“For the kid who scans fairy tales of a hero with a face like them.
And to the women whose stories we condemned to pity and atrocities, triumphs and warnings, without even asking their names. ”
-Raybearer, dedication page
Christmas came early for me this year when I received my first ever Reader’s Copy (ARC) of a novel. He came to me in July while I was participating in Quarantined Pages, a one-hour daily reading meeting on Zoom organized by several booksellers (Youtubers whose content revolves around reading). These meetings were held between March 31st and August 31st.
At one of these sessions, a librarian named Kim Henderson made donations. She had two advance copies of Raybearer, Jordan Ifueko’s first novel, and wanted to give one to someone outside the US. I happened to be in the right place at the right time and, a few weeks later, I was holding a gilded edition – albeit incomplete (the map was not added to this version of the book yet) from Raybearer several weeks before 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 from @theresafractale’s Instagram model dressed in golden regalia. In the tweet, Ifueko said something like “If you want a book with a main character that looks like this, wait. My first appearance is coming soon. ”
I followed her on that promise on her own, reading every teaser she dropped for the book. I knew there would be mango orchards, royal hair braiding rituals and a main character with a huge 4C cloud of hair that would find the family she had always wanted.
So when the book finally came to me, I joined the mangos, braids, puffy hair and disorganized teenage family, and found out so much more. I can say with absolute certainty that Ifueko’s first appearance was one of the best books I’ve read this year.
“My whole life, I had longed for friends who stayed. To the people I loved to never perish. I looked at the men and women clustered around (Emperor) Olugbade, animated faces in silent conversation. That’s how I had always imagined being part of a family: draped across one another like lions pride, trading giggles and secrets. ”
– Tarisai, 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 homeland of Swana. There, as a fairy tale princess, she lives a relatively sheltered and privileged life at the center of a rotating list of hired tutors and servants. Despite these privileges, Tarisai longs for three things: her mother’s affection, friendship and attention.
Tarisai has a special ability that allows her to see the memories of anything or anyone she touches. Since, for some mysterious reason at 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 have been barred from her touch her. Similarly, in order 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. She may be touched by her mother, a mysterious and charismatic woman only known as The Lady, but she only visits Tarisai a few times a year to check on her progress.
When Tarisai is seven, she regrets her limited existence and escapes Bhekina House for just a few hours. Within the nearby savannahs, she discovers the secret of her conception but does not fully understand its implications. Later, when she is eleven years old, the Lady discovers that secret again and sends a Tarisai on a mission to Oluwan, the Capital of the Arit Empire, also known as Aritsar. It is her duty to find a way to take on the anointed counsel of the Crown Prince Aritsar so that he can make The Lady’s offer.
However, things are not going as planned for The Lady. Within Oluwan’s palaces, Tarisai finally finds the family she has always wanted and learns that the secret of her birth is 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 cuddle does not consume her, her loved ones, Aritsar and the lands beyond.
“Eleven danced around the throne,
Eleven moons in glory were shining,
They were shining around the sun.
But betrayers rise and empires fall,
And Sun-Ray-Sun will manage them all,
When all-in is said, it’s all said
And done-heh, done-heh, done. “
– Part of an imperial song, Chapter 2
I strongly believe that Ifueko deliberately and skilfully underrated Raybearer to its Twitter audience. The book really surprised me. I read more Young Adult novels this year than I had in previous years and the problem I had with them was that they seemed to be crafted from the same formula. I continued to read the same plot points in exactly the same way across different books, and it got tiring 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 I had never seen in the genre before. My friend and fellow writer Jarryl Bryan summed it up best: Raybeaerer is written as an autobiographical fairy tale interspersed with a West African legend. Ifueko used many of the ropes common in mainstream fantasy novels: princes and princesses (some at peace and some at war), inflexible traditions, political conspiracy, spirituality and myth-making, and a universal secret that could make or break ‘ the empire. He then infused the book with splatterings of oral storytelling, custom songs and poetry and onomatopoeia speaking drum, all of which added layers of context and complexity to a story that can be rightly called The Legend of Tarisai the Just .
Ifueko also reverses many of the ropes found in popular fantasy novels. The most important trope flop, in my opinion, is that the seat of the power of the Arit Empire, Oluwan, was modeled after a pre-colonial African Kingdom rather than a medieval European one. In this case, Oluwan is modeled after the Kingdom of Benin, which is located in what is now southern Nigeria.
Each of the interconnected kingdoms of the Arit Empire is similar to other real-world cultures and historical empires. Nonte, Mewe and Biraslov appear to have been modeled after old France, England and Russia. Quetzala is
modeled after the Aztec empire, Dhyrma after pre-colonial India and Jinhwa Gap and Songland seemed to be modeled after the Korean Empire. Most of the events at Raybearer take place in Oluwan, Swana and Gap and Songland Jinhua, and I really wish the book had explored more of the other ten areas. However, if the events at the end of the book are any indication, the Raybearer sequence should be much more exploratory.
As much as I wanted to explore Ifueko’s rich built world, Raybearer’s spread was not about the spread of empire, but about the growth and self-discovery of Tarisi as she struggles to stay true to her fight against injustices within the empire and beyond.
“Uniformity is not unity. Silence is not peace. ”
– Tarisai Judgment, Chapter 29
In October last year, The Writer’s Group in Georgetown held 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 remember the injustices done to them and the powerlessness that those injustices make them feel. As a result, young people love to read books in which main characters triumph over the wrongdoing in the world, ensuring order and justice.
Tarisai embodies this overarching theme of justice in Raybearer. At the beginning of the book, she is presented as intelligent and inquisitive, but ignorant of her years of isolation. Instead of being cold and standoffish, however, Tarisai radiates warmth, compassion and a burning desire to reach out to others in ways that she was unable to do as an invisible child in the House of Bhekina.
While this open heart is excellent, it becomes the central source of conflict of the story. Tarisai wants to put right the systemic injustice he sees in fair ways. On the other hand, her adult mentors and her family either want to maintain the order and rigidity of existing systems or want to replace the system with something that seems different, but fundamentally the same.
Through Tarisai’s journey to find love, friendship, and justice, Ifueko slips into 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 Really. Needless to say, Raybearer is a gem of a novel.
In summary, I loved Raybearer. There is so much more I want to talk about: the themes, Ifueko’s beautiful prose, world-building, the romance. I can, and I have spent hours flipping about this book. It was a quick read that tackled heavy topics while still feeling like a fun, high school fantasy drama. I loved watching Tarisai grow and learn and fight for what she believes in. I loved exploring a bit of the Arit Empire with her. Most of all, I loved watching young people working together to change their world for the benefit of all and not just themselves or their individual cohorts.
Raybearer was one of the best gifts I ever received. If you know someone who loves fantasy books with magic, royal court shenanigans and adventure sprinkled with black women’s magic on top, this would be an excellent Christmas gift for them.
It certainly was for me.
You can click here to read an excerpt from Raybearer.
Nikita Blair is a writer of speculative and creative fiction. Her work has featured in Ku’wai Moray House magazine, The Guyana Annual, and the Commonwealth Author blog. A collection of her work can be found on her blog, blairviews, where she writes book reviews, essays, and articles on topics of interest.