19 June 2019

Hugos 2019: Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

It begins again! This is the third year in a row I'm voting in the Hugo Awards; I'll be writing up detailed reviews of the books I (or my wife) own on Wednesdays, starting this week. All the others I'll be covering in a series of recap posts at the end of the voting period.

Hardcover, 531 pages
Published 2018

Borrowed from my wife
Read April 2019
Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

This was the first 2019 Hugo finalist I read (excepting those I read before the finalists were announced, and excepting the fact that the Lodestar Award for Best Young Adult Book is "not a Hugo"). My wife and her book club had read it not long after it came out, and I knew from their discussions that it was influenced by Avatar: The Last Airbender. If I'd not known that I wonder if I would have recognized the parallels, but they were incredibly, frustratingly obvious once they were pointed out. Except that Children of Blood and Bone is nowhere near as good as Avatar.

Adeyemi never made me care about any of these characters or their relationships; the one innovation over the set-up of Avatar is that the main characters end up adventuring with the sister of the Zuko-analog, but even though she's one of the book's three first-person narrators, she ends up feeling the sketchiest. She's done this huge thing in throwing away her family, but you have almost no sense of her as a person for some reason. There's a lot of will-they-won't-they between different combinations of (all straight) couples, but it all kind of comes down to the male characters noticing the female characters' "curves" again and again.

The novel is written in the present tense, which normally I don't mind, but based on this book, I have to conclude that it just does not work for epic fantasy. (A few weeks after finishing this book, I read Ursula Le Guin's Conversations on Writing, where she claims that present tense is good for "high suspense, high drama, cut-to-the-chase writing" but not "a big, long story," especially one engaged with history-- as epic fantasy in general and CBB in specific are.) Adeyemi also way overuses the one-sentence paragraph in an effort to make things seem dramatic, and soon the book's constant dire pronouncements become comedic.

Bits of the novel-- often key scenes-- just seemed poorly written. There's a bit where Our Heroes participate in an arena battle between ships. Somehow these battles happen every day and feature dozens of ships, each of which has to be crewed by dozens of slaves... and no one survives most of the battles! How do they not run out of slaves and ships so quickly as to make it unprofitable? The battle itself features the main character underwater, but the way Adeyemi writes, it never really feels as if she's underwater, because she can always tell what's going on on the surface... and she can even speak in order to create her spells. Or there's another scene where the main characters pause their epic quest to prevent genocide which has a deadline of days away in order to go to a really rocking party. It's hella contrived.

At 500+ pages, this book quickly wore out its welcome to me, but I persevered to the end. I am unsurprised to learn it was optioned for a movie before it came out; it feels like a novel written with the movie in mind. I am also unsurpised but disappointed that this is what people think the best of YA sf&f is, generic knock-offs with a thin veneer of innovation. I get that there is little epic YA fantasy with African influences... but you have to do something with those influences other than produce a generic piece of epic YA fantasy, otherwise what's the point?

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