Redemptor, Jordan Ifueko (Abrams 978-1-419-73984-2, 336pp, $18.99, hc) August 2021.
At 11 years old, she was Tarisai of Swana, a lonely girl who was desperate to be loved. Now at 17, she is Tarisai Idajo, Empress Redemptor, the ruler who was never supposed to exist. Tarisai was raised in a secret estate, cut off from the world by her enigmatic and largely absent mother, a woman known only as The Lady. She was sent to the imperial palace after being cursed by her mother to become one of the Crown Prince’s trusted Council of 11 and then kill him. To save the boy she loved like a brother, she set out on a journey across the vast Aritsar empire. The truths about her mother, the emperor, and the empire itself were tangled up in her own murky past, and exposing those secrets cracked the foundations of her homeland.
Redemptor, the second book in Jordan Ifueko’s young adult fantasy duology, begins not long after the events of Raybearer. As the newly anointed Empress, she reigns alongside Dayo, now the Emperor of Aritsar. The Abiku (monstrous creatures who inhabit the Underworld) agreed to stop taking Songlanders as Redemptors (children sent to the Underworld as sacrifices) in exchange for Tarisai becoming a Redemptor, but no deal with the Abiku is without its loopholes and tricks. Ojiji, spirits of Redemptor children who failed to escape the Underworld, begin haunting Aritsar. They taunt Tar with hateful words and terrorize anyone who resists her rule. Meanwhile, a masked activist calling himself the Crocodile is riling up peasants and miners across the empire and trying to overthrow the new rulers. Tarisai must decide whether to defend the status quo as she was taught or risk everything to fight for something better.
The title of the second book in Ifueko’s duology has a dual meaning. She is a Redemptor, with a map of the Underworld glowing on her skin. She is also Aritsar’s attempt at redemption, their hope for progress, and their act of repentance. Tarisai must carry the weight of her empire’s past sins as she figures out her place in the present and plots a course toward the future. This is not something that can be done alone, no matter what she thinks. No one person can make up for an empire’s worth of capitalist violence. Dismantling an oppressive system requires the work of communities, the shared labor of those who were oppressed and those who did the oppressing. It doesn’t take a majority, but it does take a groundswell.
A lot of fantasy series end with a revolution successfully deposing the despot; few dig into what happens next. Rebuilding and creating new legislation isn’t as dramatic as the revolution, but is just as important. When Tar and Dayo assume the throne as equal partners in Redemptor, they want to fix what is so obviously broken. At first, that change looks like reform. The Raybearers react to problems and try to appease everyone. It takes a while for Tar to unlearn what her mentor taught her and realize that justice means doing what’s best for the people of the empire, rather than the emperor. She has been trained to sacrifice everything for Dayo. Now she has to place her people above everyone else and use her power to break down the very system that gave her that power in the first place.
Through the ojiji, Tarisai is forced to confront the evils enacted by her empire, and through the violent rebellions launched by the Crocodile, she sees just how desperate her subjects are to be heard. I wish the novel interrogated the Crocodile’s motivations more – the elite trying to overthrow the empire by using the poor as cannon fodder will never be a “good” revolution – but it was nevertheless important for Tar and the reader to step out of the palace and onto the streets. The ojiji are manifestations of the empire’s past cruelties, and the rebels are the current ones. To move from reform to dismantling, Tar must bear witness.
One of the things that bothered me initially was how gendered the whole Raybearer thing was. In the first book, we were told Raybearers could only be men; by the second, we believed Raybearers should be a man and a woman, as if they were two halves of a whole. I have a strong aversion to magic systems based on gender – partly because they rely heavily on gendered stereotypes, and partly because they inherently reject the reality that there are more than two ways to express gender or the lack thereof. I was prepared to be disappointed by this series on the gender front, but Ifueko had other plans. As Redemptor progresses, it becomes clear that the reason Raybearer magic is gendered is because someone decided it should be. I can’t say anymore without spoiling an important part of the book, but I can say that my fears were unfounded. The way Ifueko tackles magic, gender, and the patriarchy is refreshing and poignant.
Speaking of identity and tropes, I have to talk about Dayo. Dayo comes out to Tar as asexual and either sex indifferent or sex repulsed. Ifueko differentiates between sexual and romantic attraction, something I don’t often see in ace rep. Dayo gets a romantic storyline with another character who never questions or shames his asexuality.
For much of Raybearer, people keep trying to push Dayo and Tar together as a couple. An important part of Dayo’s job as emperor is to produce a male Raybearer heir, and many think Tarisai would be a good match for bearing his child. They mistake Dayo’s platonic affection for her as sexual attraction, a common thing allosexuals do to people on the asexual spectrum, like Dayo and myself. Because of that erroneous assumption, Tar is shoved into an unexpected and unwanted love triangle with Dayo and Sanjeet. Ifueko deftly demonstrated how a trope can be used to push back on a stereotype while also giving Dayo his own meaningful queer journey. I don’t think many allos understand how powerful his story feels for those of us acespec people who have suffered through years of bad rep.
There is a lot in Raybearer and Redemptor I don’t have space to talk about in this review, such as how the series explores what it means to love, colonialism and decolonization, “good hair” vs. natural hair, the way Ifueko represents different ethnicities and races united by imperialism, and toxic parent-child relationships. This is a series begging to be reread. Jordan Ifueko’s West African-influenced duology is one of the best YA fantasies I’ve read in a long time.
This review and more like it in the November 2021 issue of Locus.
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