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.