I have some seriously mixed feelings about this book. It’s difficult to read a book that has been as hyped as this one without being affected by your own high expectations, despite trying very hard not to be. I liked parts of it, but overall I found it to be a regurgitation of cliched YA fantasy tropes, pasted onto a fresh setting. The Goodreads summary is pretty accurate: this is basically the classic Hero’s Journey tale of Ye Olde Fantasy, complete with chosen one, sacred artifacts, gods and goddesses, and a magical destination. Which could have been fine, given that the setting is so original – in fact, the West African inspired setting was probably my favorite thing about the book. But despite this, everything else just fell flat for me.
However, just because I personally wasn’t wowed, doesn’t mean this book doesn’t have appeal. To be honest, you’ve got thousands of YA fantasy books out there that regurgitate the same plot over and over onto the same vaguely Anglo-French medieval setting and they do fine, so it’s nice to see something like this that features black and brown characters. It’s kind of like when people say, oh, paranormal/urban fantasy is over and done with, when POC haven’t gotten their chance at it yet. Just because white people have gotten all their shots at something doesn’t necessarily mean it’s been played out. I’m glad this book exists for POC teens to see themselves in the types of fantasies they have been reading about for years.
With that being said, I had a lot of problems with this book. I think the main reason I struggled with it was the writing style. It just felt very young; though the subject matter is mature, at times I felt like I was reading a middle grade book instead of a young adult book. The writing is incredibly melodramatic, littered with phrases like “something inside me broke” and “I let out a breath I didn’t know I was holding” and “I should have known you were the monster all along.” More than once I found myself cringing and rolling my eyes at just how Extra the writing was. Furthermore, even the expressed themes are presented in such a simplistic way, and the reader is beaten over the head with every little thing. I would recommend this to teens on the younger side of the spectrum, but I think more mature readers might not enjoy it as much.
Another issue I had with the writing style is that it is written in first person present, which is probably my least favorite tense. It takes a really subtle hand to make first person present work, and this book’s writing is not in the least bit subtle. I also found it confusing at times, since there are three different POVs, all in first person present, and their voices are not all that different, so I often found myself forgetting whose perspective I was supposed to be in.
As for the plot, well, as I said, this is classic Hero’s Journey, played almost completely straight. So, Zelie is chosen by the gods to bring magic back to Orisha, and she goes on a journey that takes her to various places in the country to collect the sacred artifacts she needs to conduct the ritual that will return magic. Alongside her are Princess Amari, who has defected from her father, and Tzain, Zelie’s older brother. They are being pursued by Inan, the Prince and Amari’s elder brother who is determined to stop Zelie’s ritual. The plot is essentially a series of strung-together YA fantasy tropes maximized for commercial appeal, but the result is a narrative that lacks much depth. (One of those tropes is Enemies to Lovers, which features the Inexplicable Heterosexual Romance, in one of the weirdest character flip-flops I’ve ever seen. It was just…very abrupt and unbelievable.)
While the book started off quick and engaging, the plot quickly slowed down. I found that the book was much longer than it needed to be. In fact, there was a huge chunk in the middle where the gang has to compete in these arena games that felt completely tacked on just to be able to say the book included it. I think this particular plot point, along with a lot of other instances, is where the story could really have used a firm editorial hand. A lot of things seemed random, chucked into the book to just to make it seem more exciting, but it was all way too much, especially when combined with the juvenile writing style. Probably about a hundred pages could have been cut from this book to make a better, tighter final product.
At the center of the narrative is the oppression of the maji, which in a lot of instances seems to be written to directly mirror real-world racism. I’m not sure how well that worked given the portrayal of magic users here; that is, their powers are portrayed as world destroying, and it almost seems understandable that those without powers would want to wipe magic out to level the playing field. On the other hand, certain people’s potential for magic is used to exploit them for economic gain even though they have no magic to hurt anyone, and that certainly speaks of baseless, irrational racism. The book certainly tries to have this complicated conversation, but it just falls short, and by the end I wasn’t entirely sure what exactly the book was trying to get across. Perhaps later books will address this, but…the ending makes me suspect that later books are going to circumvent this problem entirely.
I know this has been very negative so far, but there were some things I liked about this book! The worldbuilding is fantastic: all the characters are black or brown, and much attention is paid to the various hues of their skin and the textures of their hair. That was super refreshing to see, especially since POC in other books are often cut from the same cloth, appearance wise, so it was great to see so much diversity while still having a cast made up entirely of POC. The West African setting is fresh and wonderfully detailed, as is this world’s creation myth and the legends of their gods and goddesses. Something else I liked is that there’s two leading ladies here, and by the end they become excellent friends (now this is an Enemies to Friends situation I can actually stand by). There’s still not a lot of positive female friendships in YA, unfortunately, so it was great to see that. Zelie, the main character, is written to be fierce and fiery, and I liked her a lot, though I wish her internal (and external) monologues weren’t so melodramatic.
Generally, I just wanted some more nuance and maturity, with regards to thematic points and writing. Also, and I’ve said this several times before, but I’ve started to really, really hate “journey” stories, and that’s certainly a strong personal preference that affected my enjoyment of this book. However, I can certainly see how this would appeal to people, particularly the younger YA generation. Also, I can definitely see this book’s blockbuster quality, and I’m super excited for the film! I’m not sure if I’ll pick up the second book in this series, however. I might just wait for the movie.