Author: Tomi Adeyemi (website)
UK Publisher: Macmillan Children’s Books
Genre: Fantasy, YA
They killed my mother.
They took our magic.
They tried to bury us.
Now we rise.
Zélie remembers when the soil of Orïsha hummed with magic. When different clans ruled – Burners igniting flames, Tiders beckoning waves, and Zélie’s Reaper mother summoning forth souls.
But everything changed the night magic disappeared. Under the orders of a ruthless king, anyone with powers was targeted and killed, leaving Zélie without a mother and her people without hope. Only a few people remain with the power to use magic, and they must remain hidden.
Zélie is one such person. Now she has a chance to bring back magic to her people and strike against the monarchy. With the help of a rogue princess, Zélie must learn to harness her powers and outrun the crown prince, who is hell-bent on eradicating magic for good.
Danger lurks in Orïsha, where strange creatures prowl, and vengeful spirits wait in the waters. Yet the greatest danger may be Zélie herself as she struggles to come to terms with the strength of her magic – and her growing feelings for an enemy.
This is one of those books that I’d been meaning to read for a very long time, but other things kept coming up. I think part of it was that, while I had only heard good things about this book, the title evoked quite visceral images for me, and I worried there might be some fairly graphic details in the narrative that I might struggle with. I’m not the best at anything relating to gore or body horror, so I just kept circling around this until I felt I might be in a frame of mind to handle it. I needn’t have worried! While there is some description of blood and violence, I wouldn’t say this was anything more than expected for an adventure YA novel.
I loved the way the mythology of the world was built up. I wasn’t sure if Orïsha was meant to be a direct facsimile of Nigeria (in the vein of The Poppy War and Nikan/China) as the capital was called Lagos, but reading up it seems as if Adeyemi was inspired by the whole of West Africa and encompasses that in her mythos. The twelve clans, each linked to a patron deity in the pantheon, and each with their own cultures of magic and worship, were amazing. I would have loved to see more of them, and perhaps I will get to in the sequel. (The official website even has a quiz to learn which clan you’re in – I’m a Tider!) The giant animal companions delighted me as well, I loved the idea of having a giant panther to ride on.
Zélie was a compelling character, filled with righteous anger and a lot of conflict. She wants revenge, but she also wants to protect her family. She wants her powers back but she’s not sure she’s worthy. I enjoyed this concept and seeing her grapple with her preconceptions. There was a lot in the book of people judging a group as a whole rather than by individuals. This perhaps seemed at times a little uneven – the Maji had faced a genocide, you might expect them to be a little prejudiced against the people who were responsible.
I did struggle with how uneven Zélie’s judgement was though. She spends far longer holding Amari to account for her father’s crimes, even though Amari is actively helping her and clearly as at risk as Zélie and her brother, than she does Tzain, and Tzain spends a large portion of the book literally trying to kill her and is directly responsible for the deaths of people she knows. And Zélie KNOWS this. She witnesses it. I was baffled by how few hoops he had to jump through to gain her approval.
This is a minor niggle, however, because Tzain himself provides a wonderful second narrative perspective and his conflicts mirror Zélie’s in their own way. He is desperately trying to prove himself to his father and himself, but he’s unsure entirely what he wants or who he really is. When he learns things about himself, his internal conflict starts to tear him apart almost literally. He hurts himself to try and repress the truth and it’s a fantastic narrative to see him try to fight that shame and fear. It’s a narrative arc almost similar to Zuko’s in Avatar: The Last Airbender, although as it was over a shorter period perhaps it had slightly less impact when he was accepted into the fold. Or rather – it served a different narrative purpose.
I couldn’t find any information as to whether this is a duology or a trilogy, but as I have book 2 sitting and waiting for me, I can only assume I will find out! It’s definitely not a book that ends on a stand-alone note. It’s a fantastic book, however. If you are a fan of YA fantasy (and it is very YA in a lot of its tropes) then this is something rich and wonderful.
- A West African-inspired fantasy novel with rich world building and a fascinating mythology that I desperately want to know more about.
- Complex characters with wonderfully mirrored internal struggles and strifes. Seeing them grow and develop, and seeing their paths influence each other, was really quite satisfying.
- In some ways it is a dark book. At no point does Adeyemi shy away from the fact that a genocide has taken place, or that its effects are still very real and active. This was strikingly portrayed and extremely effective.