by Jordan Ifueko

Cover image

Series: Raybearer #1
Publisher: Amulet Books
Copyright: 2020
ISBN: 1-68335-719-1
Format: Kindle
Pages: 308

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Tarisai was raised alone in Bhekina House by an array of servants and tutors who were not allowed to touch her. Glimpses of the world were fleeting and sometimes ended by nailed-shut windows. Her life revolved around her rarely-seen mother, The Lady, who treats her with deep affection but rarely offers a word of praise, instead only pushing her to study harder. The servants whispered behind her back (but still in her hearing) that she was not human.

At the age of seven, in a child's attempt to locate her absent mother by sneaking out of the house, she finds her father and is told a piece of the truth: she is the daughter of the Lady and a captive ehru, a djinn. At the age of eleven she's sent with two guardians to Oluwan City, the capital of Aritsar, to enter a competition she knows nothing about, for reasons no one has ever explained.

Raybearer is a young adult fantasy novel, the first of a duology. Like a lot of young adult novels, it is a coming of age story that follows Tarisai from the end of her highly manipulated childhood through her introduction to a world she was carefully never taught about. Like a lot of young adult fantasy novels, Tarisai has some unusual abilities. What those are, and why she has them, is perhaps less obvious than it may appear at first.

Unlike a lot of young adult fantasy novels, Raybearer is not set in a facsimile of Western Europe, the structure of gods and religion is not obviously derived from Christianity or Greek or Norse mythology, and neither Tarisai nor most of the characters of this story are white. Some of the characters are; Ifueko draws from a grab bag of cultures that does include European as well as African, Middle Eastern, and Asian. But the food, the physical descriptions, the landscape, and the hair and hair styles feel primarily African — not in the sense of specific identifiable regions, but in the same way that most fantasy feels European even if the map isn't recognizable.

That gives this story a freshness that I found delightful. The mythology of this world shares some similarities to standard fantasy tropes, including a bargain with the underworld that plays a similar role to fae bargains in some European fantasy, but it also goes in different directions and finds atypical balances, which gave the story room to catch me by surprise.

The magical center of this book (and series), which Tarisai is carefully not told about until the story starts, is a system for anointing and protecting the emperor: selection of people who swear loyalty to him and each other and become his innermost circle, and thereby grant him magical protection. The emperor himself is the Raybearer, possessing an artifact that makes him invulnerable to one form of death for each member of his council he anoints. At eleven council members, he becomes invulnerable to anything but old age, or an attack from one of the council themselves.

As the reader learns early in the book, that last part is important. Tarisai is an assassin; her mother's goal is for her to be selected as a member of the council for the prince, who will become the next emperor. But there is rather more to this system of magic than it may first appear, in a way that adds good depth to the mythology. And there is quite a bit more to Tarisai herself than anyone expects.

Tarisai as a protagonist follows a more typical young adult pattern, but it's a formula that works for me. Her upbringing isolated from any other children has left her craving connection, but it also made her self-reliant, stubborn, and good at keeping her own counsel. One of the things that I loved about this book is that she's not thrown into a nest of vipers and cynical politics. Some of that is happening in the background, but the first step of her mother's plan is for her to earn the trust of the prince in a competition with other potential council members, all of whom are, well, kids. They fight (some), but they also make friends, helped along by the goal and requirement that they join a cooperative council or be sent home. That gives the plot a more collaborative and social feel than one would otherwise expect from the setup. Ifueko does a great job juggling a challenging cast size by focusing on a few kids with whom Tarisai strikes up a friendship but giving the others distinct-enough personalities that their presence is still felt in the story.

There are two character dynamics that stand out: Tarisai's relationship with Prince Ekundayo, and her friendship with Sanjeet. The first carries much of the weight of the plot, of course; Tarisai is supposed to gain his trust and then kill him, and the reader will be unsurprised that this takes twists and turns no one expected. But Ifueko, refreshingly, does not reach for the stock plot development of a romance to complicate matters, even though many of the characters expect that. To the contrary, this is a rare story that at least hints at an acknowledgment that some people are not interested in romance at all, and there are other forms that mutual respect can take.

Tarisai's relationship with Sanjeet is a different type of depth: two kids with very different histories finding a common understanding in the ways that they were both abused, and create space for each other. It's a great friendship that includes some deeply touching moments.

It took me a bit to get into this book, but once Tarisai starts finding her feet and navigating her new relationships, I was engrossed. The story takes a sharp and nasty turn that was hard to read, but Ifueko chooses to turn it into a story of resiliency rather than survival, which makes it much easier to read than it could have been. She also pulls off the kind of plot that complicates and deepens the motives of the obvious villains in a way that gives the story much greater heft, but without disregarding the damage that they have done. I think the plot did fall apart a bit at the end of the book, with too much quick travel and world-building revelations at the cost of development of the relationships that were otherwise at the center of the book, but I'm hoping the sequel will pull those threads back together.

And it's so refreshing to read a fantasy novel of this type with a different setting. It's not perfect: Ifueko falls back on Planet of the Hats regional characterization in a few places, and Songland is so obviously Korea that it felt jarring and out of place. Christianity also snuck its nose into the world-building tent near the end in ways that bugged me a bit, although it was subtle enough that I think most readers won't notice. But compared to most fantasy settings, it feels original and fresh. More of this!

Ifueko starts this book with a wonderfully memorable dedication:

For the kid scanning fairy tales for a hero with a face like theirs.

And for the girls whose stories we compressed into pities and wonders, triumphs and cautions, without asking, even once, for their names.

I think she was successful on both parts of that promise, and it makes for some great reading. Recommended.

Followed by Redemptor.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2021-12-18

Last spun 2022-02-06 from thread modified 2021-12-19