The praise for Raybearer has been impossible to miss since its release last year, and I’ve been looking for an excuse to squeeze it into a crowded reading schedule. When Jordan Ifueko’s debut joined an incredibly stacked list of Lodestar Award finalists, it gave me a perfect reason to move it to the top of the list.
Raybearer takes place in a fantasy world in which disparate lands have been joined together into a single continent, ruled by an African-coded hereditary Emperor whose magical bonds with a council of representatives from all 12 states give him invulnerability to any death but old age or attack from his own council. But the revenge-minded Lady, enraged by past wrongs, has raised her daughter Tarisai from birth for the sole purpose of gaining a place on the Crown Prince’s council and killing him. The only problem? She doesn’t want to.
Raybearer packs a lot into a single, moderately-sized novel. There are toxic relationships and gaslighting aplenty, starting with The Lady’s manipulative parenting of Tarisai. But as we see more of the ruling of the empire, we find overt misogyny and social injustice in a host of different forms. And Tarisai’s compulsion to act against the Crown Prince introduces themes of freedom and psychological bondage. It’s a lot, and you could forgive a potential reader for expecting an unfocused, mishmash, diving willy nilly from theme to theme. But Ifueko ties them together expertly, making every individual injustice feel like one thread in a larger pattern—a pattern that grounds the story while also providing the power behind it.
These themes fuel a well-paced plot, with the central conflict of Tarisai’s compulsion to kill the Crown Prince joined by additional conflicts that begin to crystallize as she embeds herself among the rulers of the empire. These keep the story moving at a brisk pace, while integrating so well with the initial conflict that the novel never feels like it’s trying to accomplish too much. Meanwhile, Tarisai proves an excellent central character, with genuine shortcomings stemming from her youth and upbringing, but with a good heart and a quickness to learn. And while we don’t get to know the entirety of the council, she is surrounded by three close friends who feel well-developed in their own rights while also forming strong and engaging bonds with the lead.
Though the themes and the characters are deftly worked, the plot of Raybearer is just a partial success. On the positive side, it is well-paced and interesting throughout, and no one needs break character to serve plot conveniences. But on the other hand, there is a brief journey in the middle of the book that seems totally disconnected from what comes before or after, and the climax involves more than a few conveniences which weren’t totally outlandish but did come off a bit too neat for my tastes. There’s too much good here to call the plot a weakness, but it doesn’t hit the heights of some of the other elements of the novel.
Overall, Raybearer is an engaging and fun debut, one that has a satisfying enough arc to be enjoyed on its own but which leaves enough threads loose for a robust sequel storyline. Its biggest strength is the ability to weave together so many heavy themes without feeling either bleak or overstuffed, with the excellent main cast and well-paced plot serving to grab the reader’s attention and hold it for the duration.
Recommended if you like: YA fantasy, African-inspired settings, books that tackle social injustice and toxic relationships.
Can I use it for Bingo? It fits hard mode for the Revenge and Found Family squares, and also fits Book Club, Debut, and Witches.
Overall rating: 15 of Tar Vol’s 20. Four stars on Goodreads.