So, this isn’t my first time trying to read this book, I have had it for a while and I did try to read it when I originally bought it, but for some reason it just never really held my attention for long enough to finish it. I hadn’t really thought about it very much then, but now on my second attempt at reading this book I’m starting to understand why I couldn’t finish it then.
The story is set in a fictional land called Orisha, which itself seemingly attempts to be analogous to Nigeria – all but one of the locations on the map of Orisha are real locations in Nigeria today, but not as they appear on the map in the book.
The story so far has been centered on the experience of the main character, Zélie as she embarks on a quest to restore magic to the land of Orisha, and topple the monarchy who are responsible for the persecution of her people, the Diviners (people who are born with magical potential) at the hands of the ‘Kosidan’ (those born without magical potential) after an ethnic cleansing which had every Diviner over the age of thirteen killed by royal decree.
I only made it to chapter eighteen, but I found the story to be a lot more emotionally moving in this second attempt to read the book. Mostly within the first two chapters, where the book tackles the loss of a loved one to violence from a first and second-person point of view, and I think it depicted not only the deep, profound sadness, but also the hopelessness of the characters suffering with this loss. They each carry it in different ways, but Baba’s decline at the loss of his wife was particularly painful to read. But that’s the good part, Baba’s grief was well-written and believable.
That’s not why I couldn’t finish the story.
One thing about a lot of Young Adult novels for me is that even though they can be interesting when the story tells of conflicting ideologies and complex characters who undergo realistic character evolution over time, I usually have gripes with the main protagonists, and Children of Blood and Bone is no exception here. I don’t know, but Zelie irks me. Simply put, she acts like she ain’t got sense. It gets her into trouble in dumb ways, which I guess is perhaps intentional by the writer to drive the plot, but it still makes me feel a way about her. And I always question the appeal of a story if unrealistically naive or heroic main characters are needed to drive the plot. Even if the overall storyline is interesting.
Its not that Zelie makes mistakes, it’s that she (like most YA protagonists) makes unlikely mistakes. Mistakes that the reader can quickly identify as having the potential to be problematic, often world-endingly problematic, before even reading the next paragraph. It’s too predictable.
With YA stories, at times the series of coincidental events that take place read unnatural, and at that point the story feels forced and unrealistic. And even for a fantasy story, that’s never a good thing. I’m not a fan of writers using incredibly improbable events and mistakes around the protagonist to drive the plot in that way.
In short, I don’t like Zelie and I’m not buying the story so far. It feels far-fetched, and while it is a fantasy novel, I think a good fantasy novel should feel real and give the reader a full immersive experience, but this book doesn’t do that for me.
I was least impressed with the lack of creativity of the world-building elements of the story overall. The way in which the story is written reads incredibly unauthentic to a prehistoric Nigerian experience, specifically Yorubaland (as ‘Nigeria’ couldn’t possibly have existed at this time). I think the book needs the readers to be unfamiliar with Nigeria and Yoruba culture to sell the story. Its clear that the target readers are non-Nigerians and perhaps non-Africans who don’t know about the places, cultures and religions the author attempted to craft her story around, but for me (an Edo and a part time book-worm) it reads lazy, unimaginative and unauthentic.
The names of most of the characters also don’t feel authentic to a prehistoric Yoruba region. Zelie, Amari, Inan, Tzain – none of the names of the main characters are Yoruba names, which just doesn’t fit in the world depicted in the story.
It also makes no sense for Zelie to associate the memory of her mother to the smell of Jollof rice. Jollof although popular in west Africa today, is not a staple food in present day Nigeria, nor would it have been a staple in a prehistoric setting either. Most of the rice consumed in Nigeria is imported. ‘Swallows’ like Eba, Amala, Akpu accompanied with native soups and stews are way more commonly eaten, especially by anyone who is not wealthy, like Zelie. The casava, yams and plantains they are made from are native to the region. But instead, its Jollof for Zelie, a commoner and for Amari – the princess – it’s pie and sugared tea? In prehistoric Yorubaland? I just…
The map of Orisha (If you understand the meaning of the word then you understand the oddity in using the name) as previously mentioned consists of a multitude of seemingly random locations in Modern-day Nigeria, except assigned a Yoruba identity, even though in reality those places are not made up of Yoruba people. Places like Gombe and Kano are mainly populated by Fulani and Hausa ethnic groups, while that of Benin City is mainly populated by Binis and Candomblé is the name of a Brazilian religion…?
Furthermore, if this is set in a prehistoric time in what is now Nigeria, why are the names ‘Lagos’ and ‘Benin’ even used, when those names only came to exist with the arrival of the Portuguese in the region in the 1500s?
Also, Oya in this book is a deity of life and death but the original Yoruba belief, this is simply not the case. If Adeyemi needed to have a such a deity in her story, she could have simply fabricated one. But instead, we were given a mix of deities, some with accurate representations, and others not. It really makes no sense.
Unimaginative and lazy
The names of the animals, for example, Lionaire, Panthernaire, Baboonem, Foxer – its all annoyingly derivative. I would much rather the English name was used, or even better – the Yoruba names for these animals. I can only think of two possible reasons for the author’s choice here
- Adeyemi does not know the Yoruba names for these animals – it’s possible she doesn’t speak Yoruba at all, but I think with a bit of research this could have been taken care of – asking parents or any other Yoruba-speaking family or friends would have resolved this.
- Using the actual Yoruba names for the animals would have meant more effort in the descriptions of these animals, because her target readers are American and do not speak or understand Yoruba, so would need a more detailed description in English. It’s possible the author did not want to do that work.
I believe it could also be a combination of both reasons but either way, it reads very lazy to me. Its one thing to simply not be familiar with your cultural heritage, native land, or language – this isn’t uncommon among second-generation immigrants (children of immigrant parents). It’s the fact that the author decided to tell this story anyway, without the research because the author knew the target readers would not know any better. Adeyemi didn’t tell a story with Yoruba characters in a Yoruba land, and she didn’t do the work to create a completely fictional universe either. Instead, she leaned very heavily on the otherness of her Nigerian heritage, believing that it would be enough to satisfy her target audience because it was unfamiliar to them. She pulled it off because she was right about her audience.
While these things may seem nit-picky to some, I personally feel there are more than enough continuity and world-building holes to make this story jarring to read, if you’re familiar enough with Nigeria and Yoruba culture (or other southern cultures) to recognize them.
Maybe, I will eventually try to read the book again – probably just starting from where I left off next time around. But I have to say my initial two attempts at reading this novel have only made me question the reviews and the intended readers. I think it was wildly overhyped.
Have you read the book? What did you think of it?
I’m not worried about spoilers for this book😊