So last year Amelie Wen Zhao announced she was pulling her debut novel, Blood Heir because of criticism that it was racist and presented a distorted version of American slavery. After reading about the controversy, I had a feeling the critiques might have been unfair and resolved to read it.
The book is set in the Cyrilian Empire (alt.Russia), where mutants — oh, sorry, Affinites, but it’s an easy mistake to make — are demonized for their supernatural powers. Each Affinite has an affinity they’re able to control: flesh, marble, water, wind, fear, though the ordinary humans have ways to neutralize their powers. Demonized or not, Affinites are useful: the Empire has a massive human trafficking problem, mostly desperate people coerced or tricked into signing labor contracts that reduce them to slaves. Affinites, including those from other nations, are popular victims since their powers make them so useful.
Princess Anastacya never thought much about this, even though she’s an Affinite with the power over blood: she can make you bleed, move your body, torture you or simply TK your blood (and your body with it) across the room. Prior to the start of the book, she was framed for the murder of her father and imprisoned. Now she’s out, hunting the real killer. In the opening scenes, she has to penetrate one prison (reinforced with anti-Affinite shielding) to get information from Ramson Quicktongue, a mid-level crime boss. Ramson’s a tricky bastard and uses her to escape, but circumstances keep bringing them together. When Ramson realizes how powerful Ana is, he figures he can turn her over to Kerlan, the boss of bosses in the Empire underworld, and thereby get back into his good graces.
Zhao has said the novel drew on modern-day Asian human trafficking rather than antebellum slavery, and that’s how it comes across. I think she got a bum rap (YMMV obviously). Ditto the charges of plagiarism: even if she did lift one line “Don’t go where I can’t follow” from Tolkien (as note in the link above, it dates back to the Bible) that’s so minor it’s impossible to care.
I also think it avoids the “repentant racist” trope that got another Y/A fantasy, The Black Witch so much criticism (I haven’t read that book, so I don’t know if it was deserved or not). Neither Ana nor Ramson has any bigotry toward Affinites, but Ana is blind to how badly they’re treated and Ramson’s initially ruthless enough he doesn’t care. By the end of the book, they’re both committed to changing things, and even the possibility that systemic change has to go beyond replacing the Emperor with someone better (a lot of fantasies don’t push rebellion to that conclusion).
So aside from controversy, is the book actually good? I think so. It’s well-written, fast-paced, tense where it needs to be, and I like the characters. While I generally hate this kind of X-Men mages-as-persecuted-mutants set-up, I didn’t hate it here, which says a lot. Though given the big bad for the trilogy is a Magneto-style villain dedicated to Affinite supremacy, I’m less enthused about getting book two than I might have been. But I’ll at least check it out of the library and see.
#SFWApro. Cover art by Ruben Ireland, all rights to image remain with current holder.