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Constance Grady

Children of Blood and Bone, a debut YA novel from Nigerian-American writer Tomi Adeyemi, is widely expected to be the next great YA franchise. It’s the first in a planned trilogy, and reportedly earned one of the biggest advances in YA history. A movie deal is already in place. Expectations, in other words, are high.

Does Children of Blood and Bone live up to the hype? Maybe not quite — few things could! — but with its propulsive pacing and richly imagined world, it comes pretty close.

Perhaps the best way to describe Children is as an Afrofuturist fantasy epic: think Octavia Butler meets The Hunger Games, with a hefty dose of Avatar: The Last Airbender thrown in.

It takes place in the fantasy land of Orïsha, loosely based on West African cosmology. Orïsha is a treat of a fantasy world, fully-formed and entirely thought-out, with a thematically rich mythology. Orïsha used to be steeped in magic, but a despotic king ripped magic from the land and slaughtered the magic users, or maji.

Zélie, the daughter of a maji, had expected to inherit magic herself. She’s a diviner, marked by her darker skin and white hair, so she should have become a maji in her teens — but after the king destroyed magic, she’s been left with nothing. Her maji mother is dead, and her own magic is gone before she was ever able to access it. Now diviners, instead of growing into maji, h ...

Children of Blood and Bone, a debut YA novel from Nigerian-American writer Tomi Adeyemi, is widely expected to be the next great YA franchise. It’s the first in a planned trilogy, and reportedly earned one of the biggest advances in YA history. A movie deal is already in place. Expectations, in other words, are high.

Does Children of Blood and Bone live up to the hype? Maybe not quite — few things could! — but with its propulsive pacing and richly imagined world, it comes pretty close.

Perhaps the best way to describe Children is as an Afrofuturist fantasy epic: think Octavia Butler meets The Hunger Games, with a hefty dose of Avatar: The Last Airbender thrown in.

It takes place in the fantasy land of Orïsha, loosely based on West African cosmology. Orïsha is a treat of a fantasy world, fully-formed and entirely thought-out, with a thematically rich mythology. Orïsha used to be steeped in magic, but a despotic king ripped magic from the land and slaughtered the magic users, or maji.

Zélie, the daughter of a maji, had expected to inherit magic herself. She’s a diviner, marked by her darker skin and white hair, so she should have become a maji in her teens — but after the king destroyed magic, she’s been left with nothing. Her maji mother is dead, and her own magic is gone before she was ever able to access it. Now diviners, instead of growing into maji, have become an underclass, heavily taxed and oppressed by a government who calls them maggots.

The maji mythology is a flexible metaphor that gives Adeyemi room to explore the brutality of a racist system — she doesn’t shy away from the violence here — while still fitting into the framework of a YA quest narrative. This is a magic problem, and as such, it’s a problem that Zélie can fix.

Zélie gets her chance when she finds herself thrown together with Amari, a rebellious, runaway princess. Amari knows of a way to bring magic back to Orïsha, and she’ll need Zélie’s help to do it.

The reluctant friendship that emerges between Zélie and Amari positions itself structurally as the heart of the book, but here Adeyemi is writing checks she can’t quite cash. The two go from enemies to allies to friends so rapidly that their dynamic never has time to breathe. When Zélie at last turns to Amari as her best friend — after a nice bit of misdirection where we’re meant to think she’s turning to her love interest instead — the moment feels unearned.

It’s a relationship that might benefit from having a full trilogy in which to play out. Right now, there’s an undertone of eat-your-vegetables dutifulness: Right now, YA for girls is supposed to center female friendships, so it feels as though Adeyemi has placed Zélie and Amari at the center of her story for the sake of appearances without quite managing to genuinely fall in love with their dynamic.

She’s clearly having more fun with her love story, which is satisfyingly trope-based. As Zélie and Amari head off on their quest, they’re pursued by Amari’s brother, Inan. Inan yearns to be a dutiful son and help his father in his quest to wipe magic permanently out of Orïsha — but he seems to be developing some magical capabilities of his own. And every time he falls asleep, he ends up facing Zélie in his dreamscape. You get where this is going. (Fans of Avatar’s Zuko, this one’s for you.) And Adeyemi is having so much fun getting it there that these scenes sparkle off the page.

Ultimately, what’s most exciting about Children of Blood and Bones is perhaps its own success. This is unapologetically Afrofuturist YA, a fantasy epic that centers black characters and marks their power by making their skin darker and their hair curlier — and it is the biggest YA book of the year so far. Even with my few small quibbles, that’s an enormous deal.

And it’s even more exciting to remember that this is just the first book of a trilogy. We’ll get to see Adeyemi develop her magical system and work out the first-book kinks over the course of two more titles. There’s a lot to look forward to.

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