Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko (a review) (A.K.A. The Best YA Fantasy of 2020)
Updated: Sep 22, 2021
GENRE: YA Fantasy
LENGTH: 343 pages
PLOT Tarisai has grown up with a distant mother known only as The Lady and a revolving door of servants and tutors. All she longs for is a family and she just might get it when her mother commands her to travel to the empire's capital. She is to win the love of the crown prince and gain a place on his council. The only catch? Then she has to kill him.
There are quite a few characters in this novel but I'm mainly going to focus on the protagonist (Tarisai), the crown prince (Ekundayo also called Dayo), and two of the other council members (Kirah and Sanjeet also called Jeet). I adored all four of these characters. Tarisai was selfless and brave, Dayo was naive but had a good heart, Sanjeet came across as intimidating but was actually very protective of those he loved, and Kirah was sweet and reliable.
By themselves these characters were all wholesome and perfect. Together they were even better. It is so rare that I read YA books which feature platonic love and treat it as being just as important and moving as romantic love. There's nothing wrong with romance (and indeed Tarisai and Sanjeet do have romantic feelings for each other) but I appreciated how friendship wasn't overlooked in this novel. The friendship bonds between these characters are the backbone of this story.
I also want to briefly mention Tarisai's mother, The Lady. I was pleasantly surprised by her character's depth. Ifueko did an excellent job of making her someone you love to hate and then later on adding some nuance to her.
The novel is told from the first person perspective of Tarisai. First person is my preferred narrative style and for the context of this novel it is also the one that makes the most sense. At the heart of this novel is Tarisai's desire to connect with others and have a family. When she connects with the Ray (a magic which allows Tarisai and other council members and the prince to telepathically communicate with each other) that becomes a reality. The first person style helps the reader connect with the protagonist and other characters. I felt included in Tarisai's inner circle, as though I was part of the Ray as well.
The novel is fast paced and there is a lot of story in less than 350 pages. Ifueko trimmed a lot of fat with travel scenes being mostly cut. I actually enjoy traveling in novels and often write them within my own stories. However, I can understand Ifueko's decision as she likely wanted to keep the story progressing and the reader interested. I also can't complain because I don't like slow pacing in stories.
Ifueko's writing includes a lot of foreshadowing and subversion of expectations. Both of these are things I like seeing in novels because they show an author's intentions and attentiveness. It is important to mention the trigger warnings (which I don't consider to be spoilers) this novel should come with. There is a brief, not explicit scene of a man being forced to have non consensual sex with a woman. While again not explicit there is also a mention of a very, very minor character committing suicide and mention of her method of doing so. Finally, one of the main characters comes from a home of domestic abuse (once more mentioned but there are no actual scenes describing it).
In an interview with United by Pop (link at bottom of this review) Ifueko described the world of Raybearer (a continent known as Aritstar) as being unique to fiction but having West African inspiration as well as European fairy tale elements. This takes from her background as the daughter of Nigerian immigrants (the interview mentions that Nigeria was a British colony at the time her parents lived there). You can tell a lot of thought and care went into the world building. I liked how Ifueko mingled her cultural background along with elements from her own imagination to create a world that honors her heritage while still being uniquely her own. I also appreciated the glossary in the back of the novel which offers a quick refrence for terms regarding the world. These can be useful tools for readers and especially in the fantasy genre.
This is the best YA fantasy I have read this year (usurping Forest of Souls in my heart, though that novel remains solidly in second place). From its characters that I couldn't help but love to its expansive world, this novel had everything I look for not only in a fantasy but in a novel in general. The novel ends on a major cliffhanger and I know I'll be pre-ordering the sequel next year, eager to have it in my hands and return to this world.
FINAL RATING: 5 ⭐️