Reading Children of Blood and Bone

History, Oppression, and Rebellion Come to a Head in Children of Blood and Bone, Chapters 1-8

Welcome to the first installment of our reread of Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone. This week, we’re focusing on chapters 1-8—in which Zélie gets herself into all kinds of trouble, Princess Amari commits high treason, Prince Inan learns the full scope of his father’s violence, and Tzain gets dragged into the middle of a mess he didn’t start and doesn’t want to finish.

 

Recap

For months now, Zélie has waited for her chance to compete in her graduation staff-fighting match and finally she is chosen, going up against her nemesis, Yemi. She’s eager and angry after Yemi goads her by calling her “maggot,” a “miserable, degrading slur.” Two soldiers arrive to extort a “maggot tax” and Zélie can’t stop herself from antagonizing them even though it nearly costs her her life.

After the soldiers leave, Zélie’s brother Tzain bursts in and they race home, bickering over leaving their father alone (Tzain was training for the Orïshan Games). Apparently Baba was swept out to sea when he tried to go fishing after guards demanded more taxes, threatening to sell Zélie into slavery if he could not pay. Tzain rescues him just in time. Out of desperation, the kids ride Nailah, Zélie’s lionaire, to Lagos to make some fast cash.

In the royal palace, Princess Amari overhears her father, King Saran, and his military leaders talking about an ancient scroll that has recently resurfaced. It can awaken latent magic, turning divîners into maji. Saran tests it on Binta, Amari’s beloved chambermaid, but before her evolution is complete he murders her. Lost to grief and fear, Amari steals the scroll.

A guard accosts Zélie on the way into Lagos, the second that day to threaten her with sexual violence. Her instinct is to fight back, but she restrains herself, for once thinking of those who would be harmed by her impulsiveness. All that goes out the window, however, when a mysterious girl (Amari) begs for help. Heeding Mama Agba’s clarion call to “protect those who can’t defend themselves,” Zélie grabs her as Prince Inan chases after them. At the last minute, Tzain and Nailah rescue both girls, but not before Zélie catches Inan’s eye and something sparks between them.

“Duty before self.” Inan steels himself as he returns to the palace empty-handed. He can practically already feel his father’s fists against his skin, meting out punishment for Inan’s failure. The king shocks his son by revealing that the fugitive he was chasing was Amari—the prince thought it was some random thief. Saran speaks of the personal loss he suffered at the hands of the maji and his work to find the means to sever the bond between the maji and their magic. Inan offers to go to Ilorin after Zélie and Amari. His father’s last orders are to burn the village to the ground.

On the road back to Ilorin, Amari tells her rescuers she’s a princess and shows them the scroll. Zélie deduces Binta was a Lighter (of the Ìmọ́lè clan of maji, connected to Ochumare); Zélie’s mother was a Reaper (of the Ikú clan, connected to Oya). As intriguing as the scroll is, the Adebola siblings need to get back to Baba; Amari has no choice but to go with them.

 

Commentary

Yemi is the bastard daughter of an Orïsha nobleman, which affords her just enough privilege to never have to work. Zélie, on the other hand, is low on the social hierarchy, not just because of her dark skin but because she’s a divîner. “[The kosidán] don’t hate you, my child. They hate what you were meant to become.” Although Mama Agba believes that, I’m not sure I do. I think during the age of wicked maji, the kosidán hated divîners for their potential. Now that the tables have turned, magic is an excuse for hatred, but not the main cause, not anymore.

To make a real world comparison, let’s look at the enslavement of African people by colonial powers. It wasn’t the darkness of their skin that made white Europeans hate Africans. That came later. Skin color became the excuse for oppression and enslavement, and from there, accusations of inferior intellect, savagery, drapetomania, the idea that African enslavement was God’s will, and so on. Before all that, colonists needed to make Africans seem less than human or the system wouldn’t work—you can’t build an entire nation and fuel an economic engine on the blood and bones of actual people, but you can if they’re treated like tools and chattel, as less than human. The hatred is baked in. They feared what the enslaved might become—rebels and revolutionaries—but they hated what they were: people.

The same process is at work here: The kosidán fear the power the divîners once had (and might have again), but they hate the idea that these people are as human as they are. The goal of oppressors is to convince themselves that they are different, better, more worthy than those they oppress. They hate the differences as much as they hate the similarities.

Later, Zélie proves my point when she notes that Orïshans are trying to breed out the physical traits of divîners, all while oppressing and exploiting them as prisoners and laborers. The kingdom used indentured servitude way back when, but now it’s mutated into slavery. For divîners, this slavery-by-another-name is an inescapable death sentence. Citizens reap the benefits of being able to work their way out of debt, but those that are treated as less than aren’t afforded that opportunity.

Speaking of skin color, let’s talk about Amari. She mentions that she and Inan have darker skin and lighter hair than is desirable amongst the upper class due to an attempt generations before by the kosidán to restore magic to the royal line. Magic didn’t reappear in the bloodline, but the physical traits did. Now, the upper class dye their hair and bleach their skin.

Colorism serves not only to create a false sense of division within a racial group, but to reinforce white supremacy. We see that in our own world in a variety of ways. It’s how you end up casting light-skinned Zoe Saldana as dark-skinned Nina Simone and thinking it’s fine to blackface her and stick her in a fat suit. Hey, they’re both Black women—it’s all the same, isn’t it? Except it’s not. As a light-skinned Black woman, I have access to things that my darker sisters don’t. I don’t experience the same vitriol they do, especially since I’m light enough to pass as white. Our society values whiteness and devalues Blackness (and by extension any non-white skin colors). And since white supremacy is a helluva drug, we see this internalized racism applied within our own Black community, from the paper bag test to the concepts of high yellow and good hair and so on. So too is it in Orïsha.

Lastly, on Saran’s retaliatory violence: Why kill the maji after stripping them of their power? Because he knew they would fight like hell to get it back. But the children who hadn’t yet come into their magic, a.k.a. the divîners, posed no threat. Instead they serve as a warning, not to mention an endless labor supply. Again, however, there’s so more to this story than just fantasy fiction—U.S. history is full of white people like Saran who executed horrific acts of violence against dark-skinned people.

Even after abolition, throughout the country—not just in the South—white people formed KKK chapters, lynched Black people, and razed entire neighborhoods, all because Black people had the temerity to exist in the same space as whites. It wasn’t enough to punish one person; entire families and communities had to suffer. It’s why slaveholders prior to the Civil War were so fearful of slave rebellions (and there were far more of those than you realize). White supremacy had to be reinforced in the extreme in order to quash any future pushback.

 

Terminology

  • Ashê: the “divine power of the gods,” or what turns a divîner into a maji. Based on às̩e̩, a Yorùbá spiritual or philosophical ideology that gives all things the power of creation or change.
  • Divîner: person with the potential to become maji; they have dark brown skin and snow-white hair.
  • Ikú: the maji of life and death. The name comes from the Yorùbá word for death.
  • Ìmọ́lè: the maji of darkness and light. The name comes from feared spirits or deities in Yorùbá mythology.
  • Kosidán: person who doesn’t have the potential to become a maji; often have light brown skin. According to Google Translate, it means “neutral” in Yorùbá, but I haven’t been able to verify this.
  • Majacite: alloyed metal that can dampen divîner magic.
  • Maji: person with full use of magic.
  • Ochumare: deity of Lighters. Based on Osumare, an òrìṣà of rebirth. Osumare also means “rainbow” in Yorùbá .
  • Oya: goddess of Reapers. Based on Ọya, a warrior òrìṣà of lightning, storms, wind, and death and rebirth.
  • Ryder: a fantastic beast like Zélie’s horned lionaire, noble hyenaires, the guards’ black panthenaires, and Inan’s snow leopanaire.
  • Yoruba: the language of the maji. Based on the Yorùbá people of Benin and southwestern Nigeria and their language and cultural beliefs.

 

Place names

  • Alâfia: heaven or the afterlife. Inspired by alafia or alaafia, a word that means something like “peace” or “health” and is sometimes used as a greeting.
  • Calabrar: a coal mining region. Inspired by Calabar, a port city in Nigeria near the southwestern border.
  • Gombe: an industrial region. Inspired by Gombe, the capital of Gombe State, Nigeria.
  • Ibadan: the Adebola’s hometown. Inspired by Ibadan, the capital of Oyo State, Nigeria.
  • Ilorin: a village floating on the ocean. Inspired by Ilorin, the capital of Kwara State, Nigeria.
  • Lagos: the royal city. Inspired by Lagos, a Nigerian state, and the city of the same name.
  • Minna: grain-producing region. Inspired by Minna, the capital of Niger State, Nigeria.
  • Orïsha: the kingdom where Zélie lives. Inspired by the Òrìṣà, spirits/deities of Yorùbá mythology.
  • Warri: small coastal village. Inspired by a growing commercial city in southern Nigeria that used to be a colonial provincial capital.
  • Zaria: a northern city. Inspired by a university city in northern Nigeria.

 

I’ve talked about some pretty heavy topics today, but there’s just so much juicy historical context to pore over. This is what you get when a reviewer who studies and writes about Black history and reads mostly young adult science fiction and fantasy is asked to pick apart a book like Children of Blood and Bone…what can I say? This is the perfect niche column for me.

Next week, we’ll be discussing chapters 9-17.

Alex Brown is a high school librarian by day, local historian by night, author and writer by passion, and an ace/aro Black woman all the time. Keep up with her every move on Twitter and Insta, or follow along with her reading adventures on her blog.

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