In the land of Orïsha, magic is outlawed. King Saran is on a mission to destroy the maji, those with white hair who possess the powers of magic. He has done so by killing the adult maji and severing the connection between the people and the gods. There are three sacred objects left that might destroy any chance of re-connection and the king has just got his hands on the sacred scroll. Through a series of events, the king’s daughter Amari ends up stealing the scroll, fleeing the city of Lagos, and meeting a white-haired girl named Zélie.
Zélie’s mother was a Reaper, a maji killed by the king’s men. Zélie is hot-headed and brash, living now with her Baba and her brother Tzain. Zélie, Tzain, and Amari take off on a mission to save the scroll, outrun the prince who is chasing after them, and restore magic to Orïsha.
The story rotates between the perspectives of Zélie, Amari, and Inan, Saran’s son and Amari’s brother who chases after them. Zélie is undeniably the main character and we see her perspective the most. She is the one who turns out to be the best chance for reconnection to the gods and we follow her as she learns to grow and harness her magical abilities.
Amari is the shrinking wallflower, a shy and scared girl who has done an uncharacteristically bold thing by stealing the scroll and so cast aside her entire life. Her brother, desperate to please his father while being horrified at the violence he is forced to participate in, offers the other perspective. He shows the fear of magic held by those who either have never seen it used or don’t understand it. Here magic is a volatile force, difficult to wield even for those who have it.
The world building of the novel is really where Adeyemi shines. The characters themselves, while enjoyable, never really seem to grow much further than their stereotypes. But Adeyemi has created an entire world that is fascinating and easy to find yourself immersed in. I really appreciated reading a fantasy novel based on Nigerian and African mythology. We’ve probably all read fantasy inspired by Greek or Norse myths, or a book set in an alternate version of London. But Adeyemi brings to life an alternate Lagos and the settings of the characters’ adventures feels fresh and exciting.
She does well, also, at weaving in a clear but not overly preachy message. The maji are clearly different; their white hair makes them stand out and be seen as a threat to others, even those who might support them. While the violence done against them is fantastical, there are clear parallels to the violence done and being done to Black people across the world. In her Afterword, Adeyemi makes it clear this parallel is deliberate.
This is the first in the series so it does end on a cliffhanger and leaves the reader wanting to know what happens next. I hope that in the subsequent books we get to see more character building and surprising moments from the main characters. There is a lot of potential here and I’m not at all surprised that the books have been bestsellers already.
While this is definitely a YA book, I would say it’s most suitable for age 14+. This is primarily due to violence and gore, which there is quite a bit. After I finished reading the book, I passed it along to my niece, who just turned fifteen.