Steeped in West African mythology, Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko is a phenomenal story that follows Tarisai’s struggles with her identity and sense of belonging.
From the Blurb:
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 Eleven. 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?
With extraordinary world-building and breathtaking prose, Raybearer is the story of loyalty, fate, and the lengths we’re willing to go for the ones we love.
When we meet Tarisai, she’s a child, and we follow her as she grows up, first in Burkina House and then at the various palaces. Her lonely childhood makes her long for the family she finds in her council. However, The Lady’s wish haunts her and she goes to extremes to free herself from it. This journey of self discovery is complicated and heart wrenching, but makes her strength all the more obvious.
Ifueko subverts the usual YA tropes of love or friendship being enough to break magical bonds to give us a fresh take on a hero’s journey. A particular detail I loved about Tarisai was how her journey was represented by her hair. At first, it’s gathered in braids that tighten the more she follows the rigid rules of palace life. As her character develops, her hairstyle also changes, further reflecting her development.
Ifueko also takes care with her secondary characters. Tarisai’s council siblings lend her strength and complement her personality. Sanjeet and Dayo in particular are calm presences in her life that anchor her. Kirah is a fierce friend, ready to drop everything to help Tarisai. However, I would’ve liked to get to know the other council members as well as Sanjeet, Dayo and Kirah.
I found The Lady to be a formidable villain. She’s an imposing figure — one that takes up most of Tarisai’s life even when she’s not present. Learning her reasons and history only makes her more complex.
Ifueko’s writing, like every aspect of her novel, is breathtaking. Her lyrical prose reflects the importance of having a voice, without bogging the text down so much that it’s unpleasant. She also incorporates frequently used YA tropes in her subplots, only to subvert them later on, which kept me on my toes throughout.
In terms of plot, there are two distinct parts in Raybearer. The first part of the book is slower, both because of the rich worldbuilding, and the fact that we’re essentially skipping through Tarisai’s life growing up. However, the plot takes off midway through, with a quickening pace that lasts up until the climax. Personally, I welcomed the pace of the first part as it allowed me to understand the world and get to know the characters well.
A central theme of the book is culture, specifically belonging to one. The empire is divided into provinces and one representative from each is invited to be on the emperor’s council. During official outings, they wear patterns and cloth from their province to show this. Midway through the book, there is a push to unite the people under a single culture in order to strengthen the bonds between provinces. However, the different cultures end up quashed instead of celebrated. The empire’s cloth is cheaper and therefore a more attractive option, while children who receive an “empire” name are given a stipend. The council representatives are dressed similarly, and finally the protests are stifled with violence. The uniformization of the empire in this manner echoes attempts to erase African heritage during colonial times.
Another theme is tradition. Ifueko’s world places incredible importance on oral traditions and histories with griots, traditional West African story tellers, being central to plot development and certain subplots.
This is where the audiobook format comes out on top in my opinion. Joniece Abbott-Pratt’s narration pays particular attention to the sounds and rhythm of the text during the passages of oral history. She also takes care with each character’s voice and accent, which served to make the experience even more immersive.
I loved Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko. It blew me away on every level and I cannot wait to read the sequel.