— Originally published on December 12, 2021 in the Stabroek News
Last December, I had the pleasure of reviewing a gift: Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko, which sits on my bookshelf as one of the best books I have ever read, and I was happy to share it with my readers last year.
Thankfully, Ifueko herself is a gift that keeps on giving. For my final review of the year, I’m happy to cover Redemptor, the sequel to Raybearer and the final book in this brilliant debut young-adult fantasy duology. Readers be warned: this review will contain spoilers for Raybearer, so if you haven’t read it yet, do proceed with caution. If you don’t mind, come on in and behold what has arrived.
I told the abiku, “I offer you a true prize. A flavour you have never tasted, blood previously forbidden you. In exchange for permanent peace—for a treaty requiring no renewal and no more wars—I offer you the soul of a Raybearer.” I swallowed hard. “I offer the soul of an empress.”– Tarisai’s bargain, Raybearer Chapter 33
In Raybearer, we learned that Tarisai was born and raised to fulfil her mother’s wish-curse: to kill the crown prince of Arisar – Ekundayo Kunleo – as soon as she was anointed to his council. To prepare for this, Tarisai was meticulously coached to be the perfect council candidate to infiltrate the prince’s inner circle.
Tarisai foiled The Lady’s plans by using her memory manipulation abilities to delete her early childhood memories. After all, when she met him, she judged him unworthy of The Lady’s homicidal intentions because he was just an innocent child. The Lady eventually regained control of Tarisai, and she almost killed the Ekundayo, but once she regained control of herself, she set off to find a way to break her curse.
She learned that a purpose is more powerful than a wish and focused her energies to end the redemptor treaty between the surface and underworld. 500 years before, the founder of the Arit Empire – Enoba “The Perfect” Kunleo – made a deal with the abiku to end their assault on the surface. Every year, the empire sends 200 children to the underworld to appease the abiku. These children were originally born all over the continent, until Enoba found a way to rig the treaty, forcing all redemptor births to concentrate in Songland, the only non-empire nation on the continent.
After witnessing the Songlander’s despair and the abiku’s terrifying power first-hand, Tarisai vowed to make the Enoba treaty fair. Along the way, she discovered that she and The Lady are Raybearers, and that Enoba and his descendants have exiled female raybearers for generations. Armed with this knowledge, she made a new bargain with the abiku. She offered herself, an empress raybearer, to be the empire’s final redemptor. The abiku accepted her offer but demanded that she anoint the twelve vassal rulers of Aritsar as her council within two years. If she fails, the abiku will raze the continent once more; but if she succeeds, they will be banished from the surface forever.
When we see Tarisai again in Redemptor, she is busy. She must charm the twelve rulers to form her council, and work within her capacity as the empire’s High lady Judge and rule the continent alongside Ekundayo as an empress.
While she does her best to balance everything on her plate, life in the capital quickly sours. She discovers that Ekundayo and her original council siblings were not fond of her impulsive treaty reforging, nor her self-sacrificial intentions. Before she can work out her differences with them, the council is forced to split up when a new threat appears in the empire. A revolutionary calling himself The Crocodile begins rallying the commoners of Aritsar to free themselves from noble oppression. In doing so, he also risks awakening vengeful nature spirits, and forcing the starving commoners to fight well-fed and better armed nobles. When Tarisai shows that she is sympathetic to the commoner’s cause, her council siblings aren’t present to defend her when she earns the ire of the nobles as well.
But worst of all are the ojiji, dark spirits that stalk Tarisai as she tries to get her work done. While they do help her in rare instances, the ojiji spend most of their time taunting her for her ideals, shaming her for being too happy when she has little victories, and demanding that she works harder and faster to get justice for the past redemptors and save the world. Little by little, the beings break Tarisai down both emotionally and mentally.
As her mind begins to fray, and with so much on her plate, Tarisai struggles to find balance, accept help, and come to terms with the vast and often heart-breaking Kunleo legacy. Once she overcomes these difficulties, she prepares to battle the forces of evil threatening the empire, discovering that the underworld is the best secret keeper of them all, and the surface is in more danger than she thought.
Redemptor was not quite what I was expecting. Given the set up from the last book, I thought that it would have been a road-trip kind of adventure, with Tarisai and her council siblings running navigating sticky diplomatic situations and gathering rulers along the way. Instead, most of the story takes place in the capital, Oluwan city, where Tarisai works to anoint the twelve rulers and the Queen of Songland, all of whom never left the palace after Tarisai highjacked the Enoba treaty renewal and forged a new one.
Nevertheless, it was interesting to see how Ifueko used the vassal rulers to showcase each of the twelve realms, their cultures, and priorities. For example, we see how anxious the king of Sparti becomes because of the prolonged stay in Oluwan. His lords over sea-faring peoples, and several important ship launches have been delayed by his absence. We also see regional eccentricity, like the fashionable king of Nyamba, whose people constantly strive to outdress each other, and who judges Tarisai on her cloth choices.
While each ruler gave us an idealistic insight into the realm, Tarisai and Ekundayo’s interaction with The Crocodile gives the reader glimpses at the world from a grassroots level. Together, they learn about how the legacy of the Kunleo dynasty affected the people. Increasing wealth and military power were great when defeating the abiku, but the imperial systems were not serving the people as well as they thought. Again, the pair are forced to unpack the myths of the empire’s creation, and strive to make the world fair, even when those around them want things to remain the same.
“How can you celebrate? the creature repeated, hovering closer. How can you smile and throw parties, when so many of us have died? The child Redemptors that your empire murdered will never dance or sing again. Don’t you care?(p. 55)
“DO MORE, it said. Do more.”
Raybearer establishes that the underworld is a terrifying place, but Redemptor shows us why. As Tarisai prepares herself to face the underworld, she enlists the help of a redemptor survivor to help her. She goes through gruelling tests that push her willpower to the limit, all while enduring a terrifying ojiji haunting.
Watching Tarisai struggle against the ojiji was heart-breaking at times. While she is strong, she’s still only a seventeen-year-old and carrying the fate of an empire on her back while also juggling her political responsibilities. In her moments of happiness or vulnerability, the ojiji slip through, chanting invalidations of her hard work at her, and isolating her from her motley family. They become a living, omnipresent form of burnout and anxiety that drives Tarisai past her exhaustion point.
While this was one of the unhealthiest parts of Tarisai’s life, it loved the way Ifueko showed the steps of her recovery. She reached out for help several times. She rested. She took care of herself and gathered a support system around her, even though she had to endure her final tasks alone. But most importantly, she learned to stop listening to the voices telling her that she was worthless and not doing enough. From that darkness came a beautiful, pro-mental health progression that served to prepare Tarisai for her greatest challenge.
While I loved this conclusion of the Raybearer storyline, Redemptor was not a flawless book. Ifueko noted that she wrote Raybearer over 12 years but churned out Redemptor in just nine months. I still love Redemptor, and it is a good book, but I genuinely wish that Ifueko had a little more time to work on this one.
My biggest criticism is that there were some scenes that felt cluttered. Since there is almost always a council of 11 accompanying the Raybearer, and with two of them in the book, crowded scenes felt even denser, particularly when the action picked up or there were speaking roles involved. When some of the talk shifted to Ray channels, or when servants were introduced, some of the bigger scenes felt a little overwhelming at times.
I can imagine it was difficult for Ifueko to write these scenes and keep track of everything. She did a good job, all things considered, but it still felt a little bit off at times.
Another issue I had with the book was that some things were inconsistent across the books. The most notable of this was the way the ray protects its bearers from piercing damage. Back in Raybearer, there were two important scenes that demonstrated the damage barrier the Ray creates around its bearer, and how this barrier interacts with weapons. This process changed in Redemptor, and it was a little jarring for me, especially since has implications on how a Raybearer’s body works. I’m not sure if this change was a mistake or a deliberate change but it was odd.
Lastly, I honestly wish that this series wasn’t just a duology. I really wanted to see more of the world, and given how the story ends, I also want to see what the new generation of Raybearers will be like and what challenges they will face with this new world order. If Ifueko decides to return to this world in the future, I will be grabbing those books. If not, I genuinely hope that her fans make something more out of this world.
I think Redemptor was a good end for this duology. Not only do we understand the political systems and even the underworld-overworld relationship a bit better, but we also get a lot of closure on the fates of characters and even consequences of events leading in from Raybearer.
I also appreciate its pro-mental health and self-care themes, amid all the darkness and chaos of the world. I am proud of Ifueko for pumping out this sequel in just a few months, and while I am bummed about some of the inconsistencies, and the fact that we didn’t see more of the Arit empire, I still enjoyed this book and I’m happy to have been introduced to this world last year. It is truly a gift that keeps on giving, with the richness of its lore, and characters who explore their ideas of justice, personal satisfaction, love, and grief.
If you have any teens in your life, the Raybearer duology would make a perfect gift for this Christmas. It is truly wonderful.
Interested in these books? Click here to read excerpts from both Raybearer and Redemptor!
Want to read more stories by Jordan Ifueko? Check out her short stories here. They’re free!