How can I describe Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone? Think Harry Potter meets Black Panther set in the mythical West African land of Orisha. In this land, special children, the devîners, are born with white hair. They inherit magical abilities from one of ten maji clans, each influenced by a different god. The people in Orisha ride on horse-sized lionairs and snow leopanaires. There are floating markets, built on the edge of the sea, and lush jungle mountains crowned with the ruins of ancient temples. There is an ancient language as well, spoken at the creation of the world. Magic, in Orisha, awakens in a young devîner on their thirteenth birthday.
Until, that is, the day the king destroys magic. The king and his family are not maji. Instead they are aristocrats, preoccupied with gold, power, court gossip, and lightening their skin. They are also obsessed with demonizing and eliminating the maji. In order to guarantee his family’s continued power, the king will stop at nothing to destroy forever the possibility of magic’s return.
Zélie was a child the night the king’s guards came to kill the maji. On that night, she saw her mother murdered and her father beaten. Years later, Zélie by chance rescues the kings daughter, who has escaped from the palace with a mysterious scroll. Every maji who touches the scroll feels their powers reawaken. Now Zélie has one chance to bring magic back and save her people.
Adeyemi’s breakout debut hit number one on the New York Times YA bestseller list its first day and stayed there. Her charming unboxing video lit up social media. (Seriously, have tissues handy when you hit play. I'm still teary-eyed.) The movie rights have already sold. What makes the book so special is its richly realized world with conflicts that comment so closely on those in real life. In his review for The Atlantic, Newkirk called Children of Blood and Bone “fantasy meets Black Lives Matter,” and he makes a valid point.
Adeyemi tells the story in the voices of three characters: Zélie, whose long white hair winds itself into tighter and tighter curls as her power grows; Amari, who is the daughter of a brutal king; and Inan, Amari’s brother, captain of the king’s guard, who is determined to gain his ruthless father’s approval, and who is hiding a terrible secret of his own. Each has a distinct and surprising arc. Each gives voice to the diverse rages and struggles of youth who have inherited an impossible situation.
To say that the book is action packed is an understatement: in Children of Blood and Bone, the action never, ever, stops, not for a second. In fact, my only criticism is that I had to put the book down on a couple occasions just to catch my breath. This frustrated my strong desire to devour all 544 pages of the story in one sitting. It also frustrated my longing to linger in the land of Orisha and absorb the landscapes, colors, and cultures that kept wizzing past.
Beyond the richly drawn characters and the non-stop action, the book’s true power lies in its conception and use of magic. It is here that Adeyemi introduces a twist on a familiar fantasy trope.
In the best fantasy worlds, magic is a metaphor for fundamental power. What it is, where it comes from, who wields it and how—all these things tell you something about the deeper structures of the fantasy world. The same is true for science fiction, as Arthur C. Clarke immortalized in his third law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” And by “advanced technology” I don’t mean just the cell phones and computers that everyone uses every day even though few of us understand how it all works. I’m talking about powers that do not obey the laws of physics as we understand them, like telekinesis in Star Wars or everything the protomolecule can do in The Expanse.
In many fantasy worlds, the fundamental power that magic represents is associated with the power to name. Remember Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea? Everything has a true name in the old speech. To name something is to gain power over it, to control it, to cause it to do your bidding. In The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf names the Balrog when he confronts the beast in the depths of Moria. Naming the creature reveals that Gandalf understands its nature, which empowers him to defeat it. And in The Hobbit, Bilbo was careful not to tell Smaug the dragon his real name. These are just a few examples—I’m sure you can think of many more.
In Adeyemi’s Orisha, however, the power of naming is in the hands of the cruel king. Again and again he says, “I would not be doing my job as king if I did not remind you who you are.” He repeatedly defines those he wants to oppress as “maggots,” not human, and in his mind not worthy of humanity. The king uses his power to name, to define, to control, to subject to his will, and ultimately to destroy. This is the king’s form of magic in Orisha. It is the power to take, the power to control.
Zélie’s magic is completely different from the king’s. Her magic, and the magic of all the devîner maji, is one of connection. Her magic connects human beings across time and space, people of the past to people of the present. Zélie’s magic reaches back to the moment of creation. It connects the people of the present to the natural world at its source. It connects members of the present community to each other and weaves them together. In one of the fiercest, and most beautiful, moments in the book, Adeyemi paints a picture of Zélie fully embracing and embraced by her power. Zélie reaches back and touches hands with the god she calls on:
Zélie’s magic has a dark side as well. Her power is both life and death. The dead can use her as a conduit for their revenge, but also as the door out of entrapment and into eternal peace. She worries, at one point, what might happen if the devîners cannot control their power. After all, those who would have taught the young devîners have all been murdered. Zélie’s generation has lost their history, the knowledge gained by countless generations over hundreds of years. They will have to rediscover and remake the rules of magic. There are bound to be mistakes, and those mistakes could be catastrophic. Every power of the ten maji clans seems to have two sides—the power of life is also the power of death, the power over tides is also the power over tsunamis. Fortunately we can look forward to at least two more books of adventures where readers can revisit Orisha and ride along with Zélie and all the newly powerful devîners as they remake the future.