Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko (a review) (A.K.A. The Best YA Fantasy of 2020)
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 loves, 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 a romance) but I appreciated how friendship wasn't overlooked in this novel. The friendship bonds between these characters are the backbone of this story and what kept me feeling invested.
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. First person is the style that I personally feel helps the reader best connect with the protagonist. I felt included in Tarisai's inner circle, as though I was part of the Ray as well.
I have no complaints in terms of pacing. At just under 350 pages nothing in the story felt rushed. The novel does start with Tarisai at eleven and eventually fast-forwards to her mid-to-late teen years, but it doesn't feel like any character development is really lost from this.
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.
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 ⭐️