In 'Children Of Virtue And Vengeance,' Magic Has Returned. Now What?

Dec 1, 2019
Originally published on December 5, 2019 10:57 am

Children of Blood and Bone was an instant success last year.

The young adult fantasy novel by then-24-year-old author Tomi Adeyemi has so far spent 89 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list. It made countless best books lists, and it was optioned for a movie by Disney. It spoke to people.

"I always pitched it as Black Panther with magic," Adeyemi says. "It's this epic young adult fantasy about a girl fighting to bring magic back to her people."

And now there's a sequel: Children of Virtue and Vengeance. The heroine, Zélie, has succeeded in her quest to bring magic back to her people, the maji, and the land of Orïsha. But the nobility and the military now have powerful magic, too. And civil war looms.

For Zélie and her ally Amari — a runaway princess who has joined the rebellion, so to speak — the question becomes: Now what? And how will their personal traumas play out?

"I'm really mean to my characters," Adeyemi says. "And so they have a lot to both deal with personally, and in terms of like: OK, well, who am I? What am I wrestling with? What do I want? Is what I want actually what you want? Are we actually still on the same team in this? It's about kind of how complicated things is — especially with people that you love."


Interview Highlights

On the Nigerian and Yoruban roots of her fictional universe

So the Orisha [deity] that was the inspiration for this world — I didn't know at the time that that was a part of my Nigerian heritage. ... It's a religion. It's a mythology. It started in West Africa and then it was disseminated through the world through the slave trade. And so it sort of looks a little bit different everywhere you see it. So like, for example, you have Santería in Cuba, Candomblé in Brazil. And so it's this rich pot in history, and it resonated with me so strongly. So then to find out that, like, wait, this is a part of me? It was this gift and this ability to build a world based off something that I loved and something that was close to my heart.

On how the blackness of her characters has changed over time

My stories, I call them fantasy memoir fan fiction, in the sense that the common thread has always been like — the first story I ever wrote, I wanted a twin and a horse, and my parents wouldn't give me a twin and a horse, so I'm like: I will give myself a twin and a horse. And I wrote this 30-page story. I was around the age of 6, and the twins were named Tomi and Tomi. And, you know, I was like: OK, cool, now I have everything I wanted.

It kind of kept going with that — just that what I wanted became more magical.But subconsciously, what I wanted also became: Oh, in this, my fantasy, I can be white. Like, oh, I can have magic and I can be white; or I can, you know, shoot lightning out of my hands and I can be biracial. And it was like: It took a lot for me to become the type of person who could even write a story like Children of Blood and Bone.

On the two works of art that inspired Children of Blood and Bone

And really, Children of Blood and Bone too also came from seeing two pieces of of art with black people in [them] — and some of the first two of my life, if not the first ever. And so I'm like: If two photos, two fantastical illustrations of black people, created that 600-page world? ... I always try and quantify representation because it's really hard to explain to someone what not seeing yourself does because it's so internal and it's so deep inside. But it's like: If two pictures equals this book, what do you think this book can mean for people? What do you think this cover can mean for people? I was like: Just a little bit of representation can be monumental. ...

One picture was: I was in a gift shop in Brazil; I was only there because it was raining and I didn't want my hair to get wet. And I see this postcard with the Orisha on it. I didn't know what it was at that time, but I just saw this beautiful, black goddess commanding the sea and this beautiful dark-skinned man breathing fire. And I had never, ever seen, like: Wow, that's myself; like, this is me. This person is even darker than me, and she's doing this beautiful magic. And so that was kind of instantaneous. Like, I saw that, and the world of Orïsha came to me very quickly.

And then about eight months later, I saw this picture on Pinterest. It was a digital illustration of this black girl with luminescent green hair. And I'm like: OK, what if she lived in, like, a space colony? What if she was like a fisherman or a fisherman's daughter of some sort? What if she had to go to the market one day? Oh, what if she's in the market and this girl runs up to ... what if you took this thing and put it in that world you have? Do they fit? Oh, my gosh. They fit so well. And it was two photos of people who look like me when I was, what, 23, I think? Imagine if I had had that when I was 6.

On how the oppressors get magical powers at the same time as the oppressed

The older I get, the more I realized the power of institutions. And institutions are old. They're powerful for a reason. They have been set up a long time ago by very rich and powerful people to disenfranchise you systematically.

And so I think sometimes it's like we focus on — we can look at our political history. We focused on [electing] Obama because that's a goal — that's a battle we can try and fight, like let's try and get this person in the White House. Oh, my gosh, he's in the White House. Magic is back. It's great.

But suddenly police brutality is — I won't, I don't know if it's necessarily on the rise, and this is NPR, so I really don't want to say anything or something that might not be a true fact — but at least it became popularized, in the sense that we realized that was going on. It started with Trayvon Martin and it kind of just snowballed. That was during the Obama presidency. ...

It's like: Yes, you can focus on getting magic, but then you'll see that magic wasn't completely the problem. The entire system is against you. So what are you going to do?

Samantha Balaban and Barrie Hardymon produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

"Children Of Blood And Bone" was an instant success when it was published last year. The young-adult fantasy novel by then-24-year-old author Tomi Adeyemi has so far spent 89 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. It made countless best books lists. And it was optioned for a movie by Disney. It spoke to people.

TOMI ADEYEMI: I always pitched it as, like, "Black Panther" with magic. It's this epic young-adult fantasy about a girl fighting to bring magic back to her people.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And now there's a sequel. It's called "Children Of Virtue And Vengeance." The heroine Zelie has succeeded in her quest to bring magic back to her people, the maji, in the land of Orisha. But the magic hasn't just come back to them. The nobility and the military now have powerful magic, too. And civil war looms. So now what?

ADEYEMI: Honestly, that is sort of what the characters have to wrestle with. And Zelie and Amari are kind of like, OK, Now what? What do we do? This isn't what we thought it was going to be.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Amari is her partner - right? who is a runaway...

ADEYEMI: Yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...Princess who sort of joins...

ADEYEMI: Yes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...The rebellion.

ADEYEMI: You know, they brought about this change together. And they had a vision for how everything was going to go. But it doesn't go that way. But then they also have their personal demons. They're both very traumatized girls. I'm really mean to my characters (laughter). And so they have a lot to both deal with personally and in terms of like, OK - well, who am I? What am I wrestling with? What do I want? Is what I want actually what you want? Are we actually still on the same team in this? It's about kind of how complicated things is, especially with people that you love.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You're Nigerian American and a scholar...

ADEYEMI: Yes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...Of West African mythology. There is so much specificity in the books. Everything is very Nigerian.

ADEYEMI: Yeah. So the Orisha - that was the inspiration for this world - I didn't know at the time that that was a part of my Nigerian, like, heritage.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This is the - these are the deities of the Yoruba.

ADEYEMI: Yeah. So the Orisha - it's both. It's a religion. It's a mythology. It started in West Africa. And then it was disseminated through the world through the slave trade. And so it sort of looks a little bit different everywhere you see it. So, like, for example, you have Santeria in Cuba, Candomble in Brazil. And so it's this rich pot in history. And it resonated with me so strongly. So then to find out that, like, wait - this is a part of me - it was this gift and this ability to build a world based off something that I loved and something that was close to my heart.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You know, everyone in this story is black.

ADEYEMI: Yes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And what's interesting also about this is that the power that they have is related to their blackness, their skin being darker, their hair being curlier. And I read that, when you were young, you said that you would write mostly black characters, but then that changed as you got older. What happened?

ADEYEMI: My stories - I call them, like, fantasy memoir fan fiction in the sense that the common thread has always been, like - the first story I ever wrote, I wanted a twin and a horse. And my parents wouldn't give me a twin and a horse.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter).

ADEYEMI: So I'm like, I will give myself a twin and a horse. And I wrote this 30-page story. I was, like, around the age of 6. And the twins were named Tomi and Tomi (ph).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter).

ADEYEMI: And, you know, it was like, OK - cool. Now I have everything I wanted. It kind of kept going with that - just the - what I wanted became more magical. But subconsciously, what I wanted also became - oh, in this - my fantasy, I can be white. Like, oh, I can have magic. And I can be white. Or I can, you know, shoot lightning out of my hands, and I can be biracial. And it was, like, it took a lot for me to become the type of person who could even write a story like "Children Of Blood And Bone."

And, really, "Children Of Blood And Bone," too, also came from seeing two pieces of art with black people in it and, like, some of the first two of my life, if not, the first ever. And so I'm like, if two photos, two, like, fantastical illustrations of black people created that 600-page world, you know - I'm - and, like, that's what - I always try and quantify representation because it's really hard to explain to someone what not seeing yourself does because it's so internal, and it's so deep inside. But it's, like, if two pictures equals this book, what do you think this book can mean for people? What do you think this cover can mean for people? I was, like, just a little bit of representation can be monumental.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What were those pictures?

ADEYEMI: One picture was - I was in a gift shop in Brazil. I was only there 'cause it was raining, and I didn't want my hair to get wet. And I see this postcard with the Orisha on it. I didn't know what it was at the time. But I just saw, like, this beautiful, like, black goddess commanding the sea and, like, this beautiful, dark-skinned man, like, breathing fire. And I had never ever seen - like, wow. That's myself. Like, this is me. This person is even darker than me. And she's doing this beautiful magic. And so, like, that was kind of instantaneous. Like, I saw that, and the world of Orisha came to me very quickly.

And then about eight months later, I saw this picture on Pinterest. It was a digital illustration of this black girl with, like, luminescent green hair. And I'm like, OK. What if she lived in, like, a space colony? What if she was, like, a fisherman or a fisherman's daughter of some sort? What if she had to go to the market one day? Oh, what if she's in the market, and this girl runs up to - and then I was just like, oh, wait. This isn't in a - what if you took this thing and put it in that world. You have - do that fit? Oh, my gosh. They fit so well. And it was, like, two photos of people who look like me when I was - what? - 23, I think. Imagine if I had had that when I was 6.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In this book, the sequel, all of a sudden, the oppressors have this thing that the oppressed wanted - magic, as well. What were you trying to say with that? That sort of everyone all of a sudden gets magic, but it doesn't actually level the playing field?

ADEYEMI: The older I get, the more I realized the power of institutions. And institutions are old. They're powerful for a reason. They have been set up a long time ago by very rich and powerful people to disenfranchise you systematically. And so I think, sometimes, it's like, we focus on - we can look at our, like, political history. We focused on Obama because that's a goal. That's a battle we can try and fight. Like, let's try and get this person in the White House. Oh, my gosh. He's in the White House. Magic is back. It's great. But, suddenly, police brutality is - I won't - I don't know if it's necessarily on the rise. And this is NPR, so I really don't want to say (laughter) anything or something that might not be a true fact. But at least it became popularized in the sense that we realized it was going on. It started with Trayvon Martin, and it kind of just snowballed. That was during the Obama presidency.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And so having Obama there doesn't fix everything.

ADEYEMI: That's sort of how I think about it. It's like, yes. You can focus on getting magic. But then you'll see that magic wasn't completely the problem. The entire system is against you. So what are you going to do?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tomi Adeyemi is the author of "Children Of Virtue And Vengeance." Thank you so much.

ADEYEMI: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.