Picture a world where certain people are gifted with mastery of the elements. It is a land that lived in relative harmony until an ambitious king seized power by launching an unexpected attack. Our protagonist is a young adult, one of the last of her kind – a people being driven to extinction in these turbulent times. She teams up with her brother and a third friend to try and restore balance – but she must do so before the solstice. Also, she is being hunted by the son of said evil king, but said prince is emotionally conflicted.
Sound familiar? Let me give you a hint:
Except not quite. A similar idea breathes new life in Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood of Bone.
Okay, let me say two things right away. First, I have not finished Children of Blood and Bone. I’m close to the end but wanted to right this post now, since I feel I already know enough to say what I’m going to say. Secondly, I am a straight white male about to be talking about the importance of author diversity and the need for new voices and why all of it matters so…yeah, you’ve never heard the like of my opinions before!
If you’re still on board – great, thanks. I appreciate it. Let’s dive in.
What Separates Children of Blood and Bone from Avatar
Reading the first paragraph might sound like I’m accusing Tomi Adeyemi of plagiarism. I’m not, it’s just too funny to note how similar the two settings are. I don’t think it’s a coincidence either given that Adeyemi has seen Avatar: The Last Airbender and (like everyone who watches it) she has admitted to being a big fan of the series. Was there inspiration? Absolutely, but inspiration does not equal imitation. EX: The Lion King was inspired by Hamlet but those are two very different works of art.
Let’s start with the voice. In Avatar: The Last Airbender (I’m just going to say Avatar from now on, please don’t think I suddenly started talking about a mediocre movie from James Cameron), we have a single main narrator: Katara. It is her voice that opens every episode and she is a major character in the events that unfold. That said, she’s never the main protagonist. That role is reserved for Aang, the long-lost Avatar destined to return and restore balance to his world.
In Children of Blood and Bone, we get Zélie. She is both our main narrator and main character. Yes, the narrative jumps around, paying particular attention to the emotionally conflicted prince, but overall, Zélie is our girl. And she, unlike the Avatar, is not innately special. She is one of the divîners, a group of people who used to be able to use magic until it was stripped away.
Now, she’s just another poor girl down on her luck, harassed by nearly everyone and generally disregarded in society. She’s impulsive, hot-headed, argumentative (a lot closer to Korra than Aang) and is actively longing for the day when she gets to fight back against the government who took her mother (some Katara in that backstory).
So we’re at minor differences. Another one is where the prophecy resolves. Yes, Zélie gets a quest to bring back magic but that’s it. She’s not destined to restore balance, she’s hoping to give her people a fighting chance before they’re all slaughtered. She won’t gain mastery over all six types of magic – she’ll just be able to actually be herself.
And that’s the big difference, the focus. Despite the humanity of Aang, Avatar could never shake the overall feeling of epic war that opened with the first episode. Right away we’re given this huge narration about the scope of the war and how many people it’s affected. Children of Blood and Bone doesn’t do that. It keeps everything intensely personal.
There’s a lot that happens that the reader is left to infer. At its heart, it’s a story about two damaged families trying to reconcile their place in life. Does this change in the sequel? Probably – I haven’t got that far yet.
Experience as Inspiration
Another major source of differentiation between Avatar and Children of Blood and Bone is where each world draws its inspiration from. The land of Avatar is inspired primarily by Asian mythology and history. In Children of Blood and Bone, Adeyemi set out to make a black fantasy – something that celebrates African mythology while drawing directly from her experiences as a black woman growing up in the United States.
When I said Children of Blood and Bone felt more personal, this is part of it. Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino created Avatar and they did an amazing job. Rich characters, compelling conflict – Children of Blood and Bone owes a lot to the groundwork laid by these two.
That said, Konietzko and DiMartino are two white men. That’s not a negative thing to say, it’s just a fact. They did a tremendous job empathizing with struggle and discrimination but their story lacks the raw intensity that Adeyemi brings to the bigotry in her world.
There is a great line in Children of Blood and Bone that I’m going to paraphrase here: “You can get inside my head but you don’t feel what I feel.” That’s it. I can try to be woke and see the discrimination (active and passive) that exists in my society but I will never live it. At any time, I can shut off the feeling and return to my “normal” life because my culture is the dominant/accepted one. People of color and other minorities don’t have this luxury.
No matter how they might pretend or act otherwise, plenty exist in this world to remind them of the damage that illogical and unwarranted hate can inflict. As someone who on the other side, I can sympathize with this, I can empathize with this (both are good to do), but I cannot live it as my reality. It just isn’t.
This is the reason why other voices are so needed in our storytelling. It is no fault of our white storytellers. There are simply some aspects of narratives, particularly those concerned with bigotry and societal racism, that we’re just not fully equipped to capture. They say to write what you know after all. Tomi Adeyemi certainly did that and, in doing so, breathed life into a world that is at first familiar but then exudes its own personality.