January Book Review: Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

Well, this was a short journey to rediscover my love for fiction- I stayed up until midnight a couple of weeks ago, finishing this amazing novel, Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi. I haven’t had that feeling of complete immersion in any reading for years- it felt so good! There are a few different factors that I think contributed to my sudden enthrallment, but a big one is the nostalgia that hit me- I remember reading Harry Potter and The Golden Compass and all these amazing YA novels when I was younger and this new type of YA fantasy just really brought me back while adding some amazing new themes and elements. Let me go into some more detail, and be warned, spoilers- minor, but still- ahead.

Let me begin with a quick blurb of what the book is about. It’s the first in a trilogy, following Zélie, a powerful and head strong young black woman with a tragic past. Zélie’s mother died at the hands of a vengeful king’s massacre as part of an attempted genocide to eradicate magic wielders, also called diviners. With the death of her mother and the disappearance of her people’s magic abilities, Zélie and her family are persecuted, and it’s only with a surprise run-in with the princess that Zélie sees a glimpse of hope for the return of magic and a chance to make her community whole again.

Quick disclaimer here, I’m not a black woman, I am Hispanic- my commentary is based off what I know of African American history as this novel is about a black woman and the subjugation of her people, and as educated as I try to be on the matter, I understand that I am not black and so I will obviously defer to anyone who is who might disagree with me or have an opposing opinion. I am trying to be respectful as possible in my review, but please feel free to correct me if I’m wrong at all, or if you see an issue with anything I might have written. It is important to me that my blog is as inclusive as possible and I cannot accomplish that without considering the thoughts of those who are much more knowledgable and connected to the topic at hand than I am.

First thing that drew my eye was the black main character. A fact that stands out among the sea of fantasy YA novels with rarely ever any people of color. Zélie is a strong and beautiful black girl, who doesn’t cower down at the sight of soldiers and palace people who prefer to refer to her and her people, diviners, as “maggots.” Zélie is unapologetic and daring, but kind and astute at the same time. She does not allow the king and his henchmen to shame her for her heritage, in fact, she actively protests against them in her small, but powerful, ways- a glare, talking back, and holding her head up high. You can feel that her entire essence is a call to steal, question, and upset. To steal the reader’s breath with her defiant actions. To allow the reader to question the king, his lies, his treatment of diviners. To upset, as Zélie’s emotions scream on the page- can’t help but gravitate towards characters with emotions so strong you can feel it come through the pages. Zélie’s convictions are so powerful they pour out of the book and into you, like you’re a small vessel trying to pick up rain in the middle of a storm. Zélie is the kind of protagonist you’re proud to read about and root for.

Second was the undeniable commentary on the history of African Americans and the systematic attempt to destroy their sense of self and connection to their roots. I will stick to just one example for my review, the one piece of imagery that is constantly mentioned throughout- Zélie’s hair going from straight to coiled, as her magic returns. This evolution of her hair mimics her own evolution through her adventures. Although she was always proud and courageous, in the beginning of the book Zélie understands the importance of not causing a big enough tremor to the kingdom that she would risk the life of her family and friends. True to herself, Zélie only begins her journey because she decided to help someone in danger, someone who just so happened to be the princess and carrying a key to the return of magic to the kingdom, an ancient scroll. Once Zélie accidentally comes in contact with the scroll she activates a small amount of her magic ability, and this begins the gradual return of her natural hair. Straightened hair is akin to a symbol of her oppression, of her natural gifts stolen from her, of how the kingdom wants her to be submissive and assimilate into the role they have designated for her, as an outsider. As her natural hair returns, she becomes more openly defiant of the kingdom, filled with pride of her people and mother, and she feels comforted and more complete than ever as her magical abilities return. Zélie’s natural hair is always described as beautiful and awe inspiring. Her journey, and that of her hair, is one of defiance and self-love. Nothing is more powerful or dangerous to the powers that be, than loving yourself, your people, your heritage.

The third reason I love this novel so much is the intense nostalgia I felt reading another YA novel after so many years. This novel allowed me to be nostalgic, but with the added layer of being present and cognizant of the time I’m living in, where police brutality is the norm- to draw parallels between Zélie and Lyra of the Golden Compass for their brave spirits, but also between Zélie’s fear for kingdom guards and the fear black people have today of state sanctioned racism. This mesh of current reality and nostalgia breathes new life into an old genre, one I thought I would never revisit as I got older. I appreciate Children of Blood and Bone for allowing me to reminisce on Harry Potter’s own defiance in simply speaking Lord Voldemort’s name, in Lucy’s kindness as she sought Mr. Tumnus, but providing a new context and perspective in the fight for equality and dignity that black people still face.

I debated whether or not a February book would even be necessary, what with the series having clearly and quickly given me the appreciation for fiction I felt had I lost, which is the reason I even started this blog, but I figure that, not only do I need to keep this up in order to create a lasting change, I also need to explore outside of my comfort zone of YA to other fiction novels. But, baby steps- so, completely contradicting my last point, the February book should be no surprise- the next book in the series, Children of Virtue and Vengeance! I had originally planned on waiting until later in the year to begin the second installment, but with the cliffhanger of Children of Blood and Bone, I knew I wouldn’t be able to stay way. After that, I don’t have any books in my queue that I have bought yet, so please leave me recommendations. And finally, thanks for keeping me accountable in my journey to rediscover great literature! 2021 is beginning to look up…

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