Monday, April 8, 2019

Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

Source of book: I own this.

My wife found a signed copy of this book, and it was recommended to me by a few friends as well. I had intended it to be a second selection for Black History Month, but I wasn’t able to fit it in. However, I did put it on my nightstand, and eventually reached that stratum. 

I have kind of mixed feelings about the book, and mixed feelings about having mixed feelings. Let me start with the things I was disappointed in, and then look at the things I loved.

The first probably stems from the fact that I am (1) not a genre fiction person and (2) generally prefer characterization to action. Children of Blood and Bone is YA fantasy by genre, and shares many of the same characteristics of other books I have read within said genre. In particular, fantasy books often tend to be action driven - and full of tension, danger, and violence. Which, if that is your thing, that’s fine. It just isn’t mine. (On a related note, I am not into action or superhero movies.)

This also ties into an observation I have made about a few YA or children’s genre fiction books: the feel is a lot like a combination of a video game and a movie. If you look past the specifics of the world the author builds or the details of the action, you can see the way the movie would be shot, frame for frame - or find it super easy to imagine the video game. Two of the worst offenders in this sense are Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson in their Peter and the Starcatchers series - which, despite some fun moments, seem very much like book adaptations of a movie. I would likewise mention Brandon Mull’s Five Kingdoms series, which works as an audiobook for travel - the action keeps one awake - but reminds me so much of the NES games I watched my friends play as a child.

Children of Blood and Bone is not as fluffy as those others, but I did feel like it was built around a near-constant sequence of dangerous or violent set-pieces. In practice, a plot driven book like this doesn’t give the characters time or room to develop. Outside of the group of main characters, the other sentient beings have to be sorted (really fast, usually) into “enemies that will kill me if I don’t escape or kill them,” or “people who might assist me in my quest.” Or, perhaps, as in the rudimentary RPG games I preferred to those requiring hand-eye coordination: “good, evil, or neutral.” The plot twists therefore consist in new and dangerous circumstances plus a potential change of a character from evil to good and back.

This constant peril and action means that the book mostly lacks ordinary human interactions. (There is an exception in a couple of chapters two-thirds of the way through - which is a nice, if temporary relief.) I will concede that this is a natural result of the needs of the plot. Fleeing for one’s life doesn’t leave much room for social niceties. But it also is really draining for someone like me, who finds the constant tension, danger, and violence to be exhausting. It’s just a personality thing. And likewise, please do not expect me to be good at improvising a plan while fleeing for my life. That is most certainly NOT my particular skill set. Because of the dark plot, there really wasn’t any humor in the book, which I missed. Again, that’s my personality.

One more thing that kind of bothered me is the way the book ended. As in, the big climax took place, and we had...wait for it...two pages of epilogue to wrap it up. That’s it. Actually, that isn’t it. There was literally two sentences after the final big reveal. And both of those sentences give the main character’s reaction, but don’t actually explain much of anything.

Okay, okay, I’m sure there will be a sequel. (Actually a trilogy is planned. Will it be five books by the time it is done?) But still, I thought, “wait, what??!” at the end, when I flipped the page, and there was...nothing more in the book. It was very abrupt, and I had lots of questions afterward.

Alright, enough of the bad stuff. There was a lot to like in this book too. Adeyemi is Nigerian American (and all of 25 years old, so some of the flaws may just be the result of youth and stuff). She says she was inspired to write the book by the ongoing police brutality against African Americans - particularly the unarmed, the innocent, or young children. To this end, Adeyemi combined West African mythology, Yoruba language and culture, and metaphorical representations of current and past injustices.

The fictional world is divided into two classes of people. The Maji are those who can (or at least used to be able to) use magic. The Kosidan are the non-magical people, who have become the ruling class, and brutally oppress the Maji, who have lost their magical abilities. While all of the characters have dark skin, the Kosidan are described as being slightly lighter. In contrast, the Maji have grey hair, which is an easy tell as to their identity. In the aftermath of a cataclysmic war, the Maji have been enslaved, killed, and brutalized by the Kosidan, who are determined that magic itself must be exterminated.

It isn’t difficult to see parallels to the slave trade, Jim Crow, police brutality, and other realities of the American past and present. Adeyemi does a good job of keeping the analogies from becoming preachy allegories, which I appreciated.

I also thought that the world building was good. Personally, I could have enjoyed a little more time on background and a bit less on battles, but I recognize that I am not the target audience for YA fantasy. Adeyemi did give enough information to make sense of her world, which felt consistent, and not like a rip-off of other worlds. I would be happy to explore the world further. (Side note here: Adeyemi cited Harry Potter as an influence. I also found that series - the first two books at least - to be a bit heavy on action and light on description and characterization.) So I do give credit for a compelling world. The connection of magic to the gods, to objects, and to people was particularly interesting.

My favorite facet of the book, however, was the nuanced moral ambiguity. While the Kosidan are currently in power, and thus have the wherewithal to be the villains and oppressors, the history doesn’t leave the Maji innocent. There seems to have been plenty of brutality, violence, and hate on all sides, and both groups have a colorable claim to a right to defend themselves against the other group. Adeyemi has all three main characters (who take turns narrating the story) wrestle with the question of whether bringing magic back will be a good or bad thing. On the one hand, the Maji are correct that without some power to hit back against their oppressors, they will never be respected or treated with dignity. On the other, would they actually be less evil than the Kosidan if they gained power? Or would they be just as brutal and murderous? Human history suggests a rather pessimistic view of the possibilities.

Likewise, the idea of cooperation and equality is raised, but in practice has proven to be difficult to establish, let alone maintain. The idealists rarely win. On the one hand, I give great credit to the author for her treatment of these moral and practical problems. On the other, so I really have to wait for the rest of the trilogy for some sort of resolution? Will I have to read two (or more) additional books and wade through much more violence and brutality? Will she pull a George Martin and kill off everyone decent who isn’t already dead? And, I suppose most importantly to me, will the main characters be able to find enough moral clarity to actually follow through on a plan?

My concluding thoughts would be as follows: Children of Blood and Bone raises interesting moral questions, creates an interesting world, and has a fast paced plot. I think it is better written than average, but still remains in the category of genre fiction, rather than literary fiction. Your mileage, of course, will vary, as tastes and personalities differ. If you like fantasy, have a tolerance for brutality and violence, but want a book that isn’t just escapist fun, there is a lot to like in it. It is, however, pretty brutal. If you lean more toward character-driven, slower paced literature, you might, like me, find it emotionally tiring to read for extended periods, despite the parts I enjoyed.


1 comment:

  1. I bought this book for my classroom library. It’s entertaining, but the value, for me, is how my students have loved this book. I teach in a white-majority school district in rural east Texas, so for many of my students, this may be the first time they have read a book comprised entirely of POC characters. Step-by-step, I’m trying to broaden their horizons.