I have heard a lot of buzz about Children of Blood and Bone (Legacy of Orïsha #1) recently. You may have heard it is already in line to be made into a movie. I actually did not know that when I bought the book and decided to read it. It is getting a lot of Award attention as a nominee for the 2019 Hugo Award, the Locus Award, Nommo Award, Lincoln Award (2020), the William C Morris Award, and winner of the 2019 Nebula award and the Audie Award (for great audiobook performances).
Check out 11/22/63 for an excellent adaption (or Harry Potter Series, Jim Dale). When listening to audiobooks, there are just some stories not made for multitasking (e.g. William Faulkner). They take focus, if not direct reading. Couple that with a bad narration and you have a failure waiting to happen. E.g. look at to Say Nothing of the Dog. Not a bad book, but it is easy to get lost in details partially due to a so-so narrator.
I’ve decided to give it a shot. I don’t read as much young adult fiction as I did when I was younger, and I am hoping it isn’t held back by being YA. My issue with YA is that not all authors are J.K. Rowling. Immature writing is often lazy for lack of a better term. You are catering to children, so you don’t have to worry about how you write. J.K. Rowling is an example of how that doesn’t have to be the case; the language alone taught me words I would later be introduced to in AP Literature. I hope for a mature level of writing here (and themes).
Needless to say, the bar is pretty high for this work. I am 13% into the 18hr audiobook, and it has had a strong start. The author is quick to grab your attention, to make you care for the characters you’re following. That is a great start. Moving forward, my overall love and enjoyment of this can likely be measured by how fast I read it, but hopefully I can support that with a solid discussion moving forward.
I’m ~30% along. The “journey” (i.e. the basic plot) has been defined. While that is a necessary part of a story, I am not sure I like how cardboard cut out it feels. To return to the ideal YA story, Harry Potter does a lot of world building. It hints at whats to come, but the true threat and requirements of its characters are revealed more slowly (for the most part). The story is told beautifully (audibly speaking), and the writing is easy enough to follow. At this point, I definitely think there is a YA vibe. However, it is hard not to love the unique mythos that the author has developed to tell the story, even if the story itself could be told better. I was always intrigued by the Greek gods, and its fascinating to see West African mythologies explored here.
I’m 56% along, and I am thoroughly enjoying the book. Unfortunately, I don’t know if I love the book. Don’t get me wrong, there are places where I don’t want to stop (or can’t stop) because its a really fun read. But…. I am not sure I love the overarching story. I want to love everything about this book. And lucky for me, there is plenty to love. There is amazing world building with vivid detail. I feel like as though I am watching a movie as she describes each moment take place. Adeyemi is very effective after immersing you into the story. The problem revolves around the story itself. It feels somewhat predictable. What’s more, there are parts of the story that feel forced for the sake of the narrative rather than naturally unfolding. It isn’t a bad story, it just feels conventional.
Skip this paragraph if you are worried about (mild) spoilers. Take Inan, one of the three main protagonists (or antagonists?), son of the “evil” king who seeks to destroy all the maggots or maji (people of magic). Early in the story he learns that he has magic (i.e. is a maji), yet he is the one tasked with hunting down those with magic. We see him faced with a difficult situation, where he begins to hate a part of himself. Imagine being gay and raised by bigots, hateful religious zealots (i.e. anyone who shames you for who you are). That’s not easy to overcome. Yet, he convinces himself, destroying those with magic will free him of this infection he has because, in his minds, the people he is chasing are responsible for the infection. He even sees himself as a threat and a monster, unable to control what he is. It is for the good of the realm that this infection is eradicated. Then, he finally comes face to face with the Maji he chases, and again his magic swells up. He is overcome with her memories and feelings (a part of his power). He finally is able to sympathize with her in this moment. In doing so, he appears forgoes the mission he has been tasked with, realizing his father is the true monster. I understand no longer seeing her as a monster, but religious zealots can be like a cult, and the ideas they push are are not easily overcome. Even if she isn’t a monster, that doesn’t erase years of indoctrination convincing you magic is bad. A few chapters before, he hated himself, even as he completely understood himself. Understanding the other Maji wouldn’t erase the mentality towards magic. A better story, in my opinion, would more effectively tackle this problem, being yet another obstacle that has to be overcome. Instead, the author needed that clean transition, so she made it happen. To me, it doesn’t work, and it’s bad story telling. [update: it turns out to be more complicated than I thought, and I follow up on this later in my review].
Don’t mistake my misgivings are hatred. I still really enjoy the book, but there are clearly places the story is lacking.
I am 77% through the book. I’ll probably be done by the end of the week. That kind of turn around suggests the author is doing something right. In regards to the example I mentioned earlier, the issue isn’t as black and white as I thought. The author is adding some complexity which I like. However, even this example aside, there are other parts I would consider lazy, but overall, I like the story she is telling even if it isn’t perfect. It is emotional and action packed. Except, within that action I can’t help but feel very little worry over our protagonist’s long term lifespan or the chances of their success (because this just feels like that kind of story). [Update: there were some surprises on how far Adeyemi pushes the characters after all, but I am not convinced the long term damage will exceed the likes of Infinity War (SPOILERS: We all knew they’d come back more or less).]
I think I need to do some retconning, if not completely remove my previous assessment. Without getting into spoilers, I need to say that the “lazy” choice I thought the author had made was not as lazy as I suspected. The story was more complicated than I thought it was, and the characters are acting in ways that make sense (for the most part). I still feel like some characters are naive, or outright dumb, but stupidity is not the same as bad story telling. Let me be clear, the book hardly free of flaws. The example I highlighted was frustrating, and it was addressed. Unfortunately, there are still other moments that feel convenient, rules made for the narrative (e.g. after a decade, there happens to be a only a few days left to do what they need to do) or a rule broken for the same purpose (i.e. Blood Magic kills some but not others). Nevertheless, I am thoroughly enjoying this story as it concludes. I long since passed the point where I don’t want to stop reading, and that sucks because I have less than an hour to go (96% of the way through). I also think I should be fair about the flaws in this work. I am sure the same bending of rules can be said about Harry Potter. Those flaws never bothered me before, so why should the bother me now (maybe because I’m not a teenager and am better adapt at recognizing bad story telling).
This was a fantastic read, and the narration was great. I can’t say it is my favorite book. Part of me fears I went in expecting it to fail if only because of all the praise it has gotten. In the end, my feelings are my feelings. The book is a thrill to read, but that doesn’t make it great. The last season of Game of Thrones was a beautiful spectacle, but it’s story was terrible. The flaws within Children of Blood and Bone are hardly on the level of GOT Season 8. I merely use it as an example to highlight the distinction between presentation and story telling. The presentation was fantastic, the story was okay.
Even so, I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that the story tackles serious topics. Classism is front and center followed closely by abusive of power by authority figures. Adeyemi says this is meant to bring attention to police shooting unarmed black men, without just cause. As I read, most of the villains in this book feel one dimensional, but the inclusion of Inan provides us with a character who is not so black and white. I still wish that the other villains had the same level of depth. I look forward to Adeyemi’s next novel. I get the feeling this first book of the trilogy was meant to lay the groundwork for the future books where our villains aren’t one-dimensional, and I am eager to see where Adeyemi goes from here.
As I conclude, I want to change focus for a bit to discuss some controversy around the book involving originality. A writer for the A.V. Club suggests the author just copies the Last Airbender and An Ember in the Ashes. Adeyemi says her each of these stories were big inspirations for her story, and having read the entire story I can definitely see similarities. I was never a major follower of TLA nor did I read An Ember in the Ashes. The magic in this book is different than TLA. It isn’t just magic, earth, fire and air. Rather, it is a larger variety of powers, but some of these resemble those in TLA. Apparently, An Ember in the Ashes is a love story, which apparently is what is woven into the TLA narrative. All this is to ask the question, how much originality is required to be considered new let alone your own work? I don’t know if this work does or does not do that. Harry Potter has the Christ figure and the similarities to Macbeth, but does that make it a rip off of the two? Of course not, but those are more themes. Rowling still created a unique world that she navigated with similar themes of other works but also a story that was still her own.
Adeyemi has created an immersive and unique world that makes for an amazing setting for this story to take place. The problem arise with the story, where the narrative feels more derivative of the stories she is inspired by–not just themes but larger plot structures (a tyrannical king, select few heroes, a forbidden love). I am still not ready to say the story is fundamentally undermined by the similarities. I understand the complaints, but whether they are as extreme as the A.V. Club writer would suggest, I am not so sure. I will leave that up to you to decide. I think its worth reading regardless!
4.5/5 Stars rounding down.
The more I think back on this, the more I think I rated this incorrectly. I think I let the hype bias me, and I’ve read a lot more this year to the point that I have a better idea of how I like to rate books. This book isn’t more than a four, to be honest, I kept thinking I gave it 3.5 rounding up. I came here wondering if that was too high. 4.5 definitely is. Its a fine book; it just doesn’t stand out like other books do. 3.5/5 stars rounding down.