As a fan of Leigh Bardugo, I began reading this novel already familiar with the idea of a persecuted magical population. The basic story is this: the evil king murders the maji (full magical beings) and finds a way to keep diviners from maturing into maji. So it’s been some time since magic even existed at all.
There are four major characters, all teens and tweens: Inan, Amari, Zelie, and Tzain. Inan and Amari are the prince and princess, Zelie and Tzain are children of a murdered Reaper maji and live with their father in squalor. When Zelie goes to the capital city to sell fish and is bombarded by a thief trying to escape the palace guards (think Jasmine in Aladdin – in disguise) she and Tzain find themselves in possession of the princess Amari as well as an ancient scroll that causes any diviner that touches it to gain their magic back instantly.
In pursuit of Amari and her newfound friends is her brother Inan, who is a very angry young man who is hellbent on gaining his father’s approval and leading a strong and magic-less kingdom. His constant mantra through the first half of the book is “kill the girl, kill magic” – referring to Zelie, who appears in his dreams and who he can literally smell. He calls her soul “sea-salt scented.”
So anyways the trio is on the run and they come across an old maji at a temple who explains that they hold the key to restoring magic to the lands forever. All they need is the scroll that they already have, a bone knife, and a sunstone. Those three relics and someone to perform the ritual will give magic back to all from whom it was stolen by the king. But they must complete the ritual by the next moon phase, which only gives them like 8 days or something like that. That becomes their mission as they continue to try to outrun Inan and his soldiers.
That’s the basic idea of the story. Now I’m about to give a few spoiler-ish things that I found troubling about the book and that knocked me out of the story.
Why is everything a love story? Why is that necessary? And not only that, why do we feel like we have to be in such an all-fired rush as to make people fall in love with each other in less than an hour? And, specific to this book, how am I supposed to believe that Inan, who is all about murdering Zelie, is somehow all of a sudden sympathetic to her pain AND wanting to bone her? This gave me such whiplash that I didn’t just distrust the characters, I lost faith in the story.
It reminded me of the Avatar: The Last Airbender (the Nickelodeon cartoon series NOT the terrible live-action movie) where Zuko is the fire nation prince that hunts Aang, Katara, and Sokka down to murderize them to retain the fire-nation’s hold over everyone and prevent Aang from becoming the Avatar, the being that can wield all 4 elements and take down anyone who is evil. It would make ZERO SENSE if Zuko IMMEDIATELY caught up to them and suddenly wanted to help. The cartoon sends him through a redemption arc separate from the good guys, giving us time to understand him as a more complex character, which makes his gradual acceptance into the group later more palatable.
Inan literally burns down Zelie’s and Tzain’s ENTIRE VILLAGE and then like 3 days later he’s in love with her and they’re making out hot and heavy against a tree during a festival that they stopped to waste a day at even though they are under a pretty intense deadline. This is a huge problem for me.
There is a part of the story where the four main characters come across an oasis of magi/diviners. They are under a HUGE time crunch to complete this magic restoration ritual in like 3 days but they stop to help the group of magi throw a big party. They stay and get all dressed up and there are a couple of pages just about make up and hair styles and…well it just wasn’t believable to me. Unless it is a trap of some kind, these maji should have given them supplies and hurried them on their way and celebrated once magic was actually restored. Oh no the king’s soldiers caught up to us and captured us because we stopped running! I can’t believe it! *shocked face*
These two issues weren’t enough to stop me from reading through until the end, but they were enough for me to have an aversion to reading more of the series. Every so often I run up against YA novels or series that have this problem, and it’s one that I might not have cared about when I was younger, but is a huge hiccup for me now. I’m okay with drama, I’m okay with heated romance, but I need to believe why it’s there. If I don’t believe it, I don’t necessarily want to read it.
The magic system is interesting, but not original. The characters will feel like ones you’ve seen before. Honestly I was thinking the entire time “man I could put this down and read the Grisha trilogy or Six of Crows and get the same experience.”
What makes this book important and different is that it sets these familiar elements in entirely African characters and locations. In this book Yoruba is the language of magic. The gods that maji pray to are linked to African mysticism. So yes while the book may seem derivative, representation is important. Young black readers will be able to read this and see themselves as magical. They can find someone in this book to relate to or aspire to be or cosplay as. It is a connector to heritage and a conversation starter. This is perhaps its only redeeming quality: it takes existing content like the Grishaverse or Avatar: The Last Airbender, and writes the same story for a population underrepresented in popular culture.
Based on the non-enjoyable elements I described above, I personally would not recommend this book. It asks you to take too much for granted and I think that’s just asking too much when you are already operating in a fantasy realm.