Phew. It feels good to be doing a Hugo related post after so many posts about Narmer and the God Beast. I’m sure there will be more of those to come, but let’s break for a little while and talk about Jordan Ifueko’s incredible debut, Raybearer.
This book is amazing. I hesitate to say a masterpiece because I don’t feel like I’m qualified to make such distinctions (although honestly who cares lol), but it was definitely one of the most exciting books I’ve read in recent memory.
To me, it’s strengths lie in its consistent pacing, unique setting and the sheer power of this book’s main character.
Tarisai is quite literally a sympathy magnet. From page one, it is impossible not to connect with this lonely girl who’s been completely isolated from people her own age and a traditional family. That conflict is built right into the most basic aspect of her identity, her Hollow (unique magical power), which allows her to see other’s memories. This should allow Tarisai to build even closer connections with those around her since she can literally share their experience. Instead, it means that she cannot even be held when she’s sad, for her servants believe that she might accidently steal their memories.
Every conflict in Raybearer seems to stack against Tarisai in this similar manner. At the beginning of the story, her only purpose is to fulfill the last wish of her absent mother (who calls Tarisai ‘Made of Me’ yuck) who wishes that she befriend the crown prince of Aritsar (so he’ll invite her into his council), and then kill him. A purpose for which she must truly love this prince before being able to act out her orders (which of course she doesn’t want to do).
Of course, heroes do hard things, it’s what makes them heroes, but as I was reading the story, I found myself admiring how inventive each new conflict became as the script was flipped again and again on poor Tarisai.
And she truly just keeps doing the damn thing.
I don’t mean to mean to imply that she simply skips through each new challenge (quite the opposite), but the way she is able to continue onward despite everything is truly inspirational. This, perhaps more than anything else is what makes the book such a compelling read.
However, the setting also played a huge roll in my enjoyment of this book. Ifueko creates a rich (sorry just watch this youtuber say how rich the book is real quick) world which seems to draw from many African cultures (though I believe the author mentioned it was mainly Yoruba) yet still presents as unique and immersive.
Some of the more unique aspects of the world for me (which I think could have been explored a little more perhaps) where the magical creatures. We meet sprites, and albagato (a kind of genie type figure), shape shifters and large mythical cats. An entire underworld of spirits which we only just hear a small portion of.
But this is a small gripe, easily overlooked when considering one of my favorite aspects of the world. Its music. Song and rhythm seem to underpin our very understanding of this culture’s history and legacy. Aritsar’s myths and legends (the main one about a story telling Pelican which is weird and fun just on it’s own) are mostly passed on through children’s songs. But one of the key instruments featured in the novel are various drums. Perhaps this is not surprising as drums are important to many African cultures, however, Ifueko took the time to describe their sound — literally write out the noises they made — and the meanings behind each beat.
As a drummer myself, I was simply loving these passages. They felt so true to how the instruments can sound and the passion they can have when played. I’m not sure if Ifueko has any percussion in her background, but she was certainly convincing enough for me (I would also like to note that I listened to this book on audio, and so the voice actor also did an amazing job with these portions and I think really heightened the experience in a way that reading on the page may not have been able to accomplish).
Finally, I think it’s important to note, that this book never seemed to drag. Because of my work schedule picking up, I didn’t have as much time to listen as I have in the past (due to Covid), and so I had to give this book up several times and then wait for it to return. Each time I was as excited as the last to get started again.
This is all the more impressive considering all of the elements packed into this story. Themes such as uniqueness and diversity over homogeny (in culture), colonialism too but it was interesting because it wasn’t like a foreign power coming in that the MC’s need to fight, but instead more like just one group that kept expanding. Perhaps less like the British Empire and more like the expansion of the Mongols.
Anyway, I can feel myself beginning to ramble so I think it’s time to ask that all important question which is the reason we’re here . . .
Yes. It seems I keep having to add this caveat, but as of 10/6/2021, I’m feeling that the Lodestar award should go to Raybearer. This was a hard decision for me, as I’ve already enjoyed two previous Lodestar contenders (Cemetery Boys and A Deadly Education), which were both amazing reads. I really thought Cemetery Boys was going to be my ride or die, but I think the deciding factor ended up coming down Raybearer’s unique setting.
For each of the other reasons I’ve outlined above — great pacing, and an incredibly powerful main character — Raybearer is an excellently written piece of art, but the thing I’m most excited about for the sequel, is simply being able to explore this world a little longer. Cemetery Boys showed us a unique setting as well, and I loved learning more and more about the Brujx. It was fun to think that their world existed just beneath our own. But the sense of immersion you experience into Raybearer’s secondary world shined a bit brighter. I guess I’m just a sucker for Secondary World fantasy . . .
Anyway, what are your thoughts? Should Raybearer win the Lodestar? What were your favorite elements of the story? The world (the answer is the drums! Lol)? Let me know in the comments, I’m excited to see what you all think.