have been a part of many conversations about diversity and representation, and thought I understood what it meant to be represented until a few pages into Tomi Adeyemi’s debut novel. The opening scene, presided over by a character called Mama Agba, is reminiscent of a female elder authority that shaped my childhood. As per tradition, I would sit around her whilst she wove tales of culture and folklore. To see this fictionalised in Children Of Blood And Bone was thus nostalgic.
The story follows a young girl: Zélie. She is haunted by the murder of her mother and the subjugation of her Reaper clan - one of the ten Maji clans that suffer abuse from corporal powers and are oppressed by the ruling class of Orïsha. Circumstances see her journeying and fighting alongside her brother and an escaped princess to restore magic to the land and allow her clan and the nine other Maji clans in the land, a fighting chance.
The quest takes Zélie, Amari, Inan and Tzain and their pursuants from city to floating villages, up mountains and into sacred underground lairs. They sleep in tents in the deserts, fight in arenas, meet shady characters in caves and sail over walls on the back of mythical creatures. Adeyemi’s debut novel takes place across different terrains and climates, all within a singular imagined country. What is most striking about the multifaceted terrains in the book is Adeyemi’s mirroring of natural phenoms to Nigeria’s topography.
As with many Young Adult novels, Children Of Blood And Bone is also love story—in the romantic and familial sense—as well as a story of self discovery. The added beauty of this narrative is its Afro-mysticism: a genre that is finally getting its deserved spotlight after existing off the fringes of literary discourse, and being conflated with magic-realism. In this Afro-mystical novel, the magical, in the African sense, is not othered as something from a scary, unknown, feared presence but, rather, portrayed as a gift from the deities. These deities are pointedly inspired by the Yoruba tradition.
Names Mean Things
The deities in Adeyemi’s novel are pointedly inspired by the Nigerian, Yoruba tradition. This influence is similarly evident in the naming of places and characters within the novel. For one, the entire province is called Orïsha1—representative of the head of all divinity in the Yoruba tradition. This anchoring of the overall location of the narrative to the divine through naming, makes it a great playing field for a journey to restore lost magic.
Particularly in Ilorin—the fishing town where Zélie and her family reside—the older generation are given the respect of Mama and Baba. This naming, the people and the town are, again, based on Yoruba culture. For this reason, I was very disappointed by the ambiguity of the names given to the major characters. If anything, these names stand out for the wrong reasons; they felt like a pandering to a wider Western audience, and an attempt to create a space for them to relate to the characters at base level.
In Yoruba tradition, children are named to reflect the circumstance of birth, or, as prophecy into their destinies. The names given to a child usually holds weight both on paper and when sounded out. In both reading and sounding out the names particularly of the four central characters, I felt no depth. On the other hand, as a friend suggests, the ambiguity of the names could be seen as representative of the loss of and disdain for magic across Orïsha. In this sense, Zélie and Tzain’s names can be seen to reflect the new Maji existence under their tyrannical, magic-hating ruler, and displacement from their true identity. Though this perspective is equally valid, it is with one exception: the novel’s time frame.
The young sojourners in the novel were born to parents who wielded or fought against magic. Zélie is a replica of her powerful Reaper mother—murdered by the oppressive authority in a bid to eradicate all who had tasted magic. Zélie’s survival stemmed from the fact that Maji children only come into their powers at the age of thirteen - she was six when her mother was murdered and magic ceased to exist in Orïsha. However, her birth and that of her brother, Tzain, occurred in a period where parents expected Maji children to grow into their divine destinies and, as such, their names should reflect this.
Lagos Under A Microscope
Lagos, the place the King, royalty and the wealthy flock to and the most densely populated city with a great deal of slum-living is the centre of Orïsha. In many ways, Adeyemi’s presentation of Lagos, Orïsha is very similar to the reality of Lagos, Nigeria. Early in the story, the reader follows Zélie’s singular visit to Lagos and the picture of gross wealth disparities, market haggling and abuse of corporal power is very reminiscent of Lagos. However, the language of discourse in these scenes keeps the Lagos in Children Of Blood And Bone distinct.
Where Zélie trades in the Lagos market, her capabilities as a trader is recognised. This setting highlights how wealth gaps and abject poverty are sustained by the wealthier class. The King’s ever rising Maji tax-levies—designed to force Maji folks into prisons, slavery and to keep them poor—is what drives Zélie to Lagos. Where her father and brother hope that she can return with enough to last them through the month, Zélie is able to barter the rare fish she has in exchange for almost a year’s worth of money. That someone, desperate to eat fish to which the King has no access, can hand over enough cash to last Zélie, her father and brother a year, while Zélie and her family live day-to-day, is a travesty occurring in Adeyemi’s world, and likewise, in the real world.
Another prominent theme that comes up in the royal family is the issue of bleaching. The lighter skin is seen as a sign of royalty while darker skin is distasteful and scrubbed away with potions and creams. Princess Amari, darker than her family, is forced by her mother to undergo beauty rituals with the aim of lightening her skin. This experience leaves her with a skewed perception of her own beauty—a trajectory very similar to that of many young men and women across Nigeria and the rest of Africa.
Zélie’s interaction with the guards, on an attempt to enter Lagos, likewise reflects another societal issue: the sexual danger faced by women. Her status as Maji or “maggot,” as non-Maji individuals are hatefully labelled, presents her as fodder for the guards’ sexual desires. This perception of women as weak and easy to attack has allowed for sexual assault to be an issue women face. For the fear of being abused and murdered, she has to temper her reaction and adopt a false meekness—an all too real experience for many women.
Hate: A Four Letter Legacy
What takes Children Of Blood And Bone from a simple YA novel to a masterpiece is the level of complexity added by the self-loathing that drives two characters. For a particular character, the duality of being something one hates causes alliances and allegiances to shift. The internal and external conflicts these characters come against, owing to their understanding of the past and their position on the quest to restore magic, gives this story layers that are impressive for a first time author.
Tackling and sustaining the theme of deep hate—the kind that drives people to kill without mercy and teach hate to their offspring—is not an easy task, as any author could fall into the trap of presenting hate from a very linear perspective. Thankfully, Adeyemi does not. She writes characters that stay true to themselves. While there are twists and turns that make the book a fantastic read, character reactions are never implausibly outlandish or written to force excitement in the narrative. The plot and characters flow seamlessly.
The story ends on something of a cliffhanger. There is an ambiguity around the the success of the quest; creating an eagerness, post-completion of the novel, to break down theories therein. The end of Children Of Blood And Bones creates a clear path for new themes to be explored in the subsequent novel in the trilogy—Children Of Virtue And Vengeance. Adeyemi’s debut YA novel has a freshness and a simplicity that make it compelling. You may call it a must-read!
Have you read Adeyemi's Children Of Blood And Bone? Tell us what you think about it!
1 The word 'orisha' is related to several other Yoruba words referring to the head. It can also be spelt orixa or orisa. An orisha may be said to arise when a divine power to command and make things happen converges with a natural force, a deified ancestor, and an object that witnesses and supports that convergence and alignment. An orisha, therefore, is a complex multidimensional unity linking people, objects, and powers.
In this story, the ruling class of Orïsha can be seen as a metaphor for oppressive classes or races across the world, with the Reaper clan and other formerly magic clans being forced to live in slums, work as slaves and suffer abuse from corporal power.