Pros: emotional complexity, fascinating characters, lots of twists, interesting setting
Cons: some issues with the timeline/distances travelled towards the end
When the terrorized daughter of the king witnesses one outrage too many, she steals an artifact that can open diviners to their magical heritage. While escaping, she runs into a young diviner who’s still angry and traumatized by her mother’s execution during the king’s Raid 11 years ago, when magic first disappeared. Together they learn that magic can be returned to the land. But the King sends his son and his general to hunt them down.
There are some great characters in this book. While I didn’t always agree with their choices (especially those of the hot tempered Zélie), I thought their decisions made sense based on their personalities, traumas, and the challenges they faced. I was impressed at the complexity of their emotions and how the author actually dealt with their emotions rather than simply letting the story brush trauma and consequences aside. The book deals with the aftermath of torture, of killing for the first time, of personal failure, of so many harsh emotions and conditions. I really understood the prince’s fear of magic and his desire to please his father, even as he realized what a monster the man was. I felt sorry for him. I also I loved seeing his sister’s growth throughout the book. I also liked how Zélie and Amari slowly learn to trust each other and become friends.
There were quite a few twists and turns, both in terms of the quest, but also in terms of people learning who they are in the face of various trials.
The setting was pretty cool and seemed to draw inspiration from the Yoruba people of Nigeria, particularly the language. Though the country in the book is called Orïsha, I don’t believe the maji religion takes any influence from the Yoruba’s religious practices of the same name (but please correct me if I’m wrong, wikipedia isn’t the best place to get information like this. And as an aside, I enjoyed looking up some of the unfamiliar words to see if they had real world significance. This isn’t necessary to enjoy the book, but why not learn some real culture/history too?). I loved the idea that people capable of magic were physically marked with white hair. The practice of magic itself required a mixture of innate ability and incantations, so it didn’t seem overpowered. I did like that various people questioned the wisdom of bringing magic back, of the problems that could arise if someone evil could wield offensive magic like fire. It treated magic like the dangerous weapon it could be in the wrong hands - or even the right ones.
The world feels very lived in and real. It was quite different from anything I’ve read before and I loved that. I really liked the ryders and wish I could have one. The geography became problematic towards the end, in terms of how quickly people could suddenly travel far distances, which I’ll discuss more in the spoiler section. Though, that’s possibly due to the map being out of scale from the distances the author envisioned.
While they’re not marked as an appendix, after the text comes an author’s note, a ‘behind the scenes’ annotated chapter 57 from the book, and a list of the Maji clans with their powers and the names of their gods.
While the book wasn’t perfect, it’s unique setting and characters make it worth the read. There’s some romance and a good amount of action, particularly the fight scenes at the end. If you’re looking for a different kind of fantasy, give this a go.
*** SPOILERS ***
Don’t look at the map too closely when following their journey as some of the distances and features don’t make sense. Maps aren’t usually done by the author and tend to be more artistic than accurate, so consider it a rough guide rather than an absolute if, like me, you’re trying to figure out their route.
In terms of the timeline, I can accept that Inan rides like the wind to catch up to the others after leaving his guards behind in Chândomblé, but I was surprised by how willing he and Zélie were to waste a night before going in to rescue their friends at the bandit camp, and that they didn’t even consider sneaking in and avoiding the guards at the gate altogether. And once they befriended the bandits, they decide to stay an extra day for a party, even though they’ve only got 5 days to get to the island? Ignoring the fact that they’re celebrating prematurely, they justify this decision saying that getting a boat in Zaria cuts their travel time in half. Getting a boat in Zaria was always the plan, and it doesn’t cut their travel time down at all, as most of the distance they need to cover is over land. Now, if they took a boat down the river to Jemeta, I’d agree that that would cut down on travel time as land travel is slower and Jimeta would leave them much closer to the island (they do end up taking this route, but overland not by river boat). They’re also ignoring any travel time they’ll need once they get to the island, as the temple isn’t on the coastline on the map. There’s also the problem of how Inan’s men managed to find Zélie’s father and transport him from wherever he was hiding to the island in one day. (Even if you assume the dad was in custody already, he likely wasn’t being held on the East coast, ready to board a boat.)
On a different note, It seemed a little too convenient for the organizers of the killing theatre in Ibeji to make the winnings so high that they went bankrupt upon someone’s winning the competition. I’m sure they would have kept some of that gold for themselves, enough to create a new cash grab entertainment show. It’s an instance where I thought the book ignored the complexities of life, which was unfortunate as it dealt so well with this in other areas.