Book Review: Redemptor

Title: Redemptor
Author: 
Jordan Ifueko
Genre: 
Young Adult/Fantasy
Version: Hardcover – Illumicrate Edition
Page Count: 
441
Publisher: 
Hot Key Books
Synopsis: GoodReads | StoryGraph
Notable Notables: 
Diverse cast with a Black girl as the main character; asexual representation
Recommended Readers: 
Liked the first book, Raybearer? See what happens next
CAWPILE Rating: 4.57
Rating: ★★☆☆☆

My Review

I was convinced after finishing Jordan Ifueko’s Raybearer that the sequel, Redemptor, would be a five-star read easy. Yet here I am, presenting it with a two-star rating and sighing tiredly to myself.

I’m not mad. I’m just disappointed.

This review may be best served to look back on my review for the first book and see what made me excited to continue with the second one. What was I anticipating? What was I hoping for? What did I want Redemptor to be? Maybe that way I can see why this much-hyped, lauded duology wound up being second-rate and unredeemed.

Obviously, spoilers for both books will follow here.

After finishing Raybearer, I was deeply looking forward to several things:

  • Tarisai, Kirah, Dayo, and Sanjeet developing their found family further.
  • The other Council members being developed beyond names on a page.
  • More romantic beats occurring between Tarisai and Sanjeet.
  • More scenes featuring Woo In and Melu.
  • Songland being more prominent, or at least learning more about the country and its people.
  • Dayo finding his own strengths and stepping in to be a worthy emperor alongside Tarisai.
  • Kirah and Woo In’s attraction developing on page instead of hearing about it.
  • Tarisai struggling to convince the other Arit rulers to love her enough to accept the Ray.
  • The Underworld being prominently explored since that is Tarisai’s ultimate destination.

How many of these did I get? A big fat zero, your honor. Sometimes, this is an acceptable outcome with books, except the end of Raybearer makes it clear where we are going. At some point, however, Redemptor lost its own script.

At first, the sequel does move in some interesting and unexpected directions. There’s an early murder that occurs, and Tarisai becomes haunted by visions of spectral Redemptor children who urge her to do more to avenge them and make up for their suffering. In addition, sudden problems spring up with the alagbatos and the Crocodile, a rebel leader inciting commoners to rise up against the nobility that exploits them. All of these plot threads are intriguing, up until the point where the book decides they aren’t anymore and it’s done with them.

It’s not even that they are replaced by anything interesting, either. You may think that the time is instead used on Tarisai bonding with the Arit rulers because she has a two-year deadline to give them all the Ray and form her own council. Only then can she become a worthy sacrifice to the abiku in the Underworld. You would be wrong. Similar to the problems I had with Raybearer, in Redemptor, I never got to know most of the Arit rulers very well besides two of them, and I rarely got to see Tarisai’s wooing process of them.

Oh, that’s because Tarisai’s time is spent bonding more with the Council and family she already has, right? No! Ifueko conjures up the alagbato problem to achieve one goal, and that is to force Kirah, Sanjeet, and all of Tarisai’s original council besides Dayo out of the novel. (Even Mbali vacates the book, never being allowed to have a realistic reaction and confrontation with Tarisai about something she really should have.) But wait, what about the council sickness? Won’t everyone be sick and miserable for a whole novel if they’re all separated, heading for separate countries? Don’t worry, dear reader! This teenage council member whose name you’ve only seen a few times has discovered that burning kuso-kuso leaves can make the Raybond stronger, allowing council members to dream of each other and avoid the sickness.

Oh, yes, the kuso-kuso leaves do so much heavy lifting in order to make the plot of Redemptor work, so much lifting that it cheapens how big of a deal council sickness was in the first book. It begs the question: why hadn’t anyone discovered this solution until now?

Given what happens, I didn’t see much more of the original characters. Tarisai’s romantic relationship with Sanjeet completely stalls after an argument and he leaves. Ai Ling has more of a presence here than in Raybearer, but her belated presence is only to create a small, missable romance with Dayo, so I don’t get to know her much better. Dayo is present but only to be Tarisai’s cheerleader and sounding board. Ifueko makes no significant effort to represent or deepen his asexuality beyond what she did in the first book. Beyond suggesting for Tarisai to show the Arit rulers her memories so they can get to know and love the real her, he doesn’t make a single decision throughout the entire book despite being the emperor. In fact, Tarisai railroads right over him, making decisions that her other council members have to remind her are also Dayo’s decisions, but luckily for her, Dayo’s thoughts and opinions aren’t his own. They are whatever Tarisai wants.

So if Tarisai isn’t deepening her bonds with her “found family” and she isn’t developing many bonds with her new council, what is she doing? In short, being isolated and feeling anxious. Indeed, Tarisai’s isolation is an intrinsic part of the novel’s plot. It allows the ojiji spirits from the Underworld to plague her and fill her with guilt and doubt. It compels her to look at the empire’s atrocities—and therefore her family’s atrocities—in a way that no one else wants to. It pushes her to distrust everyone around her, or at least makes her feel like she alone cares enough and is equipped enough to save everyone and fix every problem.

The issue is that I’m not convinced that Tarisai needs to be isolated from pretty much everyone to reach these conclusions herself. I’m not convinced that this is the best route this book could’ve taken. You cannot emphasize found family for an entire book and then all but completely remove it from its sequel. It’s not that Tarisai doesn’t care about her found family all of a sudden. It’s that Tarisai becomes the only character that matters. She is the only character who can make decisions, the only character with a valid outlook, the only character who can make a difference, the only character who is “right” even when she is so clearly wrong.

Tarisai felt so unique and endearing in Raybearer; in Redemptor, she is every other YA protagonist you have read before, and the book itself is like every other YA novel out there. This duology starts out being so full of heart and earnestness, and it ends being so soulless and disappointing.

The only highlights here are few. The one thing Redemptor does absolutely right for me is showing how adamantly against having kids Dayo is and maintaining that Tarisai likely doesn’t want to have them, either. Maybe it will be a possibility for her later, but it’s a big maybe. I love that for once a YA novel said, “Hey, kids don’t have to be the automatic next step. You don’t have to force yourself to want this if you’re not feeling it.”

The action scenes are a bit more plentiful here and solid, and the overall descriptions are enjoyable. Ifueko’s simplistic writing style allows readers to picture scenes easily in their mind’s eye and with all their senses involved. I also still enjoy the general richness of the world, even though I saw so much less of it than I thought I would.

Frankly, it was a mistake to have the Arit rulers all holed up at the capital with Tarisai. She should have had to travel to their respective nations and get to learn about them all on a more intimate level. She had two years, y’all, and instead, she completes her task in under a year. She also clearly doesn’t care about her new council. One of her members, a child king, points out that her council isn’t like her other family. Ah, he noticed! They get to live in the palace with her, while he and the new council will have to return to their own lands, and he’s scared because they’re going to get council sickness.

Tarisai’s reply? Ah, chin-up, kiddo! It’s no big deal. X person can visit you sometimes. And you can smoke kuso-kuso in the meantime. It’s fiiiiiiine.

Yeah, I really believe in this other council and these Raybonds and the love in this room right now.

Speaking of the new council, I would’ve loved so much more of Min Ja and Zuri, both of whom I deeply enjoy up until the novel casts them both aside, purposes fulfilled yet again. I also love the stuff with the Crocodile, even though the twist is obvious. The issue with so many of these things is I got only a sprinkle of each when I should have gotten a feast. Ifueko tries to cram so much in her book without focusing on any one thing unless that thing is Tarisai’s circular, spiraling thoughts and anxiety.

A mutual attraction between Tarisai and Zuri also begins, and it would be great if so much of it isn’t at Sanjeet’s expense. It seems to only happen because he’s absent, and in truth, I don’t even think he and Tarisai had truly broken up. Indeed, I laughed at how it never seemed like Sanjeet and Zuri could exist on a page together. For one of them to appear, the other has to leave. When Sanjeet and Tarisai do finally reunite, he knows so much more about Tarisai’s relationship with Zuri than he should have, especially since they had blocked each other through the Ray. A classic case of the author forgetting she knows more than the character does.

On that note, I absolutely hate the ending Zuri got. It is so dissatisfying on a character level and a plot level. I don’t feel like I got half the answers from him the book kept teasing I would receive, and I don’t believe how the book tried to tease me about his true fate. The Raybond either works, or it doesn’t, Ifueko, so please quit trying to break it any further. Did I appreciate how Zuri and Sanjeet represented two sides of Tarisai? Yes. Was that enough to redeem everything? Not by a long shot.

There’s a number of inconsistencies that kill me, too. A poignant moment between Min Ja and Tarisai is ruined due to someone dropping the ball on a consistency edit. Tarisai notes that Min Ja calls her by name instead of Little Empress for the very first time, and it’s a Big Deal… except Min Ja did call Tarisai by name two pages ago in the very same scene.

Here’s a bigger one for you, a plot-breaking one. If Ye Eun could cross into the Underworld whenever, then why didn’t Ye Eun pluck Tarisai out once she’d crossed the border? That alone filled the abiku contract. Tarisai didn’t have to make her Underworld journey. It’s because then we wouldn’t have gotten to the ~plot twist, which honestly should have been the entire last half of the book instead of a few measly chapters. For presenting such huge problems and plot beats, the Underworld and the abiku are tragically under-explored and under-utilized. I cannot believe the amount of information I got slammed with at the tail end and was expected to swallow. I am so disappointed.

In the end, Redemptor does no favors for Tarisai’s characterization at all. In the first book, she grows so much and becomes such a strong person. A little naive, sure, but so full of love and passion and sincerity. In this book, she backslides so much and doesn’t grow stronger for it. By the end, she’s back at where she started on page 1 of Redemptor, possibly worse. This is shown most prominently at her coronation, where she vows, I will always keep my promise. I will always protect this land’s stories. Two seconds later, she has to be yanked out of falling into a god complex by having her griot sing her a song that reminds her of her humbling origins. I’m not making this up. What happened?

I think I know what happened. Tarisai’s—and indeed, the book and Ifueko’s—reliance on the Ray.

The Ray and the tone deafness behind how Ifueko depictes it is probably the biggest problem of Redemptor. In the first book, the Ray represents the bond that Tarisai has with Dayo and the others. These people know her heart and mind like no one else ever can and vice versa. Loyalty, trust, and love are essential for the Ray to work; it’s what allows the Raybearers to become immune to every death except old age, and no one can kill a Raybearer besides a council member.

As good as that sounds, the Raybond also forces everyone to be co-dependent on each other. At least two members have to be together at all times, or they become increasingly ill. Privacy is also not really a thing you get to have, and historically, council members aren’t allowed to have sex with anyone except the Raybearer. The Raybearer’s wants and needs matter above all others. Unless you’re being actively blocked out, the unmitigated access to each other’s thoughts and feelings also means that members aren’t really, y’know, talking about things and forming relationships in the gradual, healthy way that most people have to with their mouth words. Despite how much the Ray is used to justify how close this found family is, I can’t believe it because so many of the relationship threads aren’t there. Even Tarisai spends the next book confused and hurt about why none of her so-called family understands why she has changed or her negative outlook toward the empire, so how bonded are they, really?

Then, Redemptor takes the Raybond even further. As empress, Tarisai has the power to take away every noble’s unnatural strength and vitality through the Ray. She can also command them to obey her orders, even to the point where death of the ego occurs. The first couple times she does this is on complete accident. She finally figures it out when she realizes a nasty courtier is now acting completely different than she used to. However, Tarisai doesn’t reverse her command to “be kinder,” because she likes the courtier better this way (yikes). Yet, she also refuses to command a bunch of warlords to behave when they are actively threatening to kill commoners because she “won’t make people her tools.” Mere pages before that proclamation, she incentives the nobles to become her watchdogs against their peers for her and to report any nobles not following her edicts. How is that any different? Because she didn’t use the Ray for the latter? She made people her tools, regardless.

Despite how powerful the Ray has become, Redemptor still manages to cheapen it. Tarisai speed runs winning the Arit rulers to accept the Ray because, in the end, apparently no one has to actually love the Raybearer for the bond to work. They just have to love the idea of the Raybearer.

Hey so, quick question: what was the point of the first book, given this information? Can anybody tell me? Why did Ifueko break her own magic system for this cheap, hollow payoff?

Usually, I love it when something that was shown as being (mostly) good has a secret, dark, toxic underbelly if you know where to look. The Ray turning from something (kinda) pure to just another tool that the ruling family uses so they can exploit others and be seen as undeserved gods would be so awesome if the book actually saw it for what it is.

Tarisai gets a choice to make any wish she wants. For an entire book, she has been struggling with her supposed divinity, with her family’s role in people’s suffering, with how she can prevent those who are viewed as lesser from being crushed under the boot of their superiors. So much of the Redemptor plot is also tied to the existence of the Ray and how Songland hasn’t been a part of it. She and Dayo both do not want children partly because they don’t want them to be Raybearers and to endure what they have endured. They don’t want their kids to be viewed as infallible gods with a weird cult of personality surrounding them. The Ray represents all of the problems.

For me, the answer was simple: destroy the Ray. Remove humans from ever being viewed as gods. Remove the possibility of ego-death. Remove the option for the nobility to have power they don’t deserve when they already have so many other advantages. Let Tarisai be the last Raybearer there will ever be, and let’s all come together to address things like poverty and class oppression on a more level, understanding playing field.

Instead, Tarisai chooses for the Ray to continue on but only in people who deserve to have it. If someone has the Ray and does something bad, then their power will leave them and go to someone else more deserving. Only those worthy, Tarisai declares, will rule.

Okay.

So what makes someone worthy then? Are we following Tarisai’s definition? Someone else’s? How stable is the government going to be if we have to keep changing rulers, keep changing councils, because the Ray flies the coop at the first sign of corruption? How come Dayo didn’t lost his Ray that very second because 1) the books always depict his ruling chops and decisions as being lesser than Tarisai’s and 2) his only personality traits are being kind and trusting to a fault. Those are decent traits, but are they what a ruler needs to have? What about a backbone to make difficult decisions? How is Dayo considered “worthy” to be emperor over so many complicated problems, especially compared to Tarisai, when he’s done nothing for two books? Because the book says he is!

Yes, this sounds like a reasonable solution to all the things Tarisai supposedly learned through her trials and tribulations.

Frankly, I feel deranged after this book. The point is so spelled out and so obvious, and yet the book itself entirely misses it. This is why I am starting to disagree with publishers who force their authors to crank out a book every year. Ifueko so clearly and lovingly planned Raybearer, but Redemptor is an obvious rush-job that offers one disappointment after another. The writing, pacing, and plot are so negatively influenced and affected by the isolated, fatigued mindset the pandemic instilled in us all, and I wish we could call for a re-do. This book could’ve taken such a different direction and been so much better.

And fine, I’ll just say it. Where was Woo In??? One scene? I got one measly scene? No words.

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