Review: Raybearer (Raybearer #1) by Jordan Ifueko

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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? 

RATING: ☆★☆★☆

Raybearer is nothing less than stunning. The synopsis drew my eyes like a flare, and I knew from reading my friends’ reviews that I was going to be blown away by this novel—I just wasn’t prepared to be catapulted into the stratosphere!

I stepped inside this book as easily as stepping through a door, into a scintillating West-African inspired world splayed out huge before me, embellished by the author’s poetic turns of phrase and staggering imaginative scope, and as my mind gleamed with sweeping tales of revenge, betrayal, warring powers, bonds that transcend romantic love and the stinging weight of destiny, I wished I could never leave.

Expertly crafted and exceedingly rich, Raybearer heralds a welcome new voice in fantasy. In fact, it’s hard still to wrap my mind around the fact that it’s a debut—I mean, surely, there were at least 15 other books that came before it!—it really is that good. Ifueko compels so completely with this story, keeping me in thrall by ticking every box on the list of things that I love most dearly about the genre. For one, the novel contains the kind of deep, layered worldbuilding that trips pleasure down the stairs of my heart: the kind that’s thoughtful, intricate, and bursting with detail, but that still leaves you wide-eyed and searching, chasing for more. The plot never lags, and the author has an unerring talent for dropping spiky twists that leave you gasping, slowly, meticulously unveiling new layers of story that are so profound and so unexcepted, like sudden immersion in ice water.

              But Raybearer is not only vivid conceptually, it is also vivid emotionally and thematically.

“And off she goes,” Sanjeet murmured. His voice was cavernous, even against the roar of the waves. “Bent on winning freedom for the entire world. Tarisai of Swana.” He laughed, a gentle growl that made my insides restless. “She would have us be masters of our own fates, whether we like it or not.”

              With the quiet precision of a scalpel, Ifueko challenges empire, cultural imperialism, and how history can both immortalize stories and pull a blanket of silence over them so loud it is deafening.

Raybearer is a novel that understands empire’s tremendous and insidious power, how it’s like a kind of poison that seeps into the groundwater, eating holes into the bulwarks of many cultures, destroying entire edifices, and it can be very, very convincing while it destroys them. Artisar—the empire at the heart of this story—soared into the skies, its wings fanned out to shroud all other cultures in its great shadow. It dressed itself in the threadbare excuses of unity to justify mowing down entire stories and histories like so much grass in the field—and it made me swell with pain and fury to read about it.

Our histories—our stories—are not meaningless, something to be discarded as easily as a cloak. Our stories is who we are. They create us, build us. They grow inside us in sedimentary layers, each one shoring up our foundation, adding a new and indispensable dimension to our identity. Reading this book, I saw my indigenous peoples’ strangling agony reflected on the page, and I wondered again—for the thousandth time—if that is the truest death: being slowly rendered invisible. A death by increments: your story slowly crumbling into searing ashes between your fingertips, and knowing there’s nothing you can do to stop it.

              The novel also speaks to many themes that we know all too well in the real world: about leadership and the tendency of the powerful to rationalize their own worst ideas, to commit to a course of action out of arrogance without truly understanding the possibility of disaster; about patriarchy and its seamless continuity with imperialism, and how history sings of towering women with towering destinies who were able to bend the world around their wills like smiths hammering hot iron, but it’s too often written by those who can sense those star-bright accomplishments and snuff them out like candles.

“How frightened you must be,” she told someone I could not see. “You caged me like a bird, but you could not make me sing.”

              Of course, none of the thematic and emotional sketches Ifueko draws in her novel would be half as compelling without a rich and gripping cast of characters. Luckily, the author more than just delivers on that front.

              There’s a nakedness to Ifueko’s foolhardy characters that was like claws scrabbling against my armor. They’re so young and so stubborn and too often pulled this way and that by the ropes of their emotions, constantly fumbling and triumphing as they come to grips with their respective powers and learn ways to apply them—for good or ill. They are wracked with troubled pasts and a bruised, wistful yearning for belonging, standing together at the edge of a vast, quiet unknown, tangled and scarred and lost, but not yet stripped of defiance, fighting not only to save themselves and each other but to save themselves and each other to a world “worth surviving in.”

             In that sense, Raybearer feels like a love letter to all the young people out there marching in the streets, speaking up against injustices, and holding themselves as unyielding and straight as a stake because they too refuse “to see the world as a small place, where nothing matters but [their] happiness”. It’s also a heart-felt and unfliching reminder that we are more than the stories we inherit—cruel, blood-soaked and drenched in misery—, we are the ink we use to dream for ourselves better tomorrows, better futures, a new generation of unthwarted wishes.

              The antagonists are gripping creations as well. Their unmasking is harsh, mesmeric, and disarmingly moving. The author yanks them from their shells, all exposed flesh and raw nerves, shrinking them down to something accessible, understandable in its undeniable humanity. We glimpse the world as they see it, made simple by fear and righteousness and fury, and we shake our heads in weary pity at some of them, roll our eyes at others, and wonder if we could ever forgive them.

“Why does everyone hate change so much?” I demanded.
“Because things could get worse.”
“Maybe. But do you know what I think?” My chest throbbed. “I think deep down, we’re afraid that things could get better. Afraid to find out that all the evil—all the suffering we ignore—could have been prevented. If only we had cared enough to try.”

With this book Ifueko, without a doubt, swept me off my feet, and if I could venture out into the world right now, and press this book into every single reader’s hands with gentle but unwavering insistence, believe me I would.

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