The Blurb On The Back:
Grandmother said I will be a powerful witch doctor one day.
But I cannot wait that long.
Arrah’s fate was foretold in the bones.
Descended from a long line of powerful witch doctors, she is desperate for a taste of magic. No matter what the cost.
As strange premonitions and spirits descend upon the Kingdom, Arrah discovers she will do anything to save her people – even if it means sacrificing years of her own life.
Arrah must find a way to master this borrowed power. But how much time does she have left?
The Review (Cut For Spoilers):
16-year-old Arrah is the daughter of two of the most powerful witch doctors in the Almighty Kingdom. Her mother Arthi is the High Priestess in the capital city of Tamar – the third most powerful person in the kingdom after the Vizier and Almighty One – and her father Oshe is a respected healer and son of one of the leaders of the five tribes of Heka.
Arrah’s lineage means that she can see the magic around her and resist any attempt to read her mind, but she is unable to summon magic of her own and given her age, it is now unlikely that magic will ever come to her. Her only option is to enter into a bargain by trading the years of her life for a touch of magic, but the price you pay is terrible as magic wrecks your health and your body. Arrah’s mother despises people who succumb to this method – calling them charlatans – and Arrah can’t see herself ever falling so low, no matter how much she wants magic of her own.
But something sinister is happening in Tamar – children are going missing and with even Arthi’s powerful magic proving insufficient to identify the culprit, fear is beginning to take hold of the streets. Worse, Arrah’s mother is using the kidnappings as part of her political feud with the Vizier, causing friction between Arrah and Rudjek, the Vizier’s third son who Arrah is increasingly attracted to.
When Kofi, a young street boy who Arrah has befriended disappears and is feared taken by the mysterious kidnapper, Arrah resorts to desperate measures to try and find him. Doing so, however, reveals secrets that some will do anything to protect – secrets that involve the gods (Orisha) and their war against the Demon King and which could tear apart the Almighty Kingdom and everything Arrah has ever believed …
Rena Barron’s debut YA fantasy (the first in a trilogy) makes excellent use of its West African inspiration to build a vivid world populated by tricksy gods that’s a must for anyone bored with generic European worlds. However, the plot is messy with key events happening off page, a central character who is hamstrung for much of the book and predictable twists and pacing is not helped by too big of a cast such that I’m not sure I’d continue.
The main reason to read this book is the world building. Barron draws on West African mythology and sets her characters in a West African inspired setting with her writing conveying the heat and mix of tribes with their traditional ways and the more multicultural city. It’s great to read a book where the vast majority of characters are black and the depiction of the Orisha with their capricious desires that care little for the life they helped create is interesting and – for the most part – well drawn. The magic system is coherent, I liked the way it draws on witch doctor practice and how each of the different 5 tribes has a different area of expertise with their magical practices. The depiction of how the charlatans get their magic is disturbing and chilling and I believed in Arrah’s desperation to be driven to such measures, even if I felt that the inciting event that pushed her over the edge didn’t really convince.
Arrah herself was a difficult character for me. Barron gives her drive, compassion and intelligence but she is hamstrung for much of the book such that she can’t actually do anything to help her position (firstly through the imposition of a curse on her and then by being placed in a location where she has virtually no allies). As a result, I began to get a little bored of her continual failure to change her situation and it’s not helped by having her rendered immobile by the price demanded by the magic she’s bought. The inevitable romance element with Rudjek didn’t convince me because they don’t have enough page time together and I certainly didn’t believe in a twist that occurs in the final quarter, which seems purely there to drive them apart with depressing familiarity.
The big issue I had with the book though is that the plot wanders a lot and some of the biggest events happen off page and are then described to Arrah to react to, which really robs them of impact. This isn’t helped by the fact that there’s a huge cast of supporting characters, many of whom don’t have much presence on the page – I struggled to remember who Hassana, Kira, Makkah and Sukar were and it’s not helped by the discovery that some of the Orisha have human forms too. I found the relationship between Arrah and Arti to be sophisticated and interesting and I wanted to see more of it, especially given the arrival of Efia later on and how it impacts on the pair. Barron also has some weird soliloquy chapters voiced by various Orisha that really didn’t work for me, in part because some of them are phrased as one-sided dialogue, which I found quite clunky.
Ultimately there are good things about this book and it has a lot to offer people bored with cod European-set YA fantasy but given my concerns with the pacing and the way the plot unfolds, I’m not sure that I would rush to read the sequel, although I would read any other projects that Barron produces.
KINGDOM OF SOULS was released in the United Kingdom on 19th September 2019. Thanks to Harper Voyager for the review copy of this book.