From now on when I think of young, courageous, selfless heroines in YA, I'll think of Arrah. When I think of fantasy YA for young black teens, I'll think of Kingdom of Souls.
The first thing that crossed my mind (after "When is Rena Barron's next book coming out?") was that I'm glad this book will exist for young fantasy-lovers who thought there were no magical adventures for them which is a good enough reason to pick this up. But in case you want more reasons, here are mine.
The storyline of this book is amazingly fast-paced, laced with action, high-stakes, plot twists, vivid worldbuilding and a sea of plot points that make this a very hard book to put down. The book follows Arrah, a young girl born to a family of powerful witchdoctors, but possesses no magic of her own. When her grandmother has a strange vision and things start to go awry in her home Kingdom, she decides to sacrifice years of her life for magic to set things right. Even with that description, there's no way to express how this book will exceed expectations. Rena Barron wrote a story so engaging and unpredictable; vivid and enchanting; thorough and satisfying and somehow found a way to fit it under 500 pages - the twists alone are well-executed and believable. According to Barron, this is the first of a trilogy and I can safely say this is a great start. Regardless of a sequel, it was refreshing to read a book that was solid from beginning to end without feeling rushed but rather feels whole and satisfying.
Barron also manages a cast of characters that are as unique and fleshed-out as the worldbuilding - which is quite a feat given that the story is in first-person and the quality of each character’s development is preserved even when there is no direct interaction. Both of these elements carry the story very well, though I do hope there will be a character list, tribe list, and orisha list for readers to follow along with. All of her characters - both major and minor - felt fleshed out and imperative Arrah’s journey. One aspect that also really stands out is the personalities and characterization of the orishas. Throughout the story, there are snippets from the orishas POV that not only add to the worldbuilding but also adds useful information that doesn’t feel like an info-dump.
Speaking of worldbuilding; from the tribes to the rituals, from the magic abilities to the dark price of magic, there is a lot of components to the magic system that apart can be common in fantasy but together with elements of mythology and the society Barron has created gives this story a fresh feel to it that is its own.
I will say, the writing itself - more specifically some sentence structures - but it doesn't take away from the overall story and reading experience. Given that all other elements produced an amazing story, and were in no hindered, is telling that it was presented well.
Within the fantasy genre, it could be easy to draw comparisons to other works but it is unmistakable that Barron has created a piece that stands out because of its overarching theme on moral ambiguity, it’s unique magic system, and its contribution to African-inspired fantasy on the market. The real beauty of this book is its representation of an overlooked demographic in a genre that often lacks diversity.