I’ve yet to find a book that I relate to on a cultural basis. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a good YA Bollywood-esque tale, like those Sandhya Menon writes, but I don’t relate to them. I can see my extended, Indian family in her words, yes, but my immediate family? My mum, dad, and siblings? Definitely not. My parents are both East-African immigrants, and the differences between my Kenyan-born mum and her Indian-born siblings are so many that it’s almost like they’re different species at times. Like Menon before her, Jordan Ifueko’s Raybearer, steeped in its West-African culture, at least fed a slight portion of that hunger to relate to written word.
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?
I wasn’t sure about Raybearer to begin with. For me, time was passing on the pages far too quickly. I wanted to know more. I wanted time to breathe in this strange, wonderous house. I wanted to know more about the characters. I wanted time to feel like absence of Tarisai’s mother. Instead, I was launched into an entirely new world and expected to adapt. To my surprise, it was the best thing Ifueko could do. Confused and feeling alone, I stood with Tarisai, my emotions weaving together in a complex tapestry, as the narrative began to build… and build…and build.
To say a lot happened in these 300-odd pages is an understatement. Yet, somehow, Ifueko managed to get it all in without giving the reader whiplash. Perhaps it was the setting that gave it a soft-landing. The smells of the villages, the heat from the pride sleeping half-on-top of each other, the comfort of the Sanjeet and Kirah’s presence on the page. Or perhaps it was a twist so big (seriously, I thought I knew where it was going… I didn’t) that everything up to that point felt like sitting contently on bed of marshmallow.
I want to say more. I want to gush over this debut for hours. I want to tell you why The Lady was one of the best YA characters I’ve read in a while. Why Aritsar felt like home. Why, despite wanting to put it down and not finish reading it at the start of the book, it became one of my favourite books of 2020. But this is definitely a story you need to experience. And experience it you shall on August 18th when it FINALLY releases!
Until then, I will happily admit I was wrong about this book. I will bask in knowing that I’m a step closer to finding something I relate to on a cultural basis. I will share that heart-eyed emoji every time someone brings it up. And I will hunt high and low (after coronavirus’ arse has been kicked, of course) to find plantain and try it. Though my East-African heritage is promising me nothing is better than cassava chips. Nothing.