Something exciting happened to me this year: I started a work experience at Pan Macmillan Australia, the publishers of obscure little novels like The Book Thief and Big Little Lies. Which means I have also officially become one of Those People: the ones you see on Goodreads reviewing books that won’t come out for months, who make you shake your head and think, “Dang, maybe I should start a YouTube channel about books, funnel hundreds of dollars into high-quality VR equipment, and painstakingly gather a large enough base of subscribers so that publishers will send me ARCs too!?!?”
Lucky for me, I got to bypass all that by virtue of doing free proofreading. And even more luckily, I got an early copy, back in February, of one of the most remarkable books of 2018: the incredibly (and deservingly) highly-touted Children of Blood and Bone, a debut novel by author Tomi Adeyemi. It’s an Afrofuturist fantasy. It’s been favorably compared to Black Panther. The Black Lives Matter movement partially inspired it, and before its release in March, it had already been optioned for a film. Even in the world of young adult publishing, which is absolutely saturated with epic, cinematic titles made popular by precursors like The Hunger Games, this novel stands out. Add a gorgeous and unique fantasy world, a heavy dash of West African mythology, and a smart, strong, hot-tempered heroine, and you have all the makings of something truly remarkable.
And remarkable is a good place to start when talking about our heroine, Zélie. Zélie lives in a world that has lost its magic—a commodity once wielded by people called maji, who were blessed at birth by the gods. The corrupt King Saran has used the inexplicable loss of magic to his advantage, murdering and enslaving the maji—including Zélie’s mother, whom she saw hanged in front of her by the king’s men. Zélie, along with her father and brother, struggle to survive in this world, finding themselves increasingly crippled by rising taxes and the threat of discovery: for Zélie is a divîner, a maji who will never come into her powers now that magic has left the world.
The traumas of Zélie’s childhood and the looming specter of the evil king have shaped her into a whipsmart teenager hell-bent on survival. But they’ve also infused her with an all-consuming, unapologetic rage: she wants the men who killed her mother to pay for their crimes. This anger is tempered by her carefully learned survival skills, but not perfectly so. Her quick temper, snap judgements, and failure to listen to others’ advice land her into trouble on multiple occasions, and it’s incredibly rewarding to see a main character be so realistically flawed—and to see her grow and learn from her mistakes as the novel progresses. Equally rewarding is the relationship that grows between Zélie and secondary female character Amari: a foil to Zélie’s hardened street-smarts, she’s a sheltered princess with no true concept of the world beyond her palace walls. Female friendship is something I will never, ever be able to get enough of in young adult literature, and seeing these two drastically different characters progress from outright hostility to distrust to grudging respect and finally to friendship and protectiveness was one of my favorite parts to read.
The journey that Zélie undertakes—both in the grand scheme of the novel, with its gorgeous, magical worlds, and on a personal level—is a breath of fresh air in a market that feels over-saturated with the same type of fantasy heroine. I’m crossing my fingers that someone sends me an ARC of the sequel—I can’t wait to see where Zélie goes next.