Hugo Spotlight: The Ambitious Risk-taking of Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone

In the lead-up to the 2019 Hugo Awards, we’re taking time to appreciate this year’s novel and short fiction Finalists, and what makes each of them great.

After I finished reading Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone for the first time, I had to stop and release the breath I hadn’t realized I was holding. The first book in the Legacy of Orïsha series is an ambitious, audacious young adult fantasy novel. With it’s intense action sequences, lush descriptions, compelling characters, and creative take on Nigerian culture and Yorùbán beliefs, it’s unlike anything I’ve ever read. Apparently others feel the same since it’s now nominated for a Lodestar Award.

This is no easy-going young adult fantasy with a happily ever after. Terrible things happen from page one, and things only get worse from there. When Zélie was little, her mother was murdered. Not just her mother, hundreds, perhaps even thousands of Orïshans were brutally executed by soldiers under orders of King Saran. Her mother was a maji, a person who can perform magic. After some maji went rogue and the king’s first family were killed, Saran retaliated by killing every maji and turning divîners—children who had the potential for magic but could not perform it—into second class citizens and slaves. Now Zélie and her kosidán (magic-less) brother Tzain and fragile father are trapped in a cycle of inescapable poverty and degradation.

Most people would assume Princess Amari has it made. The daughter of a powerful king and sister to the handsome heir Prince Inan, she has everything handed to her on a silver platter, usually by an enslaved divîner named Binta. But when Binta is murdered by her father, Amari has finally had enough. She steals an artifact that could help bring magic back to Orïsha and flees into the city. She collides with Tzain and Zélie and their journey begins. With Inan hot on their trail, the four teens crisscross the kingdom. They encounter the worst of Orïsha and the best, the weakest kosidán and the toughest divîners, the past King Saran tried to eradicate and the future he cannot stop. To restore the ashê, the connection to the gods that turns a divîner into a maji, they must reach a mystical island by a certain date or all will be lost, and they must do it before Saran and Inan slaughter every divîner along the way.

There are so many layers to Children of Blood and Bone. Themes of oppression, rebellion, privilege, colorism, the patriarchy, power, choice, and freedom all take turns taking the stage. Throughout the novel, Adeyemi parallels what is done to the divîners by kosidán to the real world experiences of Black people in a white supremacist society. On top of the delicious social commentary she also challenges what it means to be a hero and a villain in fantasy fiction. Typically the good guys are good and the bad guys are bad. If there is any gray area, it’s usually in the villain. Sometimes we get an anti-hero, but not often in YA—we’re too wrapped up in keeping female main characters “likeable.” Zélie is interesting, but likeable is a bit of a stretch, especially by the end. She suffers immense physical and psychological tortue that leave scars she’ll never be able to heal. But she makes mistakes that cost people’s lives and acts impulsively and without regard to other people’s needs or wants. She’s myopic and selfish and devoted and self-sacrificing.

And Adeyemi does all this while simultaneously pushing back hard against stereotypes. In an interview with the Huffington Post Adeyemi said she wanted “to create something so good and so black that even their racist ass was going to see it. That was the dream: that it would be so good and so black and so dark. Not just black, but featuring dark-skinned black people in a way that questions Hollywood’s image of what black people must be and look like.” And by the gods, she did.

The sheer scope of Children of Blood and Bone is awe-inspiring. To publish a 544-page young adult novel is a hurdle in and of itself. There have been other wildly popular door stopper YA fantasy novels before, but this one is by a Black woman with an entirely Black cast. We are in an era when publishers are rejecting manuscripts by POC and Indigenous authors for writing characters who don’t adhere to stereotypes, when only 10% of children’s and young adult books published in 2018 were about Africans and African Americans, and when less than 6% of all children’s and young adult book creators from 2018 were Black. And still Tomi Adeyemi wrote an all-Black, Nigerian-inspired YA epic fantasy. Do they give Hugos for overcoming Herculean obstacles in publishing, because I have the first nominee.

Do I see areas of missed opportunities? Sure. The lack of queer characters and the reliance on heteronormativity is frustrating. And as spicy as the romance between Zélie and Inan is, it ultimately undercuts some of Adeyemi’s message. But those are small flaws by a new author rather than irreparable structural damage. However, I’m happy we got the novel we have. Adeyemi takes risks many authors would shy away from. She has a strong, unique voice and an eye for crafting bold characters and dropping them in heart-pounding situations. She wrote an entire sea battle with ships and cannons and everything and set it in the damn desert, for crying out loud! How cool is that?

Children of Blood and Bone isn’t just a great young adult fantasy novel, it’s a great novel in general. I would put it up against adult fantasy fiction any day. Don’t let the young adult label fool you into thinking this is some cutesy, kiddie story. You want a killer story, thrilling adventure, intense characters, and heart-pounding relationships? It’s all here, and then some. Magic and mayhem, death and destruction, chaos and cruelty, and a lotta social commentary. I reviewed it and did a chapter-by-chapter reread of Children of Blood and Bone and yet I keep thinking of things I want to say. That’s more than I can say for most books. And it’s the mark of an award-worthy novel, if I might add.

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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