Back in 2019, long before COVID-19 roamed the earth and drove us all inside brandishing cans of Lysol, the bookish internet was abuzz with news of Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Virtue and Vengeance. I couldn’t check social media without seeing 50-11 posts anticipating the book and after putting a poll up on the Equal Opportunity Facebook page, I decided to board the hype train and read it myself.
I didn’t enjoy it. But I struggled through and read it anyway, much the same way I’ll occasionally eat a hog maw or listen to a trap song–for the culture. I’ll get more into that later, but what I thought about the book itself doesn’t matter. Children of Virtue and Vengeance, the Legacy of Orisha, and Tomi Adeyemi herself are actually great things for the state of Black speculative fiction in 2020 and beyond, and perhaps not in the way that you think. They’re good in a way that transcends presence, representation, and diversity. They’re good precisely because they’re not that good, and I’m here to tell you why.
First, a bit of background. Children of Virtue and Vengeance–let’s just call it CVV or we’ll be here all day–is the second book in a YA fantasy series called Legacy of Orisha. The first book was Children of Blood and Bone (which we’ll call CBB, same reason). The third book is as of yet untitled and has no release date but there is a series-themed affirmation journal called Awaken the Magic that was released in April 2020.
The series is about a fictional kingdom(Orisha) that is an analog of pre-colonial Nigeria. There’s magic and ancestral clashes between magic users and mundanes that push the plot along. I’ll try to avoid spoilers, but even with them there’s not a lot of surprises, in my opinion. If you’ve ever read a fantasy novel, particularly a YA fantasy novel, you know what’s coming from the first page. The main characters are teenagers. Some of them are royal, some of them are magic users, and some of them are both. The magic users form kind of an oppressed underclass (despite having magic powers), and there’s lots of teenage angst and romance with problematic overtones and NO ADULTS INVOLVED EVER despite this being a whole kingdom with serious political problems and military conflicts going on. In my less charitable moments, I’ve described it to people as Twilight in magic Nigeria.
The books themselves have been very well received so far. The first book debuted at number one on the New York Times bestseller list, won the Andre Norton award for YA Sci-Fi and Fantasy in 2018, the Lodestar Award in 2019, and was a Kirkus Prize finalist. The second book didn’t fare quite as well but was still a best-seller. The series has been optioned for film/television development and I think it’s pretty safe to say it’s a pop culture smash hit, taking fantasy even farther into the mainstream and putting an African cultural spin on it.
And, as I said before, I didn’t enjoy reading either book.
I feel guilty saying that. It’s like I’m betraying the culture, the saints and the ancestors. To be honest, even I’m confused by the way I feel about these–I should love them. They’re sword and sorcery fantasy outside of the played-out hyper-European foundation that dominates the genre. Fantasy as a story-telling genre has long been assumed to start from a European cultural basis–think Game of Thrones, the Witcher, The Wheel of Time, and of course the classic Tolkien–so it’s really exciting to see someone create a fantasy world from a different foundation. It’s also a pleasantly feminine series–there are women in this book with agency and character and personalities of their own. They’re not big-breasted murderbots, sex objects, or saintly rewards that only show up at the end of the heroes’ epic quest. They’re young women–how fully realized they are is up for debate–but still, this is a world that contains and recognizes women as people.
Speaking of women, Tomi Adeyemi herself is somebody I really want to root for. She’s a Harvard-educated Nigerian American who grew up in Chicago and worked in film production in California before writing these books. At the tender age of 26 she’s got a multi-book, film-optioned deal. She’s created a whole world that’s been published and millions of people have read, and she actually got her book deal by winning a pitch competition. I’ve watched a few of her interviews and she’s bubbly, personable, has gorgeous locs, and seems like a really generally cool person. I’m not a hater. I want to love her work. It doesn’t matter if I do or not because she’s a lovely published bazillionaire but there are some public figures whose stories make you want to love everything they make, and she’s one of them.
But her writing just doesn’t do it for me. I am on team Tomi but the land of Orisha is never going to have the same place in my heart as Middle-Earth, Arrakis, Earthsea or the Realm of the Elderlings. It’s certainly not as interesting as post-apocalyptic Jarret-ite California or future Sudan. (If you get any of those references, then you probably know where I’m going with this, but if you don’t, hang in there.)
I’ve already reviewed CVV on Facebook and Instagram and I was pretty harsh. There’s not a lot that I liked about it, but as I said, that doesn’t matter. Adeyemi was apparently very methodical about the way that she wrote the book–she scrapped another novel that she had been working on to move on to this series, she worked as a writing coach, and her degree focused on West African mythology and myth-making in general. She’s very clearly studied the craft. The craft ain’t studying her back. You can tell she really plotted and formatted this story meticulously but didn’t go back and erase her literary pencil lines, so ultimately the book didn’t seem very organic to me. Also, it’s the kind of story that really needs the reader to love or at least like the characters and be invested in their relationships but that never happened for me. You don’t even get the sense that the author likes them much. Sometimes that can work. I read an essay by Octavia Butler stating that she really didn’t like the protagonist of the Parables series by the time she got to the end of the story, which is why so much of the second book is told through the eyes of her daughter. I’ve read that series probably a dozen times and I’m not sure I like Olamina either, but the difference is that she seems like a living breathing person who really embodies not only an idea or a role in a story but a whole personality and being. I feel like I could see and understand a person like that whether or not I care for her personally. Olamina stays with you as a fully realized person, but our POV characters in CBB and CVV don’t really have that much substance, to the point where I don’t really remember their names and couldn’t be bothered looking them up for this blog post.
I realize that it’s not very fair to compare CVV to Octavia Butler’s Parables series. Butler is the OG Grande Dame of Black speculative fiction, she wrote for adults on arguably far more serious and dark subject matter, and she was more on the sci-fi side of speculative fiction than fantasy, of course. But that brings me to my over-arching point–I’m not writing this just to poo all over the Legacy of Orisha. I’m fine with it just not being my cup of tea. But I feel as though Adeyemi’s work means something peculiarly good for the state of speculative fiction by black people in 2020 and beyond.
Before we continue–I’m not an expert, and I realize that. I do write speculative fiction myself but it has yet to be published anywhere. I read all over the map but my favorite genres have always been and will always be fantasy and sci-fi–slightly more fantasy than sci-fi. I’ve always set intentions regarding seeing myself and people like me as the default experience, to the point where it’s very second nature now. That started with being a selective reader in my childhood. Even before it was popular to do so, I was always in the bookstore and the library looking for spec-fic books that had black characters, even if they weren’t always by black authors. I didn’t need #representationmatters, although of course it does and I could have really used it on those long lonely library trawls. For me, black characters in speculative fiction took some searching but weren’t entirely unusual because I could find them when I looked. The quality wasn’t always good, but blackness has always been in speculative fiction. It isn’t new. What’s changed is the creators.
Some prominent examples of early black spec-fic characters I enjoyed that come to mind are Steve Perry’s Matadora series–about a pansexual black woman guerilla mercenary who starts a galactic revolution, which blew my mind when I was 16 and only knew what about two of those words actually meant. I read Ursula K LeGuin’s EarthSea series, which is populated by mostly people of color in a high fantasy setting without being weird about it. (Nobody has chocolate skin, woolly hair, or speaks high court jive.) Glen Cook is another author I read a lot of–people often bring up the Black Company, but for much of the original series they aren’t actually black. In contrast, his Garrett P.I. series, which is shockingly sexist and homophobic in retrospect, also had one of my favorite black men in fantasy. I LIVED for the moments when the character of Playmate would show up–he was a happy black man who took no crap from the main character and just ran his stable, read his books, and knew important things at the right time.
Speaking of Garrett P.I. though, that brings up something else–as a young black reader of speculative fiction I often did something strange. I recast book characters to reflect my racial reality in my head despite how they were actually described in the book. A lot of the authors were white, but I wasn’t and neither were most of the people I knew in real life. I saw no reason why I had to envision the characters that way unless it was explicitly necessary that they be so. So Morley from Garrett P.I. was always a very dapper black man(elf?) in my head when I was reading. I was kind of startled when I was looking at some of the book covers last year and realized that the oily little white guy with big ears on the cover of one of the books is supposed to be Morley because in my mind, Morley was always a cross between Sidney Poitier and Sammy Davis Junior. My imagination didn’t always come up with such cool images–the first time I read Two Towers, Treebeard a.k.a Fangorn ,a.k.a. the oldest of all of the Ents was basically reduced to a green James Earl Jones with some leaves on his head. When I read Anne McCaffrey’s Pern series–the one about the dragon riders who fight space spores on a crapsack planet with the powers of telepathy and soap opera drama–everyone was ambiguously brown and multiracial because even then, in my mind it only stood to reason that far in the future on another planet human beings would mix and remix ad infinitum beyond our current racial notions. I was delighted to find out, by the time McCaffrey wrote the prequel DragonsDawn, that I had guessed entirely right and then horrified to go on the internet in the early days and see folk foaming at the mouth insisting that Pern was Irish and that I was ruining it by saying F’lar might have some beadie-bees in his kitchen or at least a really good tan.
I’m digressing, I know, but I’ve always loved speculative fiction and my tastes veer towards the far out and intense. My point is, though, that when I couldn’t find a book with characters that looked like me or the people I know, I had no problem racebending them and I doubt I’m the only one.
In any case, you can imagine how I felt when I finally discovered Octavia Butler, starting with the Parables, then Kindred, then on to her deeper darker stuff like Bloodchild and the Patternist series–and everyone was already someone familar to me. People were Black, they were Latino, they were Asian, they were multiracial and multicultural, and they were often white as well but they didn’t exist in a vacuum of white default but alongside everyone else. It was such a revelation to find communities that really reflected an aspect of my reality in these very unreal, imaginative situations. From there I suddenly realized that there were other people of color writing speculative fiction as well, with even more characters that reflected the diversity of my own real life and the way I saw myself. I got into Tananarive Due, Nalo Hopkinson, Stephen Barnes, and Walter Mosely (who I know is mostly known for his detective novels but wrote some really good, socially cutting sci fi as well.) There were authors of other races that I liked as well and I’m just going to be really honest with you and say that finding and loving speculative fiction authors of color didn’t make me stop reading white authors, it just broadened my literary world and made me stop putting leaves on James Earl Jones’ head in my mind. It was really a big deal to have favorites in the genre that reflected speculative understandings of my reality.
I say all of this to point out that despite what you might have heard, we been out here representing in the speculative fiction world. Having Black people, Asians, Latinos, multiracial people, Arabs, Muslims, Jews, and everybody else is not new to sci-fi or fantasy, it’s just never been common. We need more, of course. I’d be a fool if I tried to deny that most fantasy often overwhelmingly assumes a pan-European foundation in the world-building, no matter what the characters look like. I mentioned before that I write speculative fiction. I went to a writing group once and shared a piece set in a world much like Pern–far in the future, the result of ages of interracial mixing, everybody is brownish, but the foundations are emphatically NOT European–and a guy at the meeting told me he didn’t like it because he couldn’t figure out any of the cultural references. Welcome to my 15 year old world, dude. I was creative enough to stick leaves on James Earl Jones’ head and still enjoy myself but he just rejected the work out of hand because the hero didn’t have a name like Grondnir the Brave and wasn’t chasing after a bosomy blond after fighting a suspiciously ethnic orc for the giant mayonnaise knife of destiny. Heaven forbid you have to read something from a totally different culture and use your imagination or gasp, other books to fill in the gaps.
ANYWAY, my point is that representation isn’t exactly a new thing in the world of speculative fiction books (although there could always be more). Black speculative fiction fans aren’t new either. We’ve just been recasting classics in our heads and searching deep in the shelves for author photos that look like our family and neighbors.
But that brings us to today, when speculative fiction by Black authors seems to be taking off rapidly and really catching hold globally. The last five years have been incredible for the genre. We’ve seen writers like Nnedi Okorafor, P. Djeli Clark and the Nouvelle Grande Dame N.K. Jemisin really take off. There are whole magazines now like Fiyah and Black Girl Magic that exist to publish the work of black speculative fiction writers and they do it well. There are black spec-fic writing groups and book clubs, and there is writing set in all facets of global Blackness, from writers all across the diaspora, like Tade Thomson, Cadwell Turnbull and Akwakeke Emezi. We are out here winning awards, topping bestseller lists, bringing up other writers and redefining the speculative imagination so that it has borders beyond romanticized medieval European meatheads walking across kingdoms to smash the heads of ethnically coded villains and the cakes of the bosomy blonde on the book cover who is only wearing armor on her nipples for some reason.
Things are changing for the better across the board. Latinos have had magical realism on lock for decades and Daniel Jose Older is an author I really enjoy. Asian authors like R.F. Kuang and Ken Liu are also entering our collective speculative imagination. It’s all long overdue.
Into the middle of all of this comes Tomi Adeyemi and Legacy of Orisha and I think I’m being honest, if not polite, in saying that despite the wonder of a fantasy world emphatically filled with black people, despite its massive success and popularity, despite how lovable and easy to cheer on the author is, the overwhelming contribution of the series to the genre so far is–mediocrity.
BUT–that’s a good thing.
Listen, there’s a reason why genre fiction is often not respected as true literature. A lot of it is pulp. A lot of it is crap. A lot of is just kinda there. Frankly, the things are just kinda there are often the most accessible and popular. Let’s be real. A Song of Ice and Fire is not great writing. I picked the first one up in my late teens, thought it was awful and was bewildered when it became a huge HBO hit series. But I watched the whole thing and enjoyed it up until season 7. I went back and read the books and didn’t enjoy them as much but I love fantasy worlds and will read almost anything that builds a new universe out of whole cloth even if I don’t love it. I’m picking on GOT but there are lots of huge breakaway fantasy hits that aren’t particularly great writing but are popular and have been or will become TV shows. The Wheel of Time, based on the popular 14 book series, is in production now and those books are so bad that as much I love fantasy I issued a moratorium to myself about 6 books in that if one more female character sniffed I was gonna quit. I gave it three chances. I still quit. In my opinion a lot of fantasy books are tedious, mediocre, and not very well written but they’re massively popular and often do better as a presence beyond the pages of the novels where they got their start. There are other multi-book series that come to mind that are examples of this as well — like The Sword of Truth and The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant.
(Put your pitchforks away about Thomas–we all know there’s no way that creepy, lechy, #MeToo nightmare of a series holds up. There’s a lot of stuff I’m willing to handwave due to the ignorance of the times but NOT THAT. Don’t @ me, I will die on the hill of Thomas Covenant being the Robert William Kelly Cosby of fantasy protagonists.)
The thing is, taste is subjective, genre fandom has different levels of depth and at the end of the day, they don’t all have to be deep or brilliant, they just have to BE. Did I like CVV? Nope. Did I think it was as good as promised? NOPE. But will I read the 3rd installment? Yes, probably. I think there’s something promising and weirdly socially accomplished about black folks having our own mega-successful speculative fiction C student out here building great worlds with basic blocks. It says a lot for how far we’ve come that not everybody has to be Octavia Butler or Walter Mosley to capture the imagination of the world so totally that the book is going to leap off the page and into other media before the series is even finished.
Not every published black writer of the past or present is a genius and that’s okay. It takes all levels of talent and depth and appeal to expand society’s collective imagination and even though I didn’t like the books, I’m still here for their presence and their impact on the culture. In a weird way it’s a move towards leveling the playing field–collectively black people have had this weird restriction where we either have to excel in telling stories that are about our relationship to whiteness in the mainstream or we have to make our own self-defined stories with limited resources outside of the mainstream. CVV and the Orisha series are really changing the game in that way. It’s not a slave story, it’s not centered in a white-black oppression narrative (although there is a metaphor included that I think is problematic but you know what? Whatever. It speaks to somebody, I don’t have to love everything) and the foundational world-building is thoroughly based on West African imagery, They’re also extremely mainstream and popular. All of that is important. I don’t have to like the books to love what they are doing and see how the presence of Adeyemi is expanding opportunities for other writers, other universes and increased representation.
So. That’s what I think. I’m looking forward to the TV show and would probably enjoy a graphic novel version of this too. Ultimately I’m here for this and will probably buy the next book in the series and complain about it too–just like I did for A Song of Ice and Fire and Wheel of Time.
(If you want to read any of the books I talk about in this post, click on them and visit Bookshop.org, an alternative to Amazon that supports indie booksellers and online book lovers. I’m an affiliate of Bookshop and will earn a commission if you purchase anything from a link you click on this site. Thanks for reading! Peace!)
P.S. DON’T COME AT ME ABOUT THOMAS COVENANT IN THE COMMENTS. I SAID WHAT I SAID, THAT SERIES CAN KICK ROCKS.