Top critical review
Reign In Blood: A rich fantasy world bogged down by brutality.
Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on May 2, 2018
When this debut novel rocketed to the top of the bestseller list and author Nigerian-American Tomi Adeyemi is featured on magazine covers asking, “The next J.K. Rowling?” I was cautiously excited. With credentials of a Harvard literature degree and further studies in West African mythology and religion in Brazil, I expected some well-planned world building, savage social criticism and sparkling writing. I believe the book succeeded in at least two of those expectations.
Adeyemi does indeed create a compelling world called Orïsha a fantasy world that draws from the rich traditions of West African folklore and mythology, particularly the Yoruba religion based on Nigerian oral traditions, which calls the various manifestations of spirits Orishas. While there are at least 400 + 1 manifestations of Orishas, in Adeyemi’s fictional Orïsha world, there are ten deities, each with a clan of followers, the once powerful maji possessing abilities specific to the deity they follow. However, King Saran had a major beef with magic, and we piece together the story of how the King obtained a black metal called majacite that cripples the maji’s powers, massacred them, stole three key artifacts, and managed to wipe out magic from the lands. So what once was a vibrant world where magic was a part of everyday life is now a dreary society where diviners, the descendents of majis, are subjugated, heavily taxed second class citizens that resemble countless colonialist and Jim Crow situations throughout real life history.
So far so good, this is a compelling setting that can educate young adults about African culture while adding a refreshingly Afro-centric fantasy world. Many are aligning Adeyemi with the Afrofuturism canon alongside Samuel Delany, Octavia Butler and more recently Nnedi Okorafor and Tochi Onyebuchi. While this could be a future world, to me, the complete lack of technology suggests that this is a fantasy universe, though one tied to Yoruba traditions. Either way, the potential for this fantasy world is awe inspiring.
While the pacing is brisk, exploding into action within a couple pages, and the writing is economical, there’s some significant issues. Throughout the book the first person narrative switches off between Zélie Adebola, descendent of a powerful Reaper maji of the Iku clan, Princess Amari and Prince Inan. Each character has been traumatized, and they re-live the moments of brutality in their dreams and inner voices. Repeatedly. Constantly. Over and over, to the point where both Zélie and Amari would likely be diagnosed with PTSD in real life. Zélie ruminates on the horrific murder of her mother during the maji massacre from when she was a young child, while Amari is haunted by her friend/servant Binta’s murder at the hands of her father. Inan, conflicted between his loyalty to his father, sense of duty (the “duty before self” mantra is repeated 37 times in the book) to the kingdom, and the obvious evil intentions behind his father’s orders (“Kill the girl. Kill magic.” is his second favorite mantra, repeated nearly as often).
The obsessive single-mindedness of each of these characters is so similar that it’s hard to keep track of which point of view we’re reading at any given time. The tone is uniformly overwrought, with the characters experiencing primarily extreme emotions of fear and hatred, with extra helpings of distrust and betrayal. Adeyemi does attempt to bring a couple lighter moments of respite later on, and even some romance, but both are thoroughly unconvincing, since the primary mission of the book seems to be to convey just how hopelessly grim and harrowing life is with the relentless violence and even torture. Clearly this book also operates as an allegory for the Black American experience. It’s hard to read about fictional suffering. It’s even harder to live in the real world where you’re judged by an essential quality like the color of your skin. This isn’t the place to compare James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time” to a work of fiction, but Baldwin (for example) empowers his readers while also laying out the oppressive racism of his times. The thing I hoped to see beyond strength in suffering, power in enduring, is the hope for a better or different world found in so much Afrofuturist writing. Post-magic Orïsha shouldn’t have to be a completely joyless world in order to convey the struggles of the characters. Take N. K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, for example. The book’s heroine Yeine, like Zélie, mourns the murder of her mother. While she too struggles with the allure of hatred and revenge, here inner life is much more complex and rich, and her story ultimately more uplifting.
So what will be the lesson for the intended young adult audience? Life is a horrible, neverending parade of violent ordeals to be suffered through until you meet a brutal death? I get that life is hard and often unjust, and we’re enduring a particularly dark period in politics and racism. Real life reminds us of that daily. We don’t necessarily have to be bludgeoned with these truths. Even in times like this when issues are reduced to the most simple extremes in tweets and headlines, it is still possible for literature to address serious, important issues while still retaining hope, wonder, and if they choose, humor. There are brief glimpses of a better future within Legacy of Orïsha #1, but not enough where I’m sure that I feel compelled to see what happens in the next two books. However it seems this series is destined to be a cultural milestone, with a movie already in the works, and the next book will certainly be greeted with massive anticipation and popularity. Adeyemi clearly has talent and potential, so on the chance that she grows as a writer, I’ll mostly likely read the next one. We’ve been bathed in blood, now how about throwing us a bone?