Pub. date: March 6, 2018
Publisher: Henry Holt Books for Young Readers
Thanks so much to MacMillan and Fierce Reads for providing me this ARC in exchange for an honest review.
Content warnings: Attempted rape, physical abuse, death, murder, gore, torture, war themes, loss of parent, racism, colorism
Synopsis: Eleven years ago magic disappeared when the king mercilessly slaughters the maji. Zélie Adebola, now has one shot at bringing magic back and retaliating against the throne. With the help of her brother and the rogue princess, she must thwart the crown-prince, who is hell-bent on eradicating magic for good.
Every once in a while a book comes along that is so hyped you keep putting off reading it, and when you finally get to it you end up kicking yourself for waiting as long as you did because the hype is real. Y’all, the hype is so real. I’m not even much of a fantasy reader, and much less a dark fantasy one, and this book had me by guts from beginning to end. It was impossible to put down, so bear with me as I rave about it. Also, let us take a moment to appreciate that cover. Look at that cover. What a friggin’ stunner. It’s hard to stop staring at it.
First of, this is an all-Black cast. All. Black. In the year of our lord 2018 we have an all-Black YA gritty fantasy novel. Typically, I shy away from gritty fantasy because they’re all-white and rapey, but this book isn’t like that at all. It’s brilliantly-paced, the plot will have you at the edge of your seat at an ungodly hour of the night because you’re unable to put it down, the imagery is lush, and the characters are so well fleshed-out. Yes there is violence and it is gruesome at times, but it is purposeful in the narrative and commentary, rather than as pain porn, which is such a refreshing change. Nothing in this book is present without purpose or meaning, which speaks to Tomi’s talents as a writer; it’s very rare that a 600 page galley doesn’t have the parts that one usually skims over (we’ve all been there, let’s not even pretend).
The world-building in this book is absolutely phenomenal. Tomi’s homage is to West African heritage, and she demonstrates it not only in the descriptions and settings but in conversations as well, all woven together seamlessly. The book is padded with descriptions of food, clothing, traditions, etc. it’s an absolute treat for the reader’s imagination. Her mastery comes through with her commentary on race, ethnic cleansing, and colorism in communities of color- how systemic oppression works, the horrors of police brutality, how people who are raised in privilege so easily believe the narratives fed to them, how their worldview is challenged when they step out of the comforts of their spaces, how the only way for oppressed people to become free is to claim it themselves. It is clear that Tomi’s taken inspiration from modern times and the issues affecting Black people in America today, and it is a superb use of allegory in the crafting of this book.
Now the characters. The story is told from the points of view of Zélie, the rogue princess Amari, and Inan. the crown prince. Zélie’s twin brother Tzain is a crucial part of the storyline as well. Each of the characters have clearly distinguishable perspectives and voices. Zélie is a strong protagonist, and even though she’s rash at times, her heart’s in the right place. Amari has spent so long under the thumb of her father that she’s afraid to unleash he own strength, and is quick to realize how her father’s regime has harmed so many people. Inan is the disillusioned prince, who wants to believe that everything his father has taught him about the maji and magic, and is unable to reconcile everything he witnesses when in pursuit of Zélie with his entire life up to that point. My favorite thing about Zélie is how she doesn’t let Amari or Inan off the hook for their privilege, challenging it every single time.
“They built this world for you, built it to love you. They never cursed at you in the streets, never broke down the doors of your home. They didn’t drag your mother by her neck and hang her for the whole world to see.”
(I just. She’s such a phenomenal writer. There’s so many lines like this that will make you stop and really ponder the inequality and injustice that the maji have been subjected to for years. Take that and think about what marginalized people are facing right now. It really hits you.)
Another thing the book does brilliantly is subverting some very familiar fantasy tropes. Zélie is the embodiment of the Chosen One trope but she’s never just fighting by herself- she’s always got people fighting that she’s fighting for along with her, which I think is pretty cool. No man is an island after all, and in a rebellion you need every person you can get. Like I said before, the book deals with oppression brilliantly, and especially for Zelie, who has to struggle with the potential ramifications of how the diviners will handle the magic that she plans to unleash. She’s aware that saving magic wouldn’t automatically solve all their problems, and there was still potential for a new wave of oppression to come in place. Then there’s the romance subplots, and without giving anything away, all I’ll say is I was so afraid one of them would take a route I loathe but it didn’t and I think that served all the character arcs involved in that subplot so well.
Undoubtedly, I am so ready for the sequel (especially because that cliffhanger of an ending left me with many, many feelings). Tomi is such a brilliant writer y’all, it’s so hard to believe this is her debut novel. I’ve been following her book two updates on her Instagram, and I will be hitting that pre-order button so hard. If you don’t believe me, just go ahead and get yourself a copy of this book by any means necessary, you’ll be drawn into the fandom with me.
P. S. Check out the fun quiz on the CBB website to see which Maji clan you belong to. I got Tider (I’m such a water baby).