“They killed my mother. They took our magic. They tried to bury us. Now we rise.”
This is one of a flurry of books I have read over the last month and it’s one of my favourites. Tomi Adeyemi’s debut novel is a stunning story set in a fictitious part of west Africa and is inspired by west African culture and heritage. I was quickly drawn into this fantasy world and, from chapter one, it is clear that this is a world of devastating violence, embittered by hatred and fear. It seems utterly relevant for our world today and yet seems intrinsically linked to the past.
At the heart of the novel are three voices: Zélie, Amari, and Inan. Zélie is the lively daughter of a fisherman whose mother has been killed by the powerful ruling regime. She is fiercely independent, strong and has her mother’s magic. Yes, this is a story of magic but not Harry Potter wand waving magic. It is the magic of the spirit, grounded in the earth and the gods that give that magic to chosen individuals. But the magic has been lost. Destroyed by the despotic King Saran who has tried to kill all those who are touched by the gods, Zélie is the key to the return of magic to the kingdom but can she do it and who will stand in her way? Zélie is a fabulous leading character, she has all the traits needed for a hero but she also has the self doubts of a 16 year old confronted by her first feelings of love and desire (this was so beautifully written, it took me back to my own teenage years!).
Amari and Inan are the daughter and son of King Saran. Amari is the rebellious one, although she is also a virtual prisoner of her father’s ideological hatred. She is unable to think or be herself and lacks any confidence. Her growth throughout the story is crucial to Zélie’s progress and she is, at times, really annoying and at other times the saviour of the tale. Her voice brings balance to the violence and hatred, as she is often measured in amongst the chaos that surrounds our leading characters. Inan on the other hand … Is he a hero? Is he an antihero? Is he the villain of the piece? Early on, Inan’s secret is revealed (I am not telling you what it is!) and as a reader you are variously drawn to him as he falls for Zélie, and she for him, and then hating him as he seems to betray both himself and everyone else. As I rushed towards the end of this compelling story, I didn’t know whether I trusted him or not and whether I liked him or not! Adeyemi leaves it open to the reader to decide and that is one of the joys of this text, it doesn’t necessarily give us everything we expect.
This is one big fat book. But it doesn’t feel like it when you get going. It’s quite hard to put down. There’s some terrible scenes of violence that are in no way gratuitous but demonstrate what happens when you keep people afraid of their own shadows. People and children die. No punches are spared. Some of those that are killed shocked me to the core, but I can see how vital they are to expose the regime and give Zélie the courage to bring about a change. I can’t wait for the next instalment … as I didn’t want this one to end!
Who should Read this book?
This is a book for probably 14+, year 9 and onwards. It is a book to inspire and the characters will appeal to both genders. I think there is a great deal you could do with this as a class text for year 9. It has so many opportunities to discuss African heritage, culture and beliefs. But the real opportunity is to talk about difference. Why do we treat people differently based on race, gender, culture etc? I would definitely pair this with some poetry of people like Ben Zephaniah, or to look at some of the GCSE poetry, like ‘Nothing’s Changed’ or ‘Limbo’. As writers, I think anyone playing with multiple voices should read this, and if anyone tells you that only two voices are acceptable… show them this!
You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2lXp502