Redemptor

by Jordan Ifueko

Cover image

Series: Raybearer #2
Publisher: Amulet Books
Copyright: 2021
ISBN: 1-68335-720-5
Format: Kindle
Pages: 328

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Redemptor is the second half of a duology that started with Raybearer. You could read the first book without the second, but reading the second without the first will not make much sense. I'm going to be a bit elliptical in my plot description since there's a lot of potential for spoilers for the first book.

Tarisai has reached a point of stability and power, but she's also committed herself to a goal, one that will right a great historical and ongoing injustice. She's also now in a position to both notice and potentially correct numerous other injustices in the structure of her society, and plans to start by defending those closest to her. But in the midst of her opening gambit to save someone she believes is unjustly imprisoned, the first murderous undead child appears, attacking both Tarisai's fragile sense of security and her self-esteem and self-worth. Before long, she's drowning in feelings of inadequacy and isolation, and her grand plans for reordering the world have turned into an anxiety loop of self-flagellating burnout.

I so much wanted to like this book. Argh.

I think I see what Ifueko was aiming for, and it's a worthy topic for a novel. In Raybearer, Tarisai got the sort of life that she previously could only imagine, but she's also the sort of person who shoulders massive obligations. Imposter syndrome, anxiety, overwork, and burnout are realistic risks, and are also important topics to write about. There are some nicely subtle touches buried in this story, such as the desire of her chosen family to have her present and happy without entirely understanding why she isn't, and without seeing the urgency that she sees in the world's injustice. The balancing act of being effective without overwhelming oneself is nearly impossible, and Tarisai has very little preparation or knowledgeable support.

But this story is told with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, and in a way that felt forced rather than arising naturally from the characters. If the point of emphasis had been a disagreement with her closest circle over when and how much the world should be changed, I think this would be a better book. In the places where this drives the plot, it is a better book. But Ifueko instead externalizes anxiety and depression in the form of obviously manipulative demonic undead children who (mostly) only Tarisai can see, and it's just way too much. Her reactions are manipulated and sometimes externally imposed in a way that turns what should have been a character vs. self plot into a character vs. character plot in which the protagonist is very obviously making bad decisions and the antagonist is an uninteresting cliche.

The largest problem I had with this book is that I found it thuddingly obvious, in part because the plot felt like it was on narrowly constrained rails to ensure it hit all of the required stops. When the characters didn't want the plot to go somewhere, they're sidelined, written out of the story, or otherwise forcibly overridden. Tarisai has to feel isolated, so all the people who, according to the events of the previous book and the established world-building rules, would not let her be isolated are pushed out of her life. When this breaks the rules of magic in this world, those rules are off-handedly altered. Characters that could have had their own growth arcs after Raybearer become static and less interesting, since there's no room for them in the plot. Instead, we get all new characters, which gives Redemptor a bit of a cast size problem.

Underneath this, there is an occasional flash of great writing. Ifueko chooses to introduce a dozen mostly-new characters to an already large cast and I was still able to mostly keep them straight, which shows real authorial skill. She is very good with short bursts of characterization to make new characters feel fresh and interesting. Even the most irritating of the new characters (Crocodile, whose surprise twist I thought was obvious and predictable) is an interesting archetype to explore in a book about activism and activist burnout. I can see some pieces of a better book here. But I desperately wanted something to surprise me, for Tarisai or one of the other characters to take the plot in some totally unexpected direction the way that Raybearer did. It never happened.

That leads directly to another complaint: I liked Raybearer in part because of the freshness of a different mythological system and a different storytelling tradition than what we typically get in fantasy novels. I was hoping for more of the same in Redemptor, which meant I was disappointed when I got a mix of Christianity and Greek mythology.

As advertised by Raybearer, the central mythological crisis of Redemptor concerns the Underworld. This doesn't happen until about 80% into the book (which is also a bit of a problem; the ending felt rushed given how central it was to the plot), so I can't talk about it in detail without spoiling it. But what I think I can say is that unfortunately the religious connotations of the title are not an accident. Rather than something novel that builds on the excellent idea of the emi-ehran spirit animal, there is a lot of Christ symbolism mixed with an underworld that could have come from an Orpheus retelling. There's nothing inherently wrong with this (although the Christian bits landed poorly for me), but it wasn't what I was hoping for from the mythology of this world.

I rarely talk much about the authors in fiction reviews. I prefer to let books stand on their own without trying too hard to divine the author's original intentions. But here, I think it's worth acknowledging Ifueko's afterword in which she says that writing Redemptor in the middle of a pandemic, major depression, and the George Floyd protests was the most difficult thing she'd ever done. I've seen authors write similar things in afterwords when the effect on the book was minimal or invisible, but I don't think that was the case here. Redemptor is furious, anxious, depressed, and at points despairing, and while it's okay for novels to be all of those things when it's under the author's control, here they felt like emotions that were imposed on the story from outside.

Raybearer was an adventure story about found family and ethics that happened to involve a lot of politics. Redemptor is a story about political activism and governance, but written in a universe whose bones are set up for an adventure story. The mismatch bothered me throughout; not only did these not feel like the right characters to tell this story with, but the politics were too simple, too morally clear-cut, and too amenable to easy solutions for a good political fantasy. Raybearer focused its political attention on colonialism. That's a deep enough topic by itself to support a duology (or more), but Redemptor adds in property rights, land reform, economic and social disparity, unfair magical systems, and a grab bag of other issues, and it overwhelms the plot. There isn't space and time to support solutions with sufficient complexity to satisfyingly address the problems. Ifueko falls back on benevolent dictator solutions, and I understand why, but that's not the path to a satisfying resolution in an overtly political fantasy.

This is the sort of sequel that leaves me wondering if I can recommend reading the first book and not the second, and that makes me sad. Redemptor is not without its occasional flashes of brilliance, but I did not have fun reading this book and I can't recommend the experience. That said, I think this is a book problem, not an author problem; I will happily read Ifueko's next novel, and I suspect it will be much better.

Rating: 5 out of 10

Reviewed: 2022-01-08

Last modified and spun 2022-01-09