Where Fantasy Meets Black Lives Matter

A much-anticipated young-adult debut taps into a tradition of speculative fiction rooted in African culture.

Daniela Yohannes

If a “Black Lives Matter–inspired fantasy novel” sounds like an ungainly hybrid—a pitch gone wrong—think again. The seven-figure book advance and movie deal bestowed a year ago on Tomi Adeyemi suggest the opposite: a convergence of themes likely to appeal to a very wide audience. Adeyemi, whose Children of Blood and Bone is the first volume of a projected trilogy, is a 24-year-old newcomer to the thriving market of young-adult literature, where demands for greater diversity of authorship and subject matter have lately been loud and clear. The Nigerian American writer isn’t a pioneer, though. Instead, her high-profile debut calls attention to an underheralded tradition. The creator of a mythical land called Orïsha, Adeyemi taps into a rich imaginative lineage as she weaves West African mythology into a bespoke world that resonates with our own.

For at least five decades, writers such as Samuel Delany and Octavia Butler, among other leading figures of the movement known as Afrofuturism, have worked African traditions into their prize-winning science fiction and fantasy. More recently, legends of the orishas—divine spirits of the Yoruba brought to the New World by slave ships centuries ago—have found their way into YA fare. They have been put there by black writers well aware that speculative fiction has always been about more than magic and clever devices. Explorations of social power and possibility drive its plots and shape its characters, and young-adult fiction in particular has thrived on instruction through enthrallment.

In its structure, Adeyemi’s debut is in many ways a classic entry into the realm of YA fantasy, which has enjoyed growing acclaim since the 1980s. Starting in the late ’90s, the Harry Potter books fueled the momentum, as did Suzanne Collins’s critical and commercial hit of 2008, The Hunger Games, which was quickly followed by two more volumes. Watching the cinematic adaptation of Collins’s trilogy, Adeyemi told Teen Vogue, was the catalyst for her own allegorical world building. She wanted to respond to the racist backlash against the film version. Some viewers denounced the casting of black actors in prominent roles, prompting Collins to emphasize the movie’s faithfulness to the clearly multiracial world of her novels. Adeyemi set out to create a story with a cast of unmistakably black characters. In Orïsha, she explicitly invokes a non-Western tradition, and at the same time follows the by-now-standard YA format of the multiperspective bildungsroman: Her three teenage protagonists take turns as first-person narrators of a quest story.

Henry Holt

Children of Blood and Bone also draws on a very different, realist approach that has claimed attention in mainstream young-adult fiction in the post-Ferguson era. Tales of individual trauma were already a 20th-century plot staple of the genre. In her 2017 best seller, The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas highlights a socially engaged variation on that theme. Her novel, which has sold more than half a million copies, grapples with lives in a black community after a fatal shooting by a police officer. Adeyemi’s story calls to mind that plot arc as she intertwines the actions of her deities with the struggles of the characters known as maji, who occupy the foreground. “Adorned with snow-white hair,” they are darker-skinned inhabitants of a land populated entirely by people of color. Once upon a time, empowered by the spirits, the maji were magic-wielders who literally presided over life and death, and commanded the fear and respect of Orïsha’s rulers. But as the novel starts, King Saran reigns over an empire in which skin color dictates status and power. The gentry is lighter-toned and obsessed with skin bleaching, and the maji have been reduced to serfdom and slavery. Often referred to as “maggots” and banned from speaking their sacred Yoruba language, the maji have been robbed of their magic and live in fear of genocide.

Adeyemi is aware that she is unspooling a transparent parable of oppression, as her protagonist, Zélie Adebola, fights against the erasure of her identity. After a series of mishaps connects her to the king’s daughter, Princess Amari, and to a mystical artifact stolen by the princess, Zélie manifests a newfound power: Not only can she access her own particular magical birthright as a maji—the ability to commune with the dead—but she is now galvanized to wield it in a crusade to topple the kingdom. In assigning Zélie the gift of drawing strength from remembrance of the dead, Adeyemi taps into a capacity that has become so important for black protest today.

Adeyemi focuses on the obstacles to Zélie’s mission, staging scenes that obviously parallel the spectacle of police brutality and black death in America. True to the genre’s cinematic conventions, sabers gleam, unlikely paths converge, guardsmen give chase, and close calls follow in quick succession. But Adeyemi also probes beneath the surface details of contemporary American flash points to address the complicated, intersectional nature of domination.The headstrong and martial Zélie assumes at the outset that the privileged princess, all softness and uncertainty, is destined to sabotage Zélie’s quest. Yet Amari turns out to have experienced her share of brutality. In developing their relationship, Adeyemi explores the ways in which violence—especially as it plays out (very graphically) in male control over female bodies—ricochets through history. Both women come to see more clearly how inequities of color, class, and gender converge.

Adeyemi’s tale of young visionaries navigating a twisted world is psychologically deft and mostly well paced, an excellent bet to live up to the high expectations of it. Let’s hope the novel also leads readers to discover other writers interested in imbuing black stories with West African folklore. Nigerian mythologies in particular play a key role in the work of Nnedi Okorafor, who has been drawing on her Igbo ancestry for a decade, across more than a dozen fantasy novels. In his Beasts Made of Night, Tochi Onyebuchi, Adeyemi’s fellow fantasy newcomer, has also started an ambitious world-building effort rooted in Nigerian culture and history.

Intentionally or not, Children of Blood and Bone joins the canon of Afrofuturism. The multimedia movement only received that formal designation in the 1990s, but has thrived for roughly half a century. Afrofuturism is meant to be hard to define—a shapeless chimera, spanning continents and encompassing fiction, nonfiction, poetry, music, and the visual and performing arts. It has never been just a “black” version of science fiction and fantasy, or just a reaction to a lily-white literary industry. It hasn’t been an effort to create casts of characters of color simply for the sake of diversity either. Rather, at Afrofuturism’s core is the recognition that reimagining oppressive pasts and envisioning far-off futures are closely linked revolutionary acts—meditations on the nature of power that can revive the creative potential of speculative fiction.

Tales such as Adeyemi’s and her predecessors’ wield a magic beyond the imaginative spells they cast. Their work illuminates the ways in which speculative fiction has in a sense been about the stories of people of color all along. Such narratives may have been historically excluded from mainstream science fiction and fantasy. But take a second look at the dystopias and fantasy horrors created by white writers. So many of those tales are hauntingly alien to their white readers. To people raised in America’s ghettos, by contrast, the grim futures featuring slavery, tiered citizenship, eugenics, and police states that prevail in so much YA science fiction are all too familiar. And the stories of rebellion, youthful protest, and unlikely quests to overthrow tyrants—fantasy trademarks—are hardly outlandish for readers of color the world over.

The magical has its mundane side, and it is often dark. With the right reading glasses, it’s possible to see direct parallels to Jim Crow in the segregated world of J. K. Rowling’s pure-bloods, Mudbloods, and Muggles. The Hunger Games series has plenty of overt references to American slavery and revolt: The denizens of District 11 weren’t just unfortunate farmers in a southern region. That mainstream audiences resist acknowledging such overt symbolism testifies to the ongoing challenge of representation. That the challenge inspired Tomi Adeyemi, and that Children of Blood and Bone may prod readers to see a whole genre with new eyes, could hardly be a more timely development.