Book Review: Raybearer

Title: Raybearer
Jordan Ifueko
Young Adult/Fantasy
Version: Hardcover – Illumicrate Edition
Page Count: 
Hot Key Books
Synopsis: GoodReads | StoryGraph
Notable Notables: 
Diverse cast with a Black girl as the main character; asexual representation; good fae content; found family trope
Recommended Readers: 
Are you tired of Western-based YA fantasy books? Here’s your cure.
CAWPILE Rating: 7.86
Rating: ★★★★☆

My Review

Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko is an engaging bildungsroman full of heart, spirituality, and magic as its wonderful protagonist Tarisai chases these ever-important questions: Who do I want to be? Where do I belong? Can I be loved for who I am?

From the beginning, Raybearer captured my attention, the novel opening with a small Tarisai meeting her fairy father, Melu, and his wings of blue fire, where he tells her a few truths about her reason for existing. Using three wishes, her mother, The Lady, has bound Melu and conceived Tarisai for a greater, darker purpose, but Melu insisted on giving Tarisai her own name in the hopes she can find her own path and avoid The Lady’s unclaimed third wish.

As Tarisai grows, I experience her isolation and loneliness, how often she craves company or her mother’s touch or to be treated like a beloved child by her servants, not some terrifying, sacred thing. This makes her extremely susceptible to The Lady’s whims when she does visit, and finally the moment comes where The Lady enacts her third wish: for Tarisai to join the Crown Prince’s Council of Eleven, and once she has gained his trust and loves him the most, she is to kill him.

All this takes place when Tarisai is around 10 or 11, and it’s around this same time when she is whisked off to the palace with many of the empire’s other children to pass tests to join this Council. The plot works so much better this way, as opposed to doing it like most YA novels would when the protagonist is already 16 or so. It’s far more believable for Tarisai to forget strange, magic-filled bargains and have hazy memories of her childhood. How many of us remember clearly what we were doing when we were 11? How many of us knew at the time what we were doing? Definitely not me!

Therefore, Tarisai meeting the other children and the crown prince, who is also desperate to be loved, feels a lot more organic. Adding the Ray—the special bond the prince can bestow on those selected to be on his Council—contributes a layer of vulnerability and trust to the equation. The prince can only give the Ray to someone he trusts and who loves him in return. By doing so, he gains an invulnerability—say to poison or fire—that no one except one of the Council can kill him by. In addition, he and the other Council members can talk to each other through a mental link, and everyone with the Ray must be around at least one other member in order to avoid council sickness. Imagine this working for teenagers and older? You can’t. Children, though? Children who yearn for love and acceptance, who have been told they’re special in some manner but held at a distance from everyone else? It’ll work for them every time.

When Tarisai and the prince, Dayo, meet, theirs is an instant connection, and Tarisai is torn between fulfilling The Lady’s wish and sparing a genuinely good person who makes her feel like she belongs. For those expecting romance, I’ll just say it’s not at all what you’re expecting—in a good way.

Being torn between different beliefs of what love is, Tarisai is set up to be a great protagonist. Her longing to belong, to be good enough, to be loved is one story that is so universal for all of us. Her idealism, naïveté, sense of justice, and strength of will stems from love: not only the love she wants to receive, but also the love she wants to return to the world. How do we make the world a place where everyone can be valued and be happy? She is a Black girl protagonist that gets to shine in so many ways, starting at early childhood into young adulthood, which is a fairly rare span of time to see. For once, we got to see her values and sense of the world mature as she does. The scene involving the unbinding of her hair is one of my absolute favorites.

There’s so much care that Ifueko put into the atmosphere and world-building, and they all mesh well together. The stories about the Enoba dynasty and the Arit empire, the treaty with the Underworld, the Raybearers, the Redemptors, the tutsu—all of it winds up working under Ifueko’s deft hand.

I especially love the addition of Hallows and how each contributes to the characters’ stories. Tarisai’s Hallow allows her to see memories of any person or thing she touches. She can also temporarily “steal” memories or create new ones to comfort or deceive. Her gift represents her always trying to chase connection whenever she feels like her own memories are too lonely, too barren to find any. Sanjeet’s Hallow can make him see weakness, meaning he has great capacity to heal people or hurt them—and despite how much he wants to heal, destiny seems to keep pushing him towards causing harm. Kirah can soothe with a song, representing both her spirituality and connection with her mother and culture. In fact, Raybearer places tons of emphasis on the importance of storytelling and preserving culture through song, with griots and their drums taking center stage at some points. If only The Song of Achilles had taken note to feature music as strongly, I might’ve liked it better.

There are other things that I liked that I’ll gloss over for surprise’s sake: one character’s well-integrated asexuality, Tarisai’s complicated relationship with her mother, the push-pull relationship between maintaining order and finding peace, Woo In’s characterization, the intrigue with Mbali, so many little gems for readers to also discover and explore.

That isn’t to say that Raybearer isn’t without its flaws. The writing, for example, is good and solid, but it is also simple. I don’t think I read many sentences that were over thirty words. This is a story told mainly through simple and compound sentences with the occasional short, complex sentence to go with them, so if you’re looking for more intricate writing, this book may not be it for you. That being said, it’s better to tell a story well using simple language than to tell a story poorly using overly-complicated language or lofty purple prose that says nothing. In fact, I believe the writing’s simplicity is what makes the world-building work together as well as it does. Nothing reads as over-explained or convoluted.

Sure, that also means I saw all the plot twists coming a mile away, but they are well-done and within expectations, the groundwork and foreshadowing being laid for them. No empty shock value here, folks. However, there is a crucial chapter that made me laugh when it shouldn’t have because it played out a bit like the “Mmm Whatcha Say” SNL skit. For being such a fast-paced book, there are also surprisingly little action scenes, which I suppose is a testament to the strength of the main characters and the plot. These elements, rather than action, carry the story.

Indeed, I was racing through the first half of the novel, which kept building up momentum when suddenly it fizzled out around the halfway point. Another character has an understandable falling out with Tarisai, but instead of more tension being built because of it, all is forgiven and resolved in two chapters, and I won’t lie. I was and still am super let down by that. For that reason, the first half of Raybearer winds up being stronger than its second half.

I also really wish I could have seen Kirah and Woo In’s attraction develop rather than be told about it happening multiple times off-page, like it’s being rubbed in my face that I didn’t get to experience it. Both of these characters are favorites of mine, and their interactions sound so spicy, but it’s just tacked on more like an aside. So much missed potential there.

While there is also a found family trope being played out here, I will emphasis that of Dayo’s Council of Eleven, the found family really is just four characters: Dayo, Sanjeet, Tarisai, and Kirah. The other members may as well not be in the book, that’s how little they are shown or developed. A few of them are given the occasional line to go with their names, but since they’re not central or required for the story beyond the invulnerabilities they grant Dayo, I can’t even remember what those names are now. I don’t foresee any of them mattering much in the sequel either.

Speaking of the next book, Redemptor, I hope there is more of Melu and fae content in general, but I’m also very excited for what looks like an impossible journey for Tarisai. How she will accomplish her ultimate goals is sure to be riveting to read and go totally according to plan with no setbacks, of course, of course—oh, girl, who am I kidding? I’m fretting for you. But the new setting, I believe, will be amazing. I also hope to see and learn more about Songland as well as how the other characters will grow and develop. Will they help or will they hinder Tarisai?

Woo In, I’m looking at you. Where you at, boi?

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