For me, this was a case of the book not living up to the hype. I enjoyed it–mostly–but I was not especially impressed by it, and in the end, the unsatisfying and frustrating bits outweighed the gorgeous world-building and smart racial commentary.
The book takes place in a Nigerian-inspired fantasy kingdom. Magic has been wiped out, and those who use it brutally repressed. Zelie, who watched her mother murdered on the night magic was eliminated, now finds herself on a quest to bring it back.
It’s a perfectly good setup for a fantasy novel: three teenagers set off on a dangerous quest to restore order to their world. But the whole novel felt as if it took place on the surface, and never ventured into deeper waters. The world-building was quite good–the kingdom itself felt rich and layered. The magic, mythology, culture, and history was all interesting, but none of it was explored as much as I wanted. It was all very up front and predicable. There wasn’t much subtlety.
The book is rather long (525 pages) and it was mostly plot. The plot was fast-paced and engaging enough, and it felt like it should have left me breathless. But it never got my heart pounding. I never sense any true tension or danger, despite many life-threatening battles, close escapes, and violent situations.
I think this had to do with the characters. I don’t want to say they were flat–because I sensed a lot of depth in them–but not enough of that depth came through on the page. There was so much room for complexity and nuance, especially given the characters’ histories and varying experiences, but it wasn’t really there. I didn’t really get inside them; they didn’t have enough time to wrestle with each other and themsleves.
Not all fantasy has to be character-driven. I like a good adventure story as much as the next person. But this book felt like it should have been character-driven, or was trying to be. I believed that the characters were whole people. They all had interesting and often deeply traumatic backstories that had a lot of bearing on their present. But their emotions felt static for much of the book, and when they changed, it was sudden and dramatic, with no in-between stage. I had trouble believing in these immediate shifts in perspective and belief. The central relationships felt too neat, too pat. As the book went on, more and more of the characters’s actions had to do with newly formed relationships that I couldn’t buy into. I wanted to watch these characters truly getting to know each other, rather than simply watching them do things together.
There was nothing in this book that surprised me. The characters did what I expected them to do. The relationships that I assumed would develop did so. It was like the bones of the book were showing–I could see exactly where it was going, and it went there. That’s not always a bad thing, but in this case, it felt like there was so much underneath the surface that didn’t come through in the text. For a book that explores all the themes that this one did–racial oppression and injustice and repressive regimes, complicated family relationships, warring belief systems, legacies of violence–it didn’t feel weighty enough. The actual story couldn’t quite support all of the complexity simmering below the surface.
In thinking about why I was so uninvested in this book, I turned to craft. The novel is narrated from the POVs of three different characters, all in first person. So it switches between three different first person narrators from chapter to chapter. The chapters are often very short. While it is possible to successfully use multiple first person narrators, but I personally think it is very, very hard. (It drives me crazy in romance novels.) Adeyemi did not execute it well. None of the narrators had a particularly strong voice, which wouldn’t have bothered me at all in third person, but three first person narrators who all sounded quite similar got confusing fast. The chapters were all labeled with character names, but even so, each time, it took me a moment to remember who was narrating, and often, by the time I’d settled in to the new voice, the chapter was over.
If the use of first person narration had added something to the story, I wouldn’t have minded. But as far as I could tell, the book could have easily been rewritten in third person, with nothing lost, and much gained. Looking back, I think this was a big part of why the characters felt so underdeveloped. It was so much work to remember who was narrating what. Eventually it got so distracting that I stopped paying attention to who was narrating, basically pretending it was third person narration in my head.
I certainly didn’t hate this one. We need so, so many more books like it–fantasy staring black and brown people, centering blackness, celebrating blackness. It was great to read a fantasy novel completely without white characters, and one in which black teenagers are fierce, tender, and strong. Personally, I’m thrilled that the book is getting so much press and attention. Adeyemi is a young writer, and this is her first novel. I did not love it, but I can see how much it might mean to young teenagers of color who so rarely see themselves in fantasy and science fiction books. I don’t think Adeyemi is going to stop writing anytime soon, and that’s a good thing.
It’s possible to appreciate a book’s import and impact without loving it. For me, Children of Blood and Bone fell short, but I can see why it’s so compelling to others.