Reading Children of Blood and Bone

A Question of Heroes and Villains in Children of Blood and Bone, Chapters 74-85

With chapters 74-85, we’ve reached the final installment of our reread of Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi. Blood will be shed and lives lost, but from the ashes will emerge a new Orïsha.

 

Recap

It’s been three stressful days since Tzain and Amari rescued Zèlie from the fortress. At first, Inan wavers in his choice to support his father, but then the king tells the prince more about his youth, about how his own father once tried to integrate the maji into the political leadership, about how his first wife “wanted me to be someone who could create change… I chose love over duty. I knew the maji were dangerous, yet I convinced myself that with the right show of faith, we could work together.” Convinced, Inan sets his course.

Over on her ship, Zèlie and Roën talk about about revenge. “It’s not about [Saran]. It’s not even about me. If I don’t stop him tomorrow, he’ll destroy my people like he destroyed me.” On the other hand, Roën is tagging along because apparently he believes the gods want him to. Then Zèlie heads below deck to have Amari do her braids and take part in some much needed girl time. I wish this book let the girls spend more time together; for an ostensibly feminist YA fantasy, there are only one or two occasions where female characters speak to each other about something other than a man. Anyway, the girls bond over their childhood antics and parental troubles.

The next morning, the crew goes over the plan one last time and Zèlie gives an impassioned speech to rouse her troops. Unfortunately, they’re ambushed in the temple by Inan and Saran, who are holding their father hostage. Zèlie trades Baba for the artifacts, to the disgust of Roën and his men. And then, of course, Saran betrays their deal. Zèlie regains her powers and attacks the soldiers. She says she doesn’t want revenge, but she’s more than willing to demonstrate deadly power. To stop her, Inan turns her magic back on the ritual. But when he uses his own magic to save his father, Saran runs him through with his majacite blade. Finally, in this moment, Amari comes into her own. Although she’s killed plenty of soldiers in this battle, her greatest fight is with her father. She only falters once.

The solstice interrupts the battle. Zèlie draws upon her ancestors and is blessed to see her mother one last time. When she wakes, Zèlie is shocked to discover that Amari now has maji powers. And on that cliffhanger, the novel ends.

 

Commentary

Inan can only see what’s right in front of him, not the bigger picture. It may be that Inan’s duty is to keep Orïsha alive, but siding with his father means deciding once and for all that half of Orïshans don’t count as citizens. If a king is only fighting to protect half his people, is he really fighting for his kingdom? When Zèlie was imprisoned, Inan wanted peace for the two of them in whatever way he could get it, even if it meant perpetuating his father’s cruelty toward everyone else. But after the magical assault on his soldiers at the camp and the fortress, not to mention his father’s stories about the time before the Raid, Inan has set the woman he loves aside. “Duty Before Self. Kingdom Before King.” And now, “Orïsha over Zèlie.”

Whether he believes violence is the best answer or not doesn’t matter anymore. Inan tells himself that he is betraying Zèlie to protect his kingdom, but he’s really doing it because he can, not because he has to. He is supporting a man who thinks of human beings as maggots, who revels in the death and destruction of innocent people out of his own sick sense of retribution. We’ve gone well past the point of watching a scared little boy, desperate for his emotionally distant father’s approval. Inan has chosen his side (and done so without telling his father the truth about his own magic) and now must live with the consequences.

There’s an interesting parallel between Inan in chapter 74 and Zèlie in 75. Both have conversations with damaged, bitter men about what their goals are for Orïsha and the maji, and both come to the same conclusion, albeit with drastically different results. Inan and Zèlie each think they will save their country and its people, that they have no choice but to take extreme action in the face of great resistance, and that they are doing this without the bias of revenge staining their thoughts and motives. And, of course, both are wrong. As much as he conceives of an Orïsha dominated by kosidán, she sees the future as controlled by the maji. Adeyemi compares and contrasts them again in chapters 80 and 81. When they gaze upon each other, they no longer see the people they love but a liar (Inan) and a monster (Zèlie).

We’re trained as readers to side with the hero—in this case Zèlie—but what if our hero is wrong? Or at least not completely right? Again and again, Zèlie makes impulsive decisions based only on what’s happening right in front of her. I cut her slack the first half-dozen times, but by chapter 80 she’s still stuck on repeat. It takes the senseless murder of her father for her to finally activate her powers, which means they weren’t truly gone, only dormant. And since it was clear to anyone who isn’t Zèlie that Baba was never going to make it out of that temple alive, the least she could’ve done was respected his final wish and let him sacrifice himself for his children. But for a hero, our protagonist is frustratingly reluctant to learn from her mistakes. Instead, she retreats to what she knows, even when she must be aware, on some level, that it’s not the best course of action.

Which brings me back to Inan. What if he’s not really the villain and Zèlie isn’t really the hero but they’re both the hero and the villain? Inan has all the sense of responsibility while Zèlie all the desire for action. He understands self-control while she burns with passion. Combine their worst traits—her impulsiveness and recklessness, his pride and selfishness—and you get a true villain; combine their best traits and you get a true hero. However, as intriguing as that is, with a Big Bad like Saran, I think we need a protagonist that can stand as a true hero instead of someone this morally ambiguous; the book feels a bit unbalanced without one.

The only one who seems to have their head on straight about what’s best for their kingdom is Amari. She still dreams of a unified nation founded on equity and acceptance, whereas Zèlie and Inan are fighting for power and hierarchy. Orïsha cannot remain with the kosidán enslaving divîners, nor can it return to the era of maji meting out magical violence at will. Victory isn’t maintaining the status quo or reversing it, but breaking the system entirely and rebuilding it. Even though Amari isn’t the star, perhaps she is the true hero of this series.

 

Placenames

  • Sutōrī: Roën’s homeland. According to Wikitionary, it is the romanization of ストーリー, Japanese for “story” or “narrative in a novel or movie.” But it is also Latin for “shoemaker” or “cobbler,” so who knows…

 

Well, that’s it for this reread. When I was first asked if I wanted to do this reread, I agreed because I knew there were a lot of interesting elements to talk about, but the depth and breadth surprised even me. Who knew I’d be writing about child abuse, queerness, and drapetomania in any given week? Certainly not me! Thanks for reading along with me. I hope you got as much out of Tomi Adeyemi’s wonderful novel as I did. See you again later this year for my review of the upcoming sequel, Children of Vengeance and Virtue…

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 on Twitter and Insta, or follow along with her reading adventures on her blog.

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