Raybearer is a YA fantasy novel following Tarisai, a girl born in the Swana region of the Arit Empire, as she is sent to court by her secretive, powerful mother to become one of the prince’s closest advisors… and maybe also kill him. If you’ve read a lot of YA fantasy, you’ve already read or heard of many stories with the same hook, and you might think you know where this is going. But do you? Raybearer is never quite what it seems at first sight.
This is a difficult book to talk about without spoilers. We first follow Tarisai when she’s just a child who is starved for affection, then we see her grow into her role at court and outside of it, always ready to question the rules and what she has been sold as the truth. At the beginning of the story, she knows nothing – not about how the world works, not about the costs of an empire, not even about herself. Between discoveries, developments, and actual plot twists, I feel like I’ve read a trilogy’s worth of material – and yet I never felt like I was being taken through things too quickly. Because of this, this novel may take a little to grow on readers, but among the many reasons I think you should keep reading, it’s worth it just to witness Tarisai’s growth.
So much her early decisions are shaped by wanting to be loved, and I deeply appreciated how this book flipped a common YA trope on its head – it has a realistic portrayal of the long-term repercussions of isolation and parental neglect while also not having the parental figure be completely absent. [If you don’t read a lot of YA: parents are often noticeably absent and that’s just not dealt with, which is… unrealistic and unoriginal.]
Raybearer is a very unusual book. I don’t mean that in the sense of “strange” (you know I love those, but I wouldn’t say this one is), more for how it frames its own story. It spans years, when most YA doesn’t; it draws inspiration from many different places, folktales and traditions while centering West African culture; it’s a story about an empire that doesn’t shy away from talking about the inherent violence of imperial assimilation and the differences between justice and order. And while Raybearer is not lacking in romantic elements, friendship is even more of a driving force for Tarisai, and the prince’s council was the most intriguing part of the book for me. A group of kids who grow up extremely close and then have their minds linked together by their love for each other and for the prince? That was a lot.
Another thing about Raybearer I loved was how alive it felt – and the audiobook really helped with that, Joniece Abbott-Pratt is an amazing narrator and made the story come to life. Even the rhymes! (This book has many of them – there’s so much attention to developing the cultures here.) Unlike most audiobooks I’ve listened to so far, this one doesn’t just read them to you in a dull tone. Then there are the descriptions, that are as vivid and colorful and unforgettable as the cover of this book would make you think.
A list of things I didn’t like as much:
🌟 The main one is that the climax felt underwhelming, and I think that’s because there are some truly… explosive development around 80% (the scenes set on right before and then on Heaven, if you know what I mean) and what followed just couldn’t match how much all of that made me feel. The epilogue, however? Perfect.
🌟 I didn’t feel strongly about the romance, but this dynamic with the love interest being the protector isn’t really my type, so that’s probably on me – I did think it was sweet. Also, what this book does in its portrayal of toxic vs. non-toxic masculinity with the character of Sanjeet is important;
🌟 I’m not a fan of stories that don’t question the divine and magical right to rule in general; I also know I wouldn’t have noticed it and/or minded it as much when I was a teen. I think this is one of the cases in which the conflict between “I want this fantasy trope and the implications of it I find morally abhorrent to die” and “no trope is truly dead until marginalized authors get to use it, and non-ownvoices readers shouldn’t demand from marginalized authors a subversion that is palatable to them” is at its strongest for me.
This was a truly remarkable read and I’d recommend it to all readers of YA fantasy who want something that feels new in a landscape that feels somewhat same-y. It’s also the kind of story that is perfect for a reader who doesn’t have a lot of time to dedicate to reading, as I was in these months, because listening to it in small bites over the course of a few months didn’t impact my enjoyment at all.
My rating: ★★★★½