Powerful debut novel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This debut novel from Tomi Adeyemi struck a powerful chord with me.
The story follows Zélie Adebola as she and her brother and father struggle to survive in the Kingdom of Orïsha. Zélie is a Diviner, a person with links to a magical heritage and connection to the Gods. However, 11 years ago that connection to the Gods and magic was taken away by Orïsha's king, and at the same time all maji - people who could wield magic - were killed, including Zélie's mother. Now the Diviners are attacked, abused, and taxed heavily by the king and his guards. Facing a higher tax that they cannot pay, Zélie and her brother, Tzain, travel from their small fishing village to the capital to sell a prized fish, and hopefully earn some much needed silver to keep the taxman at bay. But things do not go according to plan, as Zélie encounters Amari, a fugitive princess who has stolen a sacred artifact from her ruthless father. Now on the run, Zélie, Tzain, and Amari are pursued by Amari's brother, Inan who will stop at nothing to get the sacred artifact back for his father. Zélie is thrust into a fight for survival, not only for herself and family, but also for the very survival of magic in Orïsha.
Adeyemi has created a wonderful world filled with myths, legends, ancient Gods, and magic. The world is rich, filled with descriptions of the smells of the villages, cities, and wilderness, as well as weaving deep connections of family. It was easy to picture the locations and people in the story and feel their joy and pain as they struggle on their quest.
The story is told in the first person from three points of view: Zélie, Amari, and Inan. While a bit disconcerting at first, this triangle of perspectives allows the reader to identify with each character and to understand what drives each of them, and through them, what drives the motives of the larger forces - from the struggle to complete the quest to bring magic back, as well as King Saran's motives - funneled through his son's actions - to keep Orïsha safe by eliminating magic entirely. It is a complex web of emotions and motives, and it is well done. By the end I was hanging on every word, every action as the climax of the story was reached.
I do have some quibbles, mostly around character growth. Not necessarily 'development', as I think all of the main characters were well developed and 'made real'. I understood the characters and felt they had depth. However, with Inan and Zélie I did not feel there was a lot of character growth. Zélie starts as a young girl who is hot headed, quick to anger. She yearns for her mother, whose death has left a massive hole in her life. As the story progresses Zélie's anger and fury serve her well, but at the end she continues to yearn for her mother in a way that seems selfish and childish. To me this continuity may present the emotional burden placed on Zélie, but does not allow for any growth of her character. I felt that was a missed opportunity. At the same time, Inan seems to make the most growth and change of the three main characters, yet he makes a complete reversal back to his old self at the end, and that too was disappointing. Of the three main characters, Amari struck me as the only one who made the most growth and development as a character, changing from a meek, shy, and very timid girl, to a powerful woman capable of ruling as Queen. She makes sacrifices, and does the most to change herself for what she knows to be the right thing to do.
Regardless of my quibbles, the characters are still well developed and portrayed. Adeyemi has created an epic world that is a joy to explore and I want to learn more about it. I highly recommend this book to anybody who has a love of epic fantasy, enjoys the struggles of faith and family, and relishes an epic quest. This book has it all.
I listened to the audio production of this novel, read by Bahni Turpin. She does an amazing job of bringing the world or Orïsha to life, and making each of the characters stand out and shine. There was no problems with the audio production or the narration, and Bahni's accent is a perfect fit for the story.