Children of Blood and Bone
by Tomi Adeyemi
544pp (Hardcover)
My Rating: 6.5/10
Amazon Rating: 4.7/5
LibraryThing Rating: 4.21/5
Goodreads Rating: 4.32/5

Children of Blood and Bone, Tomi Adeyemi’s #1 New York Times bestselling debut novel, is the first installment in the Legacy of Orïsha trilogy. This West African-inspired young adult fantasy book is a heart-wrenching story with characters facing memorable struggles in both their literal and figurative journeys, and I can definitely understand why it’s been making such big waves this year. However, despite being hooked throughout the first and last 100 pages, I did find the pacing between these two sections to be rather uneven—and, frankly, I found much of the middle difficult to slog through even though I appreciated the author’s vision overall.

Orïsha’s population once included maji, each of whom could wield a power associated with one of ten deities. Many came to hate the maji, and the king especially despised them since it was maji who killed his first wife and their children. When magic mysteriously disappeared one day, the king seized the opportunity and had all the maji slaughtered while they were no more powerful than any other.

Zélie was just a child when her mother, a powerful maji with power over life and death, was killed. Eleven years later, magic is still gone but those of the maji’s children who would have grown up to wield it had it remained—like Zélie—continue to suffer under the king’s rule. Marked by the white hair that was once celebrated as a sign of the gods’ gifts, these young divîners have never been able to access their powers but are still punished for their existence: for instance, they are often intimidated or assaulted by the guards and they are taxed increasingly heavily.

When the divîner tax becomes too expensive for Zélie’s family of fishers, her father is told that she will be forced to work off her debt in the stocks if they don’t come up with the coin quickly. Desperation to avoid this fate prompts her and her brother to journey to the city to sell a rare fish, but money becomes the least of their concerns after Zélie decides to aid a young noblewoman fleeing from the king’s guards and her brother helps them both escape.

Once they’re outside the city, they learn that the young woman they assisted is the king’s daughter, Amari, who fled the palace after she saw her father awaken her servant’s magic and then murder her. But the princess did not flee empty-handed: she first stole the scroll that reunited her servant with her magic. With this document, the three may be able to bring magic back to the land permanently if they move quickly—but not if Amari’s brother succeeds in his own quest to stop them.

The plot of Children of Blood and Bone is about a quest to restore magic and fighting back against a tyrannical monarch, but at its heart it’s about the effects of oppression and cruelty, the power of empathy, and the strength of people working together. Despite these latter two themes and some hopeful notes at the end, it doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to living in a land ruled by a cruel, discriminatory king and it does include death, tragedy, violence, sexual assault/near rape, torture, and fear—enough that the grimness almost overwhelms those little cracks of light that shine through at times.

Children of Blood and Bone shows this world and individual responses to its atrocities through the eyes of three different characters: Zélie, Princess Amari, and Prince Inan. Each is a major character, but Zélie is probably the most central since the story begins and ends with her and it is she who may be able to restore the connection between the gods and the divîners that would bring back magic permanently. Zélie once believed the gods died with magic, but now the weight of being chosen rests on her shoulders. Though it’s not a huge part of the book, I thought Zélie’s feelings about her faith in the gods and their role for her were quite well done, as well as her fiery rage at how she and the other divîners were treated. Hot-headed Zélie’s emotions are especially palpable and my heart broke for her when she remembered the chain around her mother’s neck and her deep self-loathing afterward.

Amari and Inan are interesting to compare and contrast because they share a similar background but make very different choices. After the murder of his first family, their father tried to ensure both of them were what he considered to be strong: ruthless. He believed Amari to be weak because of her compassion, but she proves to be the stronger as she stands by her convictions about what is right and opposes her father. She realizes that perhaps she could have done more in the past to help divîners, and she tries to move forward and comes to have a better understanding of what Zélie and the others have had to face. Though she initially has some difficulty with letting go of her fear of her father and fighting back with Zélie and her brother, she does not waver in her belief that her father is on the wrong side. I especially enjoyed the gradual progression of Amari’s friendship with Zélie.

Unlike Amari, Inan is conflicted. At his core, he’s not the person his father wants him to be, but he doesn’t have the strength of character to stand up to him and usually follows his orders—as he does when his father sends him to find Amari and the scroll she took. This journey, a secret he discovers about himself, and his growing feelings for Zélie challenge his principles, though, and he ends up wavering between being the person his father expects him to be and standing with Zélie and Amari. Though he is rather indecisive, I did feel that his characterization as someone who is torn between what he believes to be right and the lessons that have been drilled into him as the future king is realistic. Even the repetition throughout his narrative that became irritating at times seems true to someone trying to work through what they’ve been told repeatedly throughout their life.

Likewise, Inan and Zélie’s budding romance made sense to me but also made the book less enjoyable. Their relationship does take a sudden turn from hate to love, but I also think it’s clear that Inan has been attracted to Zélie since he first saw her. When the two are forced to call a truce to work toward a common goal, Inan makes a choice that shows Zélie a different side of him—and, as the only one who knows his secret, Zélie knows more of what he’s going through than anyone else. There are some ways in which they can understand each other better than Amari or Zélie’s brother, Tzain. Despite that, I did think that their relationship contributed to making the narrative more overwrought and self-indulgent than was necessary and was one of the factors that made the actual story move slowly.

Those pacing issues were what most hindered my experience with reading Children of Blood and Bone. From the very first chapter, I expected to love this book—and I actually did love parts of it, including the first several chapters. They were an excellent introduction to the world and the main characters, and there were also some exciting scenes with Zélie taking her mentor’s test with the staff and Amari and Zélie escaping from the guards. I was also immediately impressed by the smooth flow of the prose since first person present perspective can sometimes be stilted or awkward. But then a lot of the focus turned to the quest: traveling, obtaining new items, and racing against the clock while evading Inan and his retinue. Though there certainly were some highlights among the middle and I enthusiastically endorse characters journeying with giant lion-like animals (or, better yet, one of the royal family’s giant snow leopard-like animals), I found large swathes of it to be tedious and dull before the last 100 pages or so.

Children of Blood and Bone has a fantastic arc overall, and it particularly excels at making its characters’ internal conflicts poignantly felt. Yet the parts sandwiched between the strong opening chapters and the finale were unevenly paced—although it did end on an intriguing note that makes me want to know what happens next!

My Rating: 6.5/10

Where I got my reading copy: It was a birthday present from my husband.

Read an Excerpt from Children of Blood and Bone