Daughters of Nri
by Reni K Amayo
344pp (Trade Paperback)
My Rating: 7/10
Amazon Rating: --/5
LibraryThing Rating: --/5
Goodreads Rating: 4.45/5

Daughters of Nri is both Reni K Amayo’s debut novel and the debut publication of Onwe Press, whose website describes them and their mission as follows:

We are an independent publisher based in the UK. Founded by 2 black women in 2018, we want to disrupt the publishing industry offering opportunities to voices we need to hear more from.

At Onwe Press, we value three things above all: unforgettable stories, author ownership and highlighting diverse voices. We’re small but we’re mighty and we have a team dedicated to ensuring that writers, especially underestimated and underrepresented writers, get paid their due for their world-changing words.

Their recently released first book is young adult historical fantasy located in the titular Kingdom of Nri (a region within present-day Nigeria), mainly set during the year 994 AD, and is the opening installment in The Return of the Earth Mother series—and is a lovely story centered on twin sisters unaware of not only the fact that they are goddesses but also the existence of the other, having been separated shortly after birth for their own protection.

About a century before these two were torn asunder, the long-lived Eze of Nri encountered an oracle, who predicted the coming of the Earth Mother’s twins. She foresaw that they would be born in the kingdom he ruled and would bring about his end, just as he once brought about the end of the Earth Mother and the old gods who once roamed the land. After that, the Eze decreed that all twins born in Nri be put to death.

Naala and Sinai were spared this fate when they were stolen away and raised in two different places where no one knew who they actually were. Naala grew up in a village, but on the day she is supposed to be wed, the Eze’s soldiers arrive. They slaughter everyone except for Naala, who was not present for most of the attack because she was sent to a secluded hut reserved for people thought to be mad, all because she warned her people about an approaching army. Grieving and weak from awakening a power to shake the earth that she didn’t know she had, Naala is discovered by a small group of people who banded together after surviving the massacre of their own villages and seeks ways to resist the Eze’s reign of terror.

Naala’s sister Sinai grew up in a palace in the city of Nri, raised alongside the noble children under the belief that she was illegitimate royalty. She never felt like she truly belonged, and she has always been despised by Ina, a beautiful king’s daughter who becomes increasingly jealous as the handsome lord she had hoped to marry appears more interested in Sinai. One morning when Sinai is standing by a large window overlooking the city, Ina knocks her off balance, leaving her to plunge to her death. But Sinai survives the fall and is brought to the palace chef, who cares for her during her recovery—and sets her on the path to learning more of the truth about who she is, just as events steer her sister toward the same.

It took a few chapters for Daughters of Nri to completely draw me in since the beginning alternated the past with introducing Naala and Sinai, but I found it engrossing as the twins’ stories moved forward. It’s not a book to read if you’re looking for plot twists and action but one to read if you’re looking for a book that immerses you in the characters’ lives. I particularly appreciated its focus on community, Reni K Amayo’s adeptness at bringing to life the various bonds between characters, and that the two sisters’ journeys were unique yet mirrored each other in some ways.

Naala and Sinai have different personalities and experiences, but there are clear parallels between them and their paths. Both are considered to be unconventional, but they express this distinctly. Naala disturbs the other villagers by questioning their customs—and is punished for daring to disagree with their chief when she insists the group approaching is a dangerous army rather than tax collectors—and confounds them by rolling around in the dirt in her wedding dress and climbing trees. She’s more naturally inclined to take matters into her own hands than Sinai, who does not want to draw attention to herself. Sinai puzzles others by dreamily wandering the palace lost in her own thoughts, and she can be rather naive about the social workings of the nobility. Though their situations are not similar, the broad strokes share common elements. Both find friends and allies among others with similar goals and values, and both of their stories are about survival. Naala literally learns to survive in the wilderness after escaping the village with her life, and Sinai’s story is about survival as a woman surrounded by powerful men after escaping the fall with her life.

I enjoyed reading about both sisters, but I found Sinai’s chapters particularly compelling because of her relationships with Meekulu, the wise palace chef, and Ina (to my surprise). Meekulu is kind but also tells it like it is, and I rather liked the development of the “mentor giving the mentee a task” subplot since it went in an unexpected but welcome direction. That’s also what I loved so much about Ina’s progression: at first, this seems like the usual tale of a cruel girl hating a sweet girl because of a man, but it doesn’t follow the typical trajectory when Sinai makes a choice that changes everything. Ina actually ended up being my favorite character after the two main protagonists.

The prose was mostly smooth and sometimes elegant, although there were a few times it was a bit stilted, especially toward the beginning. Some of this could have been easily fixed and may have been in the final version, though. The largest issues I had with this novel were unrelated to the writing style but had to do with the Eze and the ease with which magic overcame obstacles. The Eze is an uninteresting villain: he’s the type who thinks he’s just but has no apparent redeeming qualities. It makes sense that he’d be set in his ways since he’s been alive for a while and it certainly makes it easy to want to see him defeated, but his dialogue and Big Villain Monologue are rather trite. I’m more divided on whether or not magic happened too accidentally and conveniently. After all, Naala and Sinai are goddesses, even if they don’t realize it yet, and magic seems like it would come naturally to deities. But training does prove to be beneficial in helping them control these abilities, and given that, I do feel like inadvertent use of power was relied upon too much to neatly solve problems.

That said, Daughters of Nri is an enchanting, absorbing novel with beautifully handled themes, and it drew me into its world and made me care about Naala, Sinai, Meekulu, and shockingly, even Ina.

My Rating: 7/10

Where I got my reading copy: ARC from the publisher.