I requested an ARC of Blood Heir by Amélie Wen Zhao from the publisher, and they provided me with a NetGalley link. After reading the synopsis and the author’s introductory letter on Goodreads, I was really excited to read this YA Fantasy. My exact words were I was “very interested in this author’s unique perspective on oppression and the othering of POC”. You can imagine my surprise when readers claimed those elements were the ones that failed in the book. I had to give it a read to provide my own thoughts.
Click here for the Synopsis!
Blood Heir is the first book in a new series about a princess hiding a dark secret and the conman she must trust to clear her name for her father’s murder. In the Cyrilian Empire, Affinites are reviled and enslaved. Their varied abilities to control the world around them are unnatural–dangerous. And Anastacya Mikhailov, the crown princess, might be the most monstrous of them all. Her deadly Affinity to blood is her curse and the reason she has lived her life hidden behind palace walls. But when Ana’s father, the emperor, is murdered, her world is shattered: Ana is the one framed as his killer. To save herself, she must flee the safety of the palace and enter a land that hunts her and her kind. And to clear her name, she must find her father’s murderer on her own. Yet, what Ana finds is far worse than she ever imagined. A greater conspiracy is at work in Cyrilia, one that threatens the very balance of her world. And there is only one person corrupt enough to help her get to its rotten core: Ramson Quicktongue. A cunning crime lord of the Cyrilian underworld, Ramson has sinister plans–though he might have met his match in Ana. Because in this story, the princess might be the most dangerous player of all.
I read Blood Heir in about 2 sittings. The pacing was quick, the story was compelling, the characters are riddled with flaws and contradictions and I loved that. The 2 primary actors in this book are Ana and Ramson. Ana reluctantly seeks out Ramson to aid in a revenge plot against the people who destroyed her life. Ramson sees Ana and her blood witch abilities as a means to his own ends and decides to help her reach her goal for his own gain.
Within the first 5 chapters, there are many big themes brought onto the playing field. As a blood witch, Ana has to deal with self-harm because using her magic (called Affinity in the book) also causes her physical distress. She suffered a great deal in her youth due to her country’s backwards ideas about her power. Because she was born with a trait she could not control, she was called a monster and people were sent to fix her. She had to grow up hearing that she was born wrong, and subjected to torture in her own home by people who wanted to correct her natural state. Her past brings out topics of depression, racism (in this case against people with magical abilities), and conversion therapy. Conversion therapy and the fact that it does not work is something I have never seen in a YA Fantasy before. I thought it was done with finesse and it immediately made me feel for Ana and distain her oppressors.
“…curing an Affinity was like trying to change the color of someone’s skin or the way someone loved. Impossible.”Blood Heir Chapter 4
Almost every character in the book is a person of color (described as East Asian). It is clear that the focus for oppression in Blood Heir is the inborn propensity for magic. People born with magical abilities are traded and sold like cattle. They are housed in terrible situations, sold to people who use and abuse them like objects. Knowing that this type of scenario has ever happened to any group of people throughout history is terrible.
The book described a single instance of the slave trade in its fantasy world. It cannot replicate or represent every instance of human slavery throughout history. What it can do, is provide a schema for those events in the mind of the reader. What Blood Heir does is provide every reader with a general understanding that the trafficking of human beings, regardless of their country of origin, is wrong.
“We’re a reminder that their cloaks are not white, but red – stained with the blood of Affinities. We represent the flame of hope…”Blood Heir Chapter 21
To insinuate that the trafficking of these characters, coded as East Asian with magical abilities is somehow insulting to people who have suffered due to the African slave trade smacks of othering in its own right. That effectively means that anyone who has suffered less than the most oppressed black person does not have a valid experience that should be shared. No two ethnic groups have the same experience of slavery or trafficking. No two people in the same ethnic group have the same experience. To say that this author’s experience or history somehow diminishes the horror wrought by the African slave trade is wrong. She is telling her story. Even if that story is less horrific, that does not make it irrelevant.
Blood Heir is certainly not the first book to present this notion of oppression of magic, in place of oppression of skin tone. There’s a great example in Song of the Dead by Sarah Glenn Marsh, where the main character Odessa is threatened and almost killed because she is a Necromancer visiting a new land. They don’t allow Necromancers on their shores, and she’s attacked because of it. The idea that this type of representation of oppression via anything other than skin tone is new and shouldn’t exist is just a farce.
As the book progresses, there is one more major theme that comes into the fore of the story. Ana and Ramson are each looking for their own forms of revenge. Ana wants to destroy the people who caused her pain in childhood, and Ramson wants to take back a work position that was stolen from him. As time goes on, it becomes clear that they have each been misled and that their desire for revenge has blinded them to the truth.
This idea is certainly not new, an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind and all that. However, in a book with such a focus on the dangers of oppression, I thought it was especially poignant. Instead of trying to destroy every person who played even the smallest role (intentionally or unintentionally) in oppression, it’s crucial that we understand the truth of the present to create a more tolerant and accepting future.
At this point in my review, I decided to go back and read the negative review on Goodreads that seemed to fuel the criticism of the book. You can find it here, I have no qualms with providing this reviewers opinion. There are a few additional elements they mentioned that I want to touch on briefly.
“Perhaps monsters never meant to hurt other, either. Perhaps monsters didn’t even know they were monsters.”Blood Heir Chapter 2
The plagiarism this reviewer noted is not so much plagiarism as it is a derivation. That may seem like splitting hairs but it’s not. There are a few phrases that are similar/identical to other books but when reading lots of Fantasy that is a common occurrence. I do agree somewhat with the claim that Linnet is similar to Inej from Six of Crows. She constantly says “Action and counteraction”, which brought to mind “Action and echo”. Do I think that’s grounds for pulling the book from publication? Absolutely not. I think there is a lot more to Linnet that will flesh out who she is in future books. Linnet has magic, Inej doesn’t, she’s younger, she’s in a totally different world. If every book featuring a blonde white girl with swords and sarcasm shouldn’t exist we would have a lot fewer books on the shelves.
While I absolutely respect the author’s choice not to publish at this time, I do hope that she will give this story to the reading public in the future. I think a lot of people will find elements of Ana’s story that resonate with them. I really loved the writing and the attention to how people can be blinded by pain. If you have further questions about the book, or my thoughts I am happy to discuss more in the comments.
Please note that all quotes were taken from the uncorrected NetGalley eArc and are subject to change.