The Blurb On The Back:
They killed my mother.
They took our magic.
They tried to bury us.
NOW WE RISE.
Zélie remembers when the soil of Orïsha hummed with magic. When different clans ruled – Burners igniting flames, Tiders beckoning waves, and Zélie’s Reaper mother summoning forth souls.
But everything changed the night magic disappeared. Under the orders of a ruthless king, anyone with powers was targeted and killed, leaving Zélie without a mother and her people without hope. Only a few people remain with the power to use magic, and they must stay hidden.
Zélie is one such person. Now she has a chance to bring back magic to her people and strike against the monarchy. With the help of a rogue princess, Zélie must learn to harness her powers and outrun the crown prince, who is hell-bent on eradicating magic for good.
Danger lurks in Orïsha, where strange creatures prowl, and vengeful spirits wait in the waters. Yet the greatest danger may be Zélie herself as she struggles to come to terms with the strength of her magic – and her growing feelings for an enemy.
The Review (Cut For Spoilers):
17-year-old Zélie lives in the small fishing village of Illorin on the west coast of the kingdom of Orïsha with her father and older brother Tzain. Zélie’s white hair marks her as a divîner – someone with the capability to wield magic – but no one in Orïsha has displayed any magical ability since King Saran launched the Raid 11 years earlier, when his soldiers brutally murdered all the maji and magic disappeared for good. Zélie’s mother (a Reaper with the ability to command the souls of the dead) was one of those murdered – Zélie‘s last memory of her was seeing her dragged from their home in chains and hung from a tree.
Now King Saran has stepped up his campaign against the divîners by increasing the taxes payable by their families. Those who can’t pay have one choice – their divîner children must join the stocks – essentially becoming slaves to repay their debt. Zélie’s only hope is for she and Tzain to travel to the capital Lagos to sell a rare fish to the nobility there.
Meanwhile in Lagos Princess Amari lives a sheltered life. Confined to the palace and with her mother controlling her movements and her relationships, her only friend is her divîner servant, Binta. Her parents make plain their disappointment in her and their preference for her older brother, the Crown Prince Inan and she is all too aware of their low expectations of her, which in turn lowers her self-confidence. When she accidentally witnesses a meeting between her father and two of his soldiers, she learns just how cruel her father is and how deep his hatred of magic runs but also – crucially – that there may be a way to restore magic to Orïsha through a magical scroll.
Determined to help the divîners, she steals the scroll and bumps into Zélie during her escape, who helps her to get away from the guards, led by Inan. Suspicious of Amari’s motives, Zélie nevertheless recognises that this is her only chance to improve things and so with Tzain’s help, they set off in an uneasy alliance that will be further tested as Inan is in hot pursuit and will do anything to stop them …
Tomi Adeyemi’s visceral debut YA fantasy novel (the first in a trilogy) has a vivid Nigerian-inspired fantasy world, a fascinating magical system and strong themes of discrimination and abuse of power but the pacing is uneven, the plotting predictable and I didn’t buy the relationship between the main characters (especially Amari and Tzain who are underdeveloped), in part due to the obligatory YA insta-romance although I would read the sequel.
I found this a very difficult book to review because there was a lot about it that I liked. For starters it’s the first YA fantasy that I’ve read that’s set in an African-inspired world (in this case, a nation with very loose similarities to Nigeria). Adeyemi has also created an African-world that’s not been subject to western colonialism and it’s fascinating to see an author tackle themes like abuse of power, discrimination and corruption without that lense. I enjoyed the magical system, with its clearly delineated area of practice and ability and the scenes where Zélie uses her abilities are powerful and evocative – especially a scene where she brings forth the spirits of those killed in an arena for the amusement of the Orïsha nobility.
However, I have to say that I found Zélie to be something of a one-note character, largely defined by her rage at what is being done to the divîners and what happened to her mother and the other maji. While that is completely understandable and makes sense within the context of the plot, it means that she doesn’t have much room to grow. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that Amari is similarly underdeveloped and one note and spends much of the book in Zélie’s shadow, which makes it difficult to believe in their enemies-to-reluctant allies-to-friends storyline. Tzain get virtually no development on the page at all – he’s literally just Zélie’s brother and Amari’s love interest, which I think is a shame because he could give more perspective on both characters if he had more depth.
Inan (who forms the third point-of-view character for the purposes of narration) is actually the most interesting, largely because of the discovery that he also has magical capabilities, which immediately gives him a psychological conflict and puts him potentially at odds with his father. I largely enjoyed the way that Adeyemi ran this storyline, showing Inan’s doubts but also using him to show how dangerous magic can be and why people like King Saran are so afraid of it. Unfortunately, the way Adeyemi resolves this at the end of the book came across as rushed and bald, there to set up the conflict for the next book more than to show how Inan himself has resolved his internal conflict.
It’s a YA book so it’s inevitable that there’s romance here. I tend to have a bit of a downer about YA romance anyway – it’s usually some variant of insta-attraction and little more. This book is no exception – Amari pairs up with Tzain just because he’s there and Inan and Zélie have an inevitable attraction despite their status as enemies. This is clearly supposed to bring poignancy to what happens in the final chapters in the book but because there’s no real depth to the romance and the way it ties in with Zélie and Inan’s respective character development emphasises that it’s there for plot only.
There were parts of the book where I needed more explanation that what we get. For example, there’s a slow reveal about the reasons for King Saran’s hatred of magic, but we don’t get any explanation for what provoked that event. I didn’t need chapter and verse but some hint as to what happened would have been good. Similarly, I wanted to know what agbön was the game is mentioned several times but we get no further detail and a glossary would have been useful just as a way of helping to explain some of the terms used.
Also problematic for me is the pacing. This is largely because while Adeyemi establishes that the trio have a tight deadline if they’re to carry out the ritual to restore magic, they never seem to be in that much of an actual hurry and there are a number of detours and stopovers that slow things down and make that timeframe seem both artificial and meaningless. This is particularly the case in the scenes set in a divîner camp where the narrative characters all linger for a special festival just because, which really irritated me.
For all these gripes though, there is enough here for me to want to read the sequel as Adeyemi does finish the book with an interesting twist and I want to see how it gets developed. This is especially as by the end of the book both Inan and Zélie have doubled down on their core beliefs, which does set up an interesting conflict between them and the potential for deeper character development going forward.