Tomi Adeyemi and the Quest for Blackness – Children of Blood and Bone

(This Review was Written and Published 02/19/19)

Historically, there has been a habit of big companies choosing creative media that best suits their financial interests – as a good company should. They read the room through stats, charts, and social media to decide their next move based on crunched numbers even if those moves are decidedly problematic. The problem is that creative media used to turn a profit is a very difficult field to sustain ‘growth’ in and thus forces these companies to turn to certain “untapped” markets to make the quota. Suddenly, things that are indie, niche, or even utterly invisible are thrust into the limelight. Things that have been protested over, rallied for, and demanded are given exposure with a glorified pat on the back for being progressive in doing this one decent thing. Sales rink in; profits soar… and the creator ultimately suffers for it.

Not only have they become a cash cow, but also never given the respect and room to recognize the flaw in their work or refine their skills, because being given the opportunity for something we want… we creatives…


We as blacks have a bad habit of taking what we can get as long as it looks similar to our dreams.

Welcome to the Cerebral Hedonist.

My name is Harli V. Park and here comes a thought on…

Welcome Back, Squidlies.

I had a lot of apprehension about reviewing this book considering its importance to the book community. For the first time, I instinctually asked myself the questions “am I black enough to talk about this book” as if that was something that mattered. At the same time, I was hard-up to find any critical in-depth videos on it – specifically by people of color and so it is always my goal to offer a fair and unbiased criticism of anything I consume no matter its cultural importance.

So here we the fuck are I guess.

Today we’re tackling the herculean task of reviewing this book to a degree that I hope everyone will talk to me about because I am so ready. We’re going to discuss its themes, world, and importance to YA specifically and why I personally feel it failed to deliver on its overambition. We will also cover why this is partially a failure of the publishing industry to take such an important work as seriously as they could outside the dollar signs.

“Auntie” Adeyemi

Tomi Adeyemi – a now household name that seemingly sprung out of nowhere in the book world – fast became one of the coveted “aunties” to the YA community alongside Angie Thomas. But, who is she, exactly?

Tomi Adeyemi is a Nigerian-American writer born in 1993 in Chicago. She grew up with her parents and siblings and they suffered a time period of hardship in which her mother scrubbed toilers and her father worked as a taxi driver while waiting for his Credentials to check out so that he could be a practicing doctor in the states.

Adeyemi wasn’t taught Nigerian due to her parents wanting her to be able to fit into American society more and she often cites it as a denial of her Nigerian heritage which she didn’t get the chance to connect with until she was an adult. She graduated from Havard University with Honors in English Literature and went on to work in a fairly successful career in film production in L.A. She was featured in the final episode of the fan show “Hermoine Granger and the MidLife Crisis.” After a while, she wasn’t satisfied with this because she wanted to write and be a writer. So she did. She gave up her career to take a chance on writing a novel and did creative writing coaching on the side. The initial novel that she quit the job for didn’t receive positive feedback by her peers, thusly it never saw the light of day. Probably for the best.

This prompted her to take a year and write Children of Blood and Bone. Much of it was inspired by her delving into West African Mythology which she studied in Salvador Brazil… It’s fine. It was then she was heavily inspired by the Orisha which she describes as:

“Creatively, I had discovered the Orisha about nine months before I started writing, and the short way to explain them is that they’re West African gods and goddesses. It’s more complicated than that because it’s a religion, it’s a mythology, it’s spread throughout the world because of the slave trade. But I’m very inspired by visuals and when I saw it, I’d never seen black gods and goddesses before. I’d never seen people who were darker than me breathing fire and commanding oceans, so I instantly knew I wanted to do something with that.”

Tomi Adeyemi – Huffington Post

She describes it in interviews as a love letter to her Nigerian Heritage and because of it, she is one of the most financially successful YA debuts in history, which brings us to today in which she has grown a bit of an ego. It’s okay, she’s only twenty-five.

She recently was the subject of a controversy when she publicly accused veteran author, Nora Roberts of plagiarism, citing disrespect as they had similar titles. Nora’s second book in a series she recently released was titled Of Blood and Bone and was published in the same year as Children of Blood and Bone. This created a hard battle of fans of both authors in which there was a lot of “who she, I’ve never heard of her” on both sides, including from Adeyemi who also claims she’d never heard of Nora Roberts or her books before the title issue and she personally didn’t know that titles are not subject to Copyright Laws when she initially tweeted her accusations. This was solved later – though it notably tarnished Adeyemi as an author considering the heavy backlash and the lack of fact-checking on Adeyemi’s part. That being said, her second novel was pushed back from a March 2019 release to a June 2019 (Edit: The book was pushed further and was not released until December 2019). It is not factually proven that this is related to the controversy, but I speculate that it is considering Nora Roberts is very high profile despite her reclusion.

Either way, she felt that she wanted to create something set in West Africa so that little black girls could resonate with it. If they ever wanted to be Heroines or Princesses even if they “couldn’t be Hermoine Granger.”

What if the white boy who reads this becomes a police officer, and what if reading this makes him hesitate in pulling the trigger when he pulls up to a black person? Not even adult books affect you the way your favorite childhood book does, so now I’m like, “Let’s do it. Let’s make this the next Harry Potter,” because I think about the impact of messages staying with someone and being a big part of who they are.

Tomi Adeyemi

The question now is can we consider her novel prolific for its time like Rowling’s work was?


Children of Lost Potential

I knew I wanted to write an epic fantasy series, just because I love Avatar: The Last Airbender, and I enjoy rides like The Hunger Games. I knew I wanted to do that because I loved all those things growing up; I still loved them

Tomi Adeyemi

Children of Blood and Bone is the Story of Zelie, Amari, and Inan – because these are the only POVs we are allowed in the story. The fourth character Tzain is very much in the background despite his symbolism as a nontoxic masculine presence. Says a lot…

They live in a fantastical version of Nigeria called Orisha in which a marginalized group of people called Diviners – later interchangeably called Maji whether they have magic or not? – who are oppressed because they are what’s left of the world’s magic users. They were once powerful magic users born with what is called Ashe (that’s the midichlorians of the story) – also never mentioned again after its initial telling —  and divided into tribes that are very vaguely listed in the book ( I mean they’re there if you squint) Among these tribes were Tiders, Burners, Grounders and Air Bend – er – Winders. They lived harmoniously until the fire nations—I mean when King Saran, a no-mag… er… muggle… a non-magical person, took power after some form of animosity between the Maji and non-magical. This is all vague because it’s not explained. You don’t know what happened to cause this, although it’s hinted at and not in a way that promotes theorizing.

This is a reoccurring issue in the book – sheer vagueness.

It follows Zelie, a Diviner teen who is now seventeen and attempting to graduate from… something or other (this custom wasn’t really clarified or described either) and trying to make ends meet, while also trying to preserve the heritage of her mother who was a Death Bend – er Reaper. She looks like Storm from X-Men and that’s all you need to know to identify her throughout the book. She runs into the crown princess, Amari who fled the palace with a #forbidden magical artifact that activates the Ashe in Diviner blood turning them into Maji. From there, they have to travel to an ancient temple in order for Zelie to reawaken magic in Orisha and bring power back to the Maji so that they can conquer their oppressors aka the royal family. Throughout, they’re pursued by Prince Zu—Inan who is unknowingly a Maji, though it’s unclear if his father knows or not. I mean it’s implied he does… because… hmm…


There are a lot of inconsistencies in this story and it’s not particularly good as a whole. Let’s leave the synopsis at that.

As The World Falls Down

Heman and the Original Lionaire

In writing fantasy, especially of the heavy world-building type in which there are rules and magic systems, it pays to give it multiple once-overs since solely focusing on the grand scheme, much is lost and left underdeveloped. This hurts your narrative. The immersion for nearly all fantasy is in the details whether it be something as light as Sarah J. Maas’s Throne of Glass series or as prolifically dense as Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy. What draws the reader in is how well described and how the world is told through the characters’ eyes as they are our Avatar (No, I’m not going to be stopping this any time soon). Most importantly, we are given the feeling of awe when presented with fantastical things that even the characters have never encountered because we know the base world which defines why this is different and awe-inspiring.

It’s definitely fantasy but I’m not a purist by any means. I’m the opposite of Lord of the Rings. I think you can tell a big adventure but we’re telling it now and it needs to make sense now. 

Tomi Adeyemi

((Sidenote: she’s never read LOTR so that’s why this statement doesn’t make sense))

Unfortunately, Children of Blood and Bone fails to accomplish this in any real format. The descriptions are painfully vague and not in the intentional “allow the reader to imagine” way. There is very little base to imagine what Orisha is as a functioning world, culture, and government. I feel that you must have some form of knowledge of West Africa or Mythology in order to fill in the chasms left by the lack of this base, but a few descriptors would’ve been sufficient in remedying this issue. Orisha is quite weak as a world as there are no described societal customs, no specific turn of phrases, and most importantly, no solid culture that aids in defining the characters. Even the Maji are vaguely defined and nothing is made unique about the tribes past “we could use a Welder” (yes, this is a thing) and mounts are called Ryders and they come in variations of Panthenaires, Lionnaires, and Leoparnaire… there’s a Hyenaire mentioned as well.

Tzain – who allegedly is a main character, though there are no POV chapters to prove this – is meant to be some form of an athlete in the upcoming “Orishan Games”. Throughout the book, the reader is never given any idea of what this means to him or to the world he lives in other than it might make him money like basketball? But what the hell is the game? What kind of athlete does that make him? Is he bulky like an American football player? Is he trim like a swimmer? He obviously runs very fast so… is he like a quarterback? You don’t know!

And that’s kind of the issue with the majority of the worldbuilding. You don’t know.  A few Examples of these inconsistencies are as follows:

  1. They are tasked with going to the first temple called Chandomble which is described as being on a mountain. The Book includes a Map of Orisha and shows exactly where Chandomble is. There are no Mountains in this area. There is a Mountain RANGE to the NORTH nowhere near it.
  2. They are in the center of a desert on the map and yet the amphitheater in the city where they charge 1 gold per cup of water is having giant ship battles within it using water from… you don’t know. There’s no explanation of how the water gets there and since Orisha has no magic at this point, you can’t suspend belief.
  3. The size of Orisha is confusing. The description makes it seem vast and hard to get to places on foot — even with a Ryder — and it boasts a full mountain range where it snows. However, in text, you are meant to believe that from Chandomble to the Holy Temple it took them about 2 weeks after they made it seem like the trip alone would take a month. They somehow managed to make halfway across the country…somehow….

These are examples of things that unfortunately took me clean out of the story and each time was harder to re-immerse. With a story that’s meant to be massive and intense, it would’ve stood better to have a very hard rewrite. Specifically, it needed to cut out things that really didn’t aid the plot or the characterizations and bogged it down heavily. My personal opinion is that it quite literally needed to be broken up into perhaps smaller books? The quest they set out on to find the artifacts felt lackluster and rushed and the only character that seemed to gain anything from each adventure was Amari… we will discuss her soon.

Plot Devic– I Mean Characters

Meet Zelie; She’s Angry:

I got anger and I got rage and I try to channel it into good things…but I don’t think I could have any character who didn’t have that because that’s who I am and you have pieces of you in every character. 

Tomi Adeyemi

Zelie, as a main character, was absolutely grating not because of her aggressive nature or because of her using anger to hide her fear. Zelie is grating because she doesn’t learn nor change by the end of this book and no, falling in love with your oppressor is not character growth. No. No. NO.

She strangely does risky things in what appears to be a bid to get herself killed while at the same time not wanting to die. She smarts off to guards at the risk of death and worse sexual assault of others around her including her mentor. She leaves her disabled father alone knowing she is meant to be taking care of him in order to graduate from…something…or other. She quite literally pinches and pecks at Prince Inan who wants to literally kill her and taunts him by getting nude and getting into the water in the dreamscape long before they even start to be on speaking terms that don’t involve threats. And she never suffers the consequences of her boldness. The closest she comes to these consequences is being tortured near the end which… mirrors a certain scene from a certain profound phenomenon.

Zelie herself bounces far too hard between a bold angry brave young woman and an utterly stupid child. That is a dynamic that can work but it does not in this case since she doesn’t show development and her actions still have no consequences right to the end of the novel. Honestly, she doesn’t act like someone who has been living under an oppressive regime and doesn’t seem to care about much outside her own anger and wants. Also, she’s still angry.

Hi, I’m Tzain… and that’s all you will ever know about me

So with Tzain, I wanted to show masculinity in a positive way, because he and Zélie go at it but that’s just a sibling thing. I wanted to show more of that because we’re aware of toxic masculinity, but masculinity doesn’t have to be toxic.

Tomi Adeyemi – Huffington Post

Tzain is Zelie’s brother who has been all about taking care of her and their disabled father. His main concern was keeping her safe and keeping the roof over their head. He apparently plays a sport which is an obvious parallel of being a pro athlete in order to make money for his family. He is relegated to the background and receives no voice in the narrative other than to comment. So you have no idea how he feels…not even when he’s being tortured or when Inan has his sister hemmed up against the tree like a floozy. Which about then he’s just done with the world…then suddenly not done with the world. You don’t know.

I’m Amari. I am the only competent character in this book. I am your Queen and I SLAY!

I think a lot of times, something can happen to you (and you deal with it) but when someone does something to someone you care about you think, “Okay, you can talk trash to me but you cannot talk trash to someone I love, that I will not allow.” 

Tomi Adeyemi

….I would’ve loved this book if it was entirely about Amari. She showed a very well-thought-out and very subversive trope of the female magically turning badass. It shows her strength is not in herself but in the people she loves. In that, she grows stronger when something she loves is in danger. I believe the start of her journey beginning with the loss of someone she loves and ending with the saving of someone she loves was beautiful. She was not given enough attention, not enough moments with Tzain and she certainly brought together the narrative of an oppressed individual rising above the system she not only was complicit to but also a victim of due to her upbringing. This is the perfect person of privilege becoming a hero to the people trope and honestly, Children of Blood and Bone should’ve always been about Amari – especially with the ending.

My Name is Inan and I’m a Jackass

Inan is meant to be the symbol of toxic masculinity I assume, but honestly, he should’ve remained a villain rather than try to make him more than what he was. His entire existence in the book is just… it hurts. I understand exactly what she was attempting to do with Inan’s character. He was meant to be the Zuko character – bad guy but not evil who learns to be a good guy. Adeyemi tries really hard show his character as conflicted and make some of the massacres that happen not his fault… like ham-fistedly. He spends most of his time pretty much Claude Frollo-ing his strong lust for Zelie as he does see her as an object because she’s a diviner. That’s fine. What doesn’t fly well is the fact that he thinks of her sexually…in the same paragraph that he thinks of killing her. That is a very jarring thing that he translates his sexual desire for her into him wanting to kill her and his obsession with her is very unhealthy but we’ll get to that in the problematic section. Just know that he is not the Prince Zuko you were looking for.

Toxicity of the Blood & the Bone

I never thought I would have to make a section like this in a review since inherently I hardly find genuinely problematic content in books considering they make sense in context.

Yet, here we the fuck are… and it’s an #OwnVoices book.

God Save My Soul

Let’s get right to my largest issue with Children of Blood and Bone and that is the “romance” between Inan and Zelie. In context, I very much understand what it was trying to do, but in execution, I can say this should have faced a bigger rewrite. Inan is…full predator in this.

When you choose to write a story that is heavily a commentary of Black Culture and there are meant to be parallels of the systematic oppression of a people based on arbitrary reasons (being able to use dangerous magic is very subjective on whether its arbitrary or not, but again, here we are) you might not want to make the main romance pair the oppressed and oppressor – especially not in the context of Inan and Zelie.

Inan spends over half the book hating Zelie, blaming her for both his magical and sexual awakening and his desire to kill her is genuine and strong especially since he believes that Zelie kidnapped Amari. He is a strong believer in his father’s ways and while he is more about saving than killing, he shows that he really wants her dead. This is further shown when Zelie comments on him being a “maggot” like her and he tries to strangle her. Each time that the two of them communicated on the dreamscape (it’s not a spoiler that he’s secretly a Maji, he literally becomes one like two steps into the book) it has been vitriolic and verbally violent. The only reason it doesn’t turn physical is that they know they can’t hurt each other on the dream plane. Zelie because she has no power here and Inan because he doesn’t know how to control his power.

That being said we come to spoiler territory so look away, I guess?

At the festival in the hidden Maji camp, Zelie gets drunk at the party while Inan himself is very sober. While it is played off as romantic that he gets her alone near a tree, Zelie is explicitly said to be drunk. Inan talks her up, talking about how he wants to change things together with her. To make the world over with her at his side and how they can protect and change Orisha if she would come with him to his palace and reason with the King together. Blah, blah, blah. It leads up to him kissing her and shocker she kisses back. However, there’s one detail that makes Inan gross… Zelie. Is. DRUNK.

There is no implied consent when she was already described as swaying and ends up leaning against a tree. I tried to move past this in that it was just a teen making a bad choice but again, Inan is sober and still chooses to initiate with her.

Then we have the Major Ball Drop that almost made me put the book down and abandon it:

Saran – Inan’s Kingly Father who has an undisclosed reason for the genocide of the Maji which again is never properly explained – captures Zelie, chains her up, and personally tortures her by injecting her with a magic-killing drug and beating her. He carves the word Maggot into her back — if that sounds familiar that’s because you’ve read it before. Hermione Granger was tortured by Bellatrix and the word Mudblood was carved into her arm which traumatized her. It’s kind of a trope at this point that having derogatory words carved into your flesh is a fast way to break a spirit.

Yet somehow Zelie defies being the person she’s proven herself to be throughout the book by refusing to rat out Inan as a Maji and that he killed Saran’s side-ho. After she’s rescued, Zelie is brought into the dreamscape with him again and she’s suffering severely from PTSD in which she keeps seeing Saran’s face on Inan because they look alike. Also, the trauma just happened. She comes on to him sexually, trying to get him to touch her and comfort her since they didn’t get a chance to act on their “feelings” (see. Drunk Lust not Love) at the festival. I think it’s supposed to be to his credit that he says she doesn’t want this… but as she’s having flashbacks to her torture and trying to use sex to cope with it unhealthily, you’d think refusing would be obvious considering he was present. But no. Not Inan.

The fact that Inan decides to “sleep” with her anyway – even if it is on the dreamscape which is still highly intimate – is very, very problematic. It is coded as him trying to give comfort to her but at a time when mentally and emotionally she is not able to consent. It is the slave master’s son taking advantage of the emotionally vulnerable slave who was just beaten into submission. A beating he was too cowardly to stop. This is not different or okay just because they are both black or because it was written by a black author.  Call it what it is, but in the context of the book, it’s a very toxic scene that is painted positively which is the very definition of problematic. I feel no one has said anything about it because this book is “important.”

I feel that this scene, executed the way it was, is not so much a failing on Adeyemi, but on the agent who read it, on the editor who allowed it to remain as is, and the publishing team who didn’t once catch it. As well as whomever Adeyemi’s peers were that read this book as well.

The Culmination of My Bitterness

This book is absolutely horrible… no chaser

I truly wanted to like this book. A 7-figure book deal given to a black author for a straight-up fantasy YA? With Black Characters? God, that sounded amazing. I think that’s why I feel utterly hurt by the fact that this is what I was given as it highlights the main problem I have with YA publishing and the diversity bingo race. Children of Blood and Bone had the potential to be absolutely amazing.

Amari was a beautiful character that all black girls could’ve identified with – always being told to shut up and never get angry because it’s not ladylike. To not enjoy eating because having a healthy appetite is undesirable. To be too black but not black enough because you had a little bit of privilege but also suffering because your family expects something out of you that’s not in you. Amari was perfect and her development from wilting flower to fierce Lioness who put her foot down because she was tired of suffering and seeing the people she loved suffer was exactly what Children of Blood and Bone should’ve focused on and been about in the forefront.  Having her witness exactly what was happening to people and doing something about it at great risk to herself – she stood to lose everything because she wanted to make a difference for her people. The fact that she wasn’t pressured into becoming Queen but CHOSE that mission for herself was an amazing subversion. Her raising her sword without hesitation not only to her people’s oppressor but, most importantly, to her own oppressor was absolutely fabulous. And this storyline, this commentary was relegated to the background.

The book itself was not given the care it deserved. Adeyemi took off a year to write this story, it was thrown into #pitchwars and picked up by an agent, and said agent saw its potential… But I feel like that’s all this book is. It’s a wasted potential of what we as black authors can do and in no way indicative of what we’re capable of. I feel like it wasn’t given as much attention as other books were because there were blatant inconsistencies and so much vagueness that an editor should have been able to catch it and revision should’ve been called for. But it wasn’t. And while I’m sure they will say they put love and passion into Adeyemi’s work… the proof of that is absent in the final product.

I can’t help but feel insulted as a reader that they apparently thought these issues would not be noticed? Mainly, I believe they thought they wouldn’t be noticed because the target audience was black youth. Surely a black teen or their parent, or just someone black who loves to read fantasy would not notice that this book was not given time and care by the people who wanted to make money off of it. And that the Author suffers for it because no one told her this was bad and that it needed work.

I read and critique even if I love or hate it and I try my best to point out improvements. So the extra feeling of disappointment in Children of Blood and Bone is that I personally know this could’ve been Hall of Famer for me… had they given it the care that it should’ve been given as something that was meant for us – for black people. So I’ll draw it to this.

  1. Adeyemi needs improvement in characterization and needs to take more time in building her world. The world of Orisha is incomplete and needs more thought and building before it ever made it to print as a fantasy.
  2. Tzain needs a voice. He is a positive male character and if you are going to present him as such, his opinions, his thoughts, his feelings need to matter. He needs to be heard just as much as Zelie’s anger, Amari’s conviction, and Inan’s… ugh, confliction. Why he was not given a voice, I am unsure. How predatory Inan got a voice but Tzain didn’t?!
  3. There is also a lack of tension in all scenes that are meant to be high-tension and emotionally trying. I felt nothing when the children died at the hands of the guards. I felt nothing when Zelie was tortured. I felt nothing from all of the presented “horrors” and the authorial intent was for me to feel something. If you follow the interviews of Tomi Adeyemi you will see her intention is that if this made you angry and stuff like this is happening in our world what are you going to do about it? I didn’t feel anything from it.
  4. When Adeyemi borrows things from other media, she needs to learn how to make them her own. How to put it together in a way that is similar, not exactly like those other things only poorly conceived. It honestly feels like a fanfic collage of other media that did these stories and tropes better…

The only thing I really felt was that I wasted time reading a half-finished book with poor execution of themes that, unfortunately, Adeyemi didn’t seem to understand how to parallel through these characters and their world. It is all of the struggles of being black in America, with a rudimentarily understood West African backdrop and none of the emotional depth that should’ve been there.

If anything, it read as very distant from the issues, like a play by play of black suffering.

Children of Blood and Bone was vastly hollow in its telling of our world through Orisha and that is my greatest disappointment in it. I am going to be completely honest and say that it felt like piggy-backing on the very real issues of black culture while trying to set it within a particular culture that was not fully grasped by the author – which I understand as truly the case since Adeyemi did not study West African Mythology and Culture until she was an adult. Also geographically I’m pretty sure she’s never been to Nigeria… even if this is fantasy Nigeria, the country is massive. And no, it’s not racially diverse if all the characters are of the same race. We had like one foreign-coded guy and he literally robbed Zelie and turned out to be a helpful mercenary. (That was a weird way to introduce that character.)

The worst part is that in all of the interviews I have read, Adeyemi seems to believe she is doing something great as a combative stance against racism and struggles of black and African cultures. This book is more a strongly worded letter to those responsible for our oppression than a love-letter to Nigeria and in effect blackness.

I was going to create something so good and so black that even their racist ass was going to see it.

Tomi Adeyemi – Huffington Post

This book… is not for us.

It’s just all anger, all aggression, and all savagery. This isn’t us. We are angry and outraged, yes, but we are not defined by it and the way this book portrays blackness is defined by it.  The only character representing us at our strongest in adversity is Amari and she is not enough to save the narrative of this story.

-Stay Well-Read-

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