[A quick note: I was so excited to read an African inspired Own Voices story. Especially after having spent a summer doing medical work in Africa, living in the bush, working in the Serengeti, staying with the Masai, and bouncing between Kisumu and Nairobi. I absolutely love anything African inspired.]
“𝙎𝙩𝙤𝙧𝙞𝙚𝙨 𝙖𝙧𝙚 𝙡𝙞𝙠𝙚 𝙠𝙣𝙞𝙫𝙚𝙨: 𝙬𝙚𝙖𝙥𝙤𝙣𝙨 𝙤𝙧 𝙩𝙤𝙤𝙡𝙨, 𝙙𝙚𝙥𝙚𝙣𝙙𝙞𝙣𝙜 𝙤𝙣 𝙬𝙝𝙤 𝙞𝙨 𝙬𝙞𝙚𝙡𝙙𝙞𝙣𝙜 𝙩𝙝𝙚𝙢.”—Suyi Davies Okungbowa
Danso is a scholar living in the thriving city of Bassa who longs for a life beyond the rigid family and political obligations imposed. When a skin changing warrior shows up wounded in his barn, he finds a way out. Hunted, he sets out on a journey where he discovers secrets about a suppressed magic only found in lore.
I haven’t found a ton of books like this out on the market. Every book has its own discerning feature. For this, it was the vivid world building, all inspired by the author’s African heritage. The magical system, politics, religion, setting, location, people were all richly detailed. The writing was stunning, absolutely beautiful. I found so many great quotes. I appreciated each of these aspects. Wow! And this was extremely political. Probably the most political based I’ve ever read.
However, something felt out of balance. The focus was...off. As if too much world building and not enough story telling. Like 80% of the effort was put into crafting the setting, politics, magic, and people, while only 20% was devoted to crafting the actual Story Core. To me, the story core is the most important aspect of a compelling book. That’s just me. Everyone’s different.
I’m going to elaborate on the storytelling and what I mean. There didn’t appear to be a well defined Hero’s Journey. A hero’s journey should be the framework through which a character undergoes changes that make them better or worse. As a reader, I didn’t know where the story was going, resulting in what felt like a meandering journey with no end in sight. For example, when you watch a movie, you know within the first 15 minutes what the hero needs to do by the end. Thus, I expect to find an inciting incident and clearly defined goals, generally within the first 10% of the book. That’s the hook, right?
Buuuuttttt, I had no idea what the MC’s purpose or goals were??? Is the MC going to defeat an evil villain? Is he going to save the world? Is he going to revolutionize the political system? Is he going to discover a magical artifact?
I kept asking myself this question, to a frustrating extent, and didn’t really figure out what the answer MIGHT be until Danso ran away and discovered his own magical ability. Even then, I still wasn’t sure if running away was his actual goal. Or was it mastering a magical ability? Or was it saving Lilong? Or was it simply his goal to carve a new life for himself? Hmm....not sure. Each thing that happened could have just been yet another series of events happing TO him. Basically he was a punching bag for the plot rather than the DRIVING force behind the plot.
My other gripe is the characters. They felt one-dimensional. Here is why I feel that way: I want to have characters with both strengths and weakness that are RELEVANT to the story. I want to understand these traits within the first 10% of the book so that I can be invested in the character. If I have to wait for the 70% mark before I learn that the MC suddenly has magical abilities, it’s too late. Give me two things at the start: a positive trait and a negative trait. Basically, give me a weakness and give me something endearing.
With these characters, take Danso for example, all I was shown were his struggles. He spends the entire first chapter walking through a vividly described market and city (kudos on the descriptions) but I learn next to nothing about his importance for the story. I’m not given any reason why I should care about Danso and not someone else instead. Why is he the MC? Why are we following him and not some other person?
Moreover, the first few chapters were all about Danso’s misfortunes. That’s great when it comes to creating a relatable character. Everyone has suffered from some sort of oppression, being misunderstood, misjudged, etc. So in theory, we should be able to relate. BUUUTTTTT to have a compelling character we must also see the other side of the coin.
As a reader, I want to see something that endears him to me. Something that makes me go, “Yahhh!!! Danso, you’re the man! Good going! Well done! You’ve given me a reason to root for you.” Maybe it’s a strength or a magical ability or some other characteristic that I find unique or cool. I didn’t feel excited about Danso until the Skopi attack event. But by then, it was too late. If that attack had happened at the beginning of the book? I would have been immediately hooked. Why? Because I found that level of originality of magic SUPER COOL. Damn, wish it would have been there the whole time!
Now, to be fair, I was told that Danso was highly intelligent. That he could recite things by memory. That’s impressive right? Intelligence can be endearing. Hell, I can relate to intelligence (I’ve got a PhD for crying out loud). But I never saw Danso actually using his smarts in situations to get himself out of trouble. I was TOLD he was smart. I wasn’t SHOWN that he was smart. Smarts can basically be super power if used correctly as a story tool.
And Eshme (beautiful name), got on my nerves. She was just power hungry, conceited, and frankly a little evil. If this wasn’t truly how I was supposed to interpret her character, then I have failed. I didn’t see any humility from her...like at all. Maybe she wasn’t a nice person and that was the point? At first, I was hoping for a female MC that was badass but also...flawed. She was pretty awful towards poor Danso and I didn’t feel he deserved her treatment. I kept waiting for her to change, but her character took more of a negative arc than a positive arc.
Maybe it all simply boiled down to an execution error. I don’t know. Maybe I am completely off the rocker. Maybe I’m the one missing something. At any rate, this is just me trying to understand and verbalize WHY I didn’t find the characters compelling.
Damn, I feel like I’m being such a hard-ass-stickler here. Clearly I’m missing something because after looking over ARC reviews, I realize I’m of an extremely small minority in my opinions. This book got very high ratings across the board. And that makes me happy because I want to see it do well as a debut.
It just tells me that i’m being picky. My honest truth is: I just didn’t enjoy this. And if I wasn’t reviewing it for Orbit, and didn’t feel obligated to finish, I would have DNF’d at 20%. Again, that’s just me. Humans are all different
This is a book I’d love to see succeed, mostly because of its unique aspects. I want to see publishers take more risks bringing in Own Voices authors, and non US-based authors. So I do want to see this do well. But I’m also not going to lie about how I felt on a personal level.
I encourage anyone reading this review to PLEASE not use it to to make a decision one way or the other. Go to Amazon and have a look at the first few chapters and use your own experience to decide whether or not to read it. I have found time and again that I’ll massively enjoy a book that got low reviews, or hate a book that got high reviews, illustrating yet again that everyone is different and what someone likes, someone else might dislike.
Had this been an independently published book, I’d have given it 3.5 stars. As it stands, it was published by a large publishing house. So I judge by much stricter standards. MY RATING: 2.5/5 ⭐️
A big thank you to NetGalley and Orbit for providing me an eARC in exchange for my honest review.