WARNING: Mild spoilers ahead
“For the kid scanning fairy tales for a hero with a face like theirs.Raybearer, dedication page
“And for the girls whose stories we compressed into pities and wonders, triumphs and cautions, without asking, even once, for their names.”
Christmas came early for me this year when I received my first ever Advanced Reader Copy (ARC) of a novel. It came to me in July while I was participating in Quarantined Pages, a daily one-hour reading meeting on Zoom organised by several booktubers (Youtubers whose content revolve around reading). These meetings ran from March 31st to August 31st.
At one of these sessions, a librarian named Kim Henderson did a giveaway. She had two advance copies of Raybearer, Jordan Ifueko’s debut novel, and she wanted to give one away to someone outside of the US. I happened to be in the right place at the right time and, a few weeks later, I was holding a gilded – albeit incomplete (the map was not yet added to this version of the book) edition of Raybearer several weeks ahead of its launch date.
What Henderson didn’t know was that I had been waiting on Raybearer for almost a year. I had followed Ifueko on Twitter after she retweeted a series of images of the Instagram model @theresafractale dressed in golden regalia. In the tweet, Ifueko had said something along the lines of “If you want a book with a protagonist who looks like this, just wait. My debut is coming soon.”https://www.instagram.com/p/B6MPDakIvEl/
I followed her on that promise alone, reading every teaser she dropped about the book. I knew that there would be mango orchards, royal hair braiding rituals and a protagonist with a giant cloud of 4C hair who would find the family she had always wanted.
So, when the book came to me at last, I dove in for the mangoes, the braids, the puffy hair and the chaotic teenaged family, and found so much more. I can say, with absolute certainty, that Ifueko’s debut is one of the best books I have read this year.
“My whole life, I had longed for friends who stayed. For the people I loved to never disappear. I glanced at the men and women clustered around (Emperor) Olugbade, faces animated in silent conversation. That was how I had always imagined being part of a family: draped across one another like a pride of lions, trading giggles and secrets.”Raybearer, Chapter 4
Raybearer is a Young Adult fantasy novel about a lonely young girl named Tarisai who lives in an invisible fortress called Bhekina House hidden in the savannas of her home realm of Swana. There, like a fairy-tale princess, she lives a relatively sheltered and privileged life amid a rotating roster of tutors and hired servants. Despite these privileges, Tarisai longs for three things: affection, friendship and her mother’s attention.
Tarisai has a special ability that allows her to see the memories of anything or anyone she touches. Since, for some mysterious reason during this stage of her life, the adults around her want her to remain as ignorant as possible about the outside world, her tutors and tenders are forbidden from touching her. Similarly, to maintain her ignorance, she is not allowed to leave Bhekina House to play with the children she sees passing outside, but who cannot see her. Her mother, a mysterious and charismatic woman known only as The Lady, can touch her, but she only visits Tarisai a few times a year to check her progress.
When Tarisai is seven years old, she tires of her limited existence and escapes Bhekina House for just a few hours. Within the surrounding savannahs, she discovers the secret of her conception but does not fully understand its implications. Later, when she’s eleven, The Lady unearths that secret again and sends Tarisai on a mission to Oluwan, the Capital of the Arit Empire, also known as Aritsar. She is duty-bound to find a way to get onto the Crown Prince of Aritsar’s anointed council so that she can do The Lady’s bidding.
However, within the palaces of Oluwan, Tarisai finally finds the family she has always wanted and learns that the secret of her birth is a part of a broader and far-reaching conspiracy that has shaped the course of history in the Arit Empire. Therefore, she must fight to ensure that this hugeness doesn’t consume her, her loved ones, Aritsar and the lands beyond.
“Eleven danced around the throne,– Part of an imperial song, Chapter 2
Eleven moons in glory shone,
They shone around the sun.
But traitors rise and empires fall,
And Sun-Ray-Sun will rule them all,
When all is said-o, all is said
And done-heh, done-heh, done.”
I firmly believe that Ifueko deliberately and craftily undersold Raybearer to her Twitter audience. The book genuinely surprised me. I read more Young Adult novels this year than I have in previous years and the problem I had with them was that they each seemed to be crafted from the same formula. I kept reading the same plot points in the same order in the same way across different books, and it became exhausting for me.
Raybearer, on the other hand, was a breath of fresh air. Not only did it feel significantly less formulaic than the Young Adult books I read earlier, but it added elements that I never saw in a Young Adult novel before. My friend and fellow writer, Jarryl Bryan, summed it up best: Raybeaerer is written like an autobiographical fairy-tale crossed with a West African legend. Ifueko used many of the tropes common within mainstream fantasy novels: princes and princesses (some at peace and some at war), rigid traditions, political intrigue, spirituality and mythmaking, and an overarching secret that could make or break the empire. She then infused the book with splatterings of oral storytelling, custom songs and poetry and talking drum onomatopoeia, all of which added layers of context and complexity to a story that can rightfully be called The Legend of Tarisai the Just.
Ifueko also inverts several of the tropes found in popular fantasy novels. The most important trope flip, in my opinion, is that the seat of power for the Arit Empire, Oluwan, is modelled after a pre-colonial African Kingdom rather than a Middle Ages European one. In this case, Oluwan is modelled after the Kingdom of Benin, which is located in what is now southern Nigeria.
Each of the interconnected kingdoms in the Arit Empire resembles other real-world historical cultures and empires. Nonte, Mewe and Biraslov seem to be modelled after old France, England and Russia. Quetzala is modelled after the Aztec empire, Dhyrma after pre-colonial India and the Jinhwa Pass and Songland seemed modelled after the Korean Empire. Most of the events in Raybearer take place in Oluwan, Swana and the Jinhua Pass and Songland, and I genuinely wished that the book had explored more of the other ten realms. However, if the events at the end of the book are any indication, the Raybearer sequel should be far more exploratory.
As much as I wanted to explore Ifueko’s richly constructed world, Raybearer was not about the sprawl of empire, but about Tarisi’s growth and self-discovery as she struggles to remain genuine in her fight against injustices within the empire and beyond.
“Uniformity is not unity. Silence is not peace.”– Tarisai, Chapter 29
Last October, The Writer’s Group in Georgetown hosted a seminar on writing for young people with Imam Baksh. One of the topics Baksh touched on was the psychology of teenagers. He noted that young people tend to care deeply about fairness, and they remember the injustices done to them and the powerlessness that those injustices make them feel. As such, teens love reading books where protagonists triumph over the wrongs in the world, ensuring that there is both order and justice.
Tarisai embodies this overarching theme of justice in Raybearer. At the beginning of the book, she’s presented as intelligent and curious, but ignorant because of her years of isolation. Rather than being cold and standoffish, however, Tarisai radiates warmth, compassion and a burning desire to reach out to others in ways she was unable to as an invisible child in Bhekina House.
While this openheartedness is admirable, it becomes the source of the central conflict of the story. Tarisai wants to correct the systemic injustice she sees in equitable ways. Her adult mentors and family, on the other hand, either want to maintain the order and rigidity of the existing systems or want to replace the system with something that seems different, but which is fundamentally the same.
Through Tarisai’s journey to find love, friendship and justice, Ifueko slips in criticisms of imperialism, agism and sexism while providing her readers with a gripping narrative, a tight, fast-paced plot, and a world so detailed that it almost feels real. Needless to say, Raybearer is a gem of a novel.
In summary, I loved Raybearer. There is so much more that I want to talk about: the themes, Ifueko’s beautiful prose, the worldbuilding, the romance. I can, and have, spent hours gushing about this book. It was a fast-paced read that tackled heavy topics while still feeling like a fun, high-stakes fantasy high-school drama. I loved watching Tarisai grow and learn and fight for what she believes in. I loved exploring a little of the Arit Empire with her. Most of all, I loved watching young people working together to change their world for the betterment of everyone and not just themselves or their individual factions.
Raybearer was one of the best gifts I have ever received. If you know someone who loves fantasy books with magic, royal court shenanigans and adventure sprinkled with black girl magic on top, this would be an excellent Christmas gift for them.
It certainly was for me.
Read an excerpt of Raybearer here.