Representation: Characters of Colour, Major Asexual Character, Minor Gay Characters
on 18th August 2020
Nothing is more important than loyalty.
But what if you’ve sworn to protect the one you were born to destroy?
Tarisai has always longed for the warmth of a family. She was raised in isolation by a mysterious, often absent mother known only as The Lady. The Lady sends her to the capital of the global empire of Aritsar to compete with other children to be chosen as one of the Crown Prince’s Council of 11. If she’s picked, she’ll be joined with the other Council members through the Ray, a bond deeper than blood.
That closeness is irresistible to Tarisai, who has always wanted to belong somewhere. But The Lady has other ideas, including a magical wish that Tarisai is compelled to obey: Kill the Crown Prince once she gains his trust. Tarisai won’t stand by and become someone’s pawn—but is she strong enough to choose a different path for herself?
You know how they tell you, don’t judge a book by its cover?
ABSOLUTELY JUDGE THIS BOOK BY ITS COVER.
I know, I know, how can that be fair??? Is not that cover an absolute masterpiece???
It is, my friends, it is.
So what book could live up to it?
This one. Hell yes, my friends; Raybearer more than lives up to its jawdroppingly-gorgeous cover. In fact I will even go so far as to say it outshines its cover.
THIS STORY. THIS BOOK. YOU ARE SO UNPREPARED. So much kudos to Amulet Books, the publisher, because at least they did their best to prepare you for how good this book is going to be. I mean, they warned us. With that cover. That it would be a ridiculously amazing story waiting behind it. Pick up this book at your own risk, that cover says. Ifueko is not messing around even a little bit.
Honestly, folx, even with that warning, even having braced myself for truly divine levels of awesome, Raybearer still blew me away.
Behold what is coming indeed.
So now: what is Raybearer, and what’s it about?
The answers to both those questions are superficially simple, but actually beautifully rich and complex.
Raybearer is an African-inspired fantasy. I will not pretend to have any real familiarity with African countries, cultures, or mythologies, because I don’t, so I can’t say whether any of Ifueko’s creation draws from specific places or peoples. But the setting alone makes it stand out in a genre that’s still way too focused on fantasy-Europe, and the worldbuilding is phenomenal. Ifueko’s world feels like one you could step into and start living in, it’s that detailed and real, while feeling entirely new and fresh. The empire of Aritsar is made up of disparate nations that were stitched together by magically-created land bridges (land seams?) long ago: Mewe, Nontes, Biraslov, Blessid Valley, Nyamba, Moreyao, Oluwan, Djbanti, Swana, Dhyrma, Sparti, and Quetzala. Each one has its own culture, its own songs and stories, trade goods and fashions, customs and architecture. Each one feels like a completely real place, even though Ifueko never resorts to any kind of info-dumping, instead letting the sense of each territory grow naturally in the reader’s mind over the course of the book.
Tucked away in Swana, raised in an invisible house with tutors who are terrified of her, is our main character, Tarisai. Tarisai’s mother is nameless, known simply as The Lady, and Tarisai rarely sees her; as a result she grows up lonely and touch-starved, desperate to please her much-absent mother. But what The Lady wants with her daughter is truly horrific; taking advantage of the magic that went into Tarisai’s conception, The Lady orders her to kill the Emperor’s son – an order Tarisai has no way to resist. But even getting close to the young prince is no simple feat…
This all makes Raybearer sound like a book that it’s not. The blurb, too, works hard to make this fit neatly into what we expect of YA fantasy, but the fact is that it doesn’t. Raybearer is like nothing I’ve ever read before, and not just because of the superb worldbuilding. This isn’t some kind of paranormal romance, and it’s nowhere near as simple as it seems at first glance. A lot of YA follows a kind of a-b-c plot structure; one where it’s pretty clear and simple, maybe even predictable. Raybearer is not like that. There’s so much going on in this book – so much that in a lesser author’s hands, the story would have felt over-full and rushed. But Ifueko more than pulls it off; she’s written a book that absolutely shines.
And wherever you think the story is going? You’re wrong. There are twists and turns here, subverted tropes and stunning revelations that you’ll never see coming. Raybearer demands an accounting of its characters and of the reader, too; it challenges you to determine what justice and fairness are, to define them and decide what they’re worth. What price would you put on truth? Which is more important, order or justice? Lawfulness or fairness? Authority or integrity? What’s a single life worth? What about when that life is someone you don’t know? What about when that life belongs to an outsider, a foreigner?
Would you overturn a system that benefits the many for the well-being of a few?
How hard would you fight for what you believe in?
Raybearer is woven of multiple plotlines, storylines; there isn’t just one goal, one easy win, one clear and simple battle to be fought. It’s about family, and what that means; it’s about misogyny and tradition, the value of history and the dangers of censorship; it’s about cultural identity versus unification. It’s about the different ways to be strong, and to be good. It’s about idealism and how hard the status quo will work to quash it; it’s about whether it’s right or wrong to let the fires of idealism go out. It’s about believing in your own worth, and demanding the world recognise it; it’s about claiming your personal power and your place. It’s about race and identity, magic and friendship; it’s about so many different kinds of love. It’s about the value of human life, whether that human is a loved one or a stranger, one of your own kind or some other.
This is a book I couldn’t put down, and didn’t want to. Seconds after I turned the final page I was online, looking up whether there was going to be a sequel (don’t worry, there will be!) I spent days excitedly rambling about Raybearer to anyone who’d listen, and I’ve spent over a week trying to put my thoughts about it down in words.
It’s hard, because all I want to do is scream READ THIS BOOK. If I turned my thoughts into type, this whole review would just be thousands of exclamation points and flailing gifs. I don’t know how to tell you how freaking incredible Raybearer is.
It just IS.
It’s not that this is a Message book – it’s not preaching at the reader. It’s not an excuse for Ifueko to lecture about her own morals, or her view of the world. Raybearer is an adventure, a brilliant fantasy, an incredible story. There are giant cats, and magical tattoos, and a beautiful creation story; there are faeries and djinn-like creatures, magical talents and found family. There’s heart-in-your-throat tension and moments that will take your breath away with the power and glory of them. You’ll want to scream, and you’ll want to sing; you’ll roar with rage and fury at the injustices, and howl approval and celebration at the fierce, hard-won triumphs. This is a book that sends shivers down your spine and makes the hairs on your arms stand up; it’s a book that gets into your heart, and stays there.
Raybearer is pure magic.
No question: this is one of the best books of the year. And come 2029, when I’m making my next Best of the Decade list? Raybearer will be on it.
Preorder it if you haven’t already. Because seriously – missing out on this one? Is simply not an option.