Reviews, Young Adult

Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko

Rating: 5 out of 5.

You caged me like a bird. But you cannot make me sing.

*There may be spoilers in the content warning section above the summary. Tread lightly!*

Published: August 2020
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
Representation: People of Colour (Black & Brown folks); LGBTQIA2S+ (mlm, wlw, asexual characters).
Content Warning: self harm; ostracization; blood; domestic abuse; arson; murder; implied sexual; content; knife violence; isolation; feeling abandoned and neglected; visual and auditory hallucinations; attempted murder; near death of a loved one; kidnapping of a loved one; bigotry; sexism; monsters; death of a loved one; mass murder.

Summary

Nothing is more important than loyalty.
But what if you’ve sworn to protect the one you were born to destroy?

Tarisai has always longed for the warmth of a family. She was raised in isolation by a mysterious, often absent mother known only as The Lady. The Lady sends her to the capital of the global empire of Aritsar to compete with other children to be chosen as one of the Crown Prince’s Council of 11. If she’s picked, she’ll be joined with the other Council members through the Ray, a bond deeper than blood. That closeness is irresistible to Tarisai, who has always wanted to belong somewhere. But The Lady has other ideas, including a magical wish that Tarisai is compelled to obey: Kill the Crown Prince once she gains his trust. Tarisai won’t stand by and become someone’s pawn—but is she strong enough to choose a different path for herself?


— summary from Jordan Ifueko’s website

Review

You didn’t make me who I am. I am not the sequel of your story.

Well, it’s official. This may be one of our favourite books of the year. 

Raybearer is a beautifully written, thoughtfully woven story that only further astounds once you realize that it’s author Jordan Ifueko’s debut novel. Start to finish, every aspect of this novel is absolutely brilliant: from its sweeping fantasy setting to its myriad of unique and diverse characters and its riveting story… right down to the incredible way that story is told, following an African folklore tradition that is amplified to the point of enthralling if you listen to it in its audiobook format (which we wholeheartedly recommend!) This novel is nothing short of an experience – it starts kind of tame with the set up, but then plunges you straight into a non-stop emotional rollercoaster, which for us meant that the book lingered on our minds whenever we weren’t reading it, and stuck with us for some time after completion.

There is really so much to talk about here. First off, in reference to what we mentioned about the method of storytelling, it’s quite notable in the way that it pays homage to the oral tradition of storytelling despite being a written novel. There are short songs and children’s rhymes throughout the novel, serving to emphasize and draw to the forefront the culture of the various regions we explore in the book, as well as bringing to light the tradition of its people. The rhythmic writing is also reflected in the sounding out of drum beats and footsteps, among other pulsing sound effects, that drive the style of storytelling home and breathe life into the story. The audiobook’s narrator, Joniece Abott-Pratt, does an absolutely phenomenal job at telling the story and enunciating the pounding, rhythmic aspects of the story that it feels so real while you’re listening to it. Along with the writing being absolutely beautiful in its prose, it is difficult not to be pulled in from the very beginning despite the fact that you go into it with no knowledge of the setting or the characters. Which is quite the feat – some fantasy novels fail at being interesting when they spend so much time setting up the worldbuilding of the story. The unique background of the protagonist, Tarisai, makes for a measured introduction into the world of Raybearer without being bogged down by jargon in an attempt to have the reader understand everything before launching into the story. Indeed, in some fantasy series’ the first book exists solely to set up the following novels, and it shows in a way that sometimes puts you off the book entirely. Ifueko masterfully avoids subjecting her readers to a similar fate, in an inexplicable way that can only be described as the product of a skilled novelist. She sets up an epic fantasy adventure without compromising the first installment. The worldbuilding is phenomenal and could be likened to experienced writers like NK Jemisin, who happens to be one of Abarna’s favourite authors. 

Besides the writing style itself, there are other notable African inspirations within the novel: with its emphasis on ancestral reverence, diversified Black and Brown communities with varying cultures and traditions, and an absolutely unashamed female protagonist who is the literal epitome of the phrase “Black girl magic”. Tarisai is a brilliant and strong protagonist if there ever was one. She is compassionate to a point where she is often shrugged off as naive, but that doesn’t stop her from pursuing a better world for everyone. She was dealt an unfortunate hand in childhood, in a way that would seemingly settle her future, but with every step she takes, she deliberately forsakes the path set out for her when she realizes it is a sinister one. Tarisai is a strong character who refuses to be anyone’s puppet despite being put in many situations where it would be easier to do so. Even when law tells her to be submissive and subservient, she questions unfair social constructs like patriarchy, class inequality, and racial inequality, when most others are complacent. She breaks out of the toxic and abusive expectations placed on her, and challenges every unfair rule set up to stifle her. And as she grows, she beautifully and against all odds, starts to find worth in herself and forms her own true family when all is stacked against her. She is a girl after our own heart and you can’t help rooting for her and her friends. Each and every character you meet is well established and unique in their own right. We sometimes have a hard time following when there are large ensemble casts, but each one of them was so unique and distinguished that it wasn’t difficult to follow along. Each character has their own distinct outlook of the world, and it shows in just how they speak and hold themselves. It is an incredible feat of writing, once again considering that this is Ifueko’s debut!

Uniformity is not unity. Silence is not peace.

The book also hits a lot of difficult subjects, which makes it an emotional experience from start to finish. If you read our content warnings, you probably already got a sense of that. But one of the most incredible aspects of this book, especially considering the fact that it is a YA novel, is its absolute refusal to paint the world or any of its characters in black and white. Each character is unequivocally grey, and seems to contradict or act against whatever assumptions you as the reader may originally make about them. It makes you question your assumptions at the same time that Tarisai makes everyone around her do the same. It also means that the story, from start to finish, never quite goes where you think it’ll go, and there are so many twists and turns as to keep you enthralled the whole way through. There’s so much more to the story than you would originally think, and as much as your first instinct is to hate one character and love another, the novel reveals more that makes you reassess your impulses. With a focus on heavy topics, such as socioeconomic and racial inequality, wealth disparity, power dynamics, political corruption, and ethnic strife, as well as the inherent justice in many political systems where there is any one group ruling over others, this novel makes you think critically about the moral and political structures around you as you follow Tarisai and her absolute refusal to live without complaint in such a wholly unjust state. There is quite the social commentary, and one that refuses to let up even into the second book (which we’re reading the arc for now, eeeeeek!)

Do not ask how many people you will save. Ask, to what world will you save them? […] What world, Wuraola, is worth surviving in?

What an adventure. What an experience. We could not recommend this book more. And we want to say so much more but we don’t want to start verging on spoiler territory. If you are a fan of fantasy, whether it be of the adult fantasy or YA fantasy variety, pick up this book. There is so much to love about it, and we we think you’ll love it as much as we did. If you’ve read it already, reach out to us! We’d love to talk about it further!

Happy Reading! 
Love, Becca & Abarna

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