, Affinite auctions and indenturements were made illegal in her father’s time, I believe, but what did the Emperor ever do to stop them or prevent his own Imperial Patrols from taking bribes? I just doubt he was oblivious to them. So I’d like her to connect the dots, grapple with it a bit, make a judgment call, and then do something about it.
I also don’t feel like we’ve seen the last of the dark side to Ana’s blood affinity—not by a long shot—and I’ll be simultaneously wanting and dreading to see how it will potentially damage Ana’s credibility and intentions.
So well done, Amélie Wen Zhao! With Blood Heir, I’ve been given a host of complicated, flesh-and-blood characters who are trying to find their way in a broken yet well-conceived world full of both magic and darkness. ‘m definitely pre-ordering this book and will hope that any rewrites won’t change too much narratively-speaking because the narrative is fantastic. Regardless, I’m looking forward to what’s to come!