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? With extraordinary world-building and breathtaking prose, Raybearer is the story of loyalty, fate, and the lengths we’re willing to go for the ones we love.
I will be very honest, I was mesmerized by the cover of this book and the premise seemed very fascinating, but it wasn’t really at the top of my tbr or anything. I just thought I’ll keep it on the list and read someday. But when I got the opportunity to listen to the audiobook in advance, I thought why not and now I can’t believe that I wanted to put this book on a back burner. Because this book… it’s just wow 🤩🤩🤩
The world building and magic system in this is amazing. The history of how Aritsar came to be, how the multiple realms were united, the mythology of the gods, the Storyteller and the underworld is told to us slowly in bits and pieces through the narrative, and I really enjoyed the process of discovering it all. We also get to know more about the traditions and cultures of each of the realms, and how they are all different from each other but still very much a part of the empire. I also thought that the whole idea of the Ray, the link between the Raybearer and his council, and how it almost grants the bearer immortality was such a fascinating concept.
The writing is so vibrant and stunning and once I started, I just couldn’t put it down. It’s also steeped in Nigerian folklore and culture, and these elements only made the story more immersive and utterly captivating. The pacing of the story can feel slow and steady at times, but there is always a dreadful feeling looming in the back of our head, and we keep waiting for the unthinkable to happen – and it made for some very edge of the seat moments.
A very special mention about the narrator of the audiobook Joniece Abbott-Pratt – she brings so much life to this book that you are immersed in it right from the word go. The way she gave different accents for characters from different regions, changing her tone to evoke emotions, and sang the many songs which are a part of the story beautifully, is all just amazing and now I can’t even imagine just reading this book again without her telling it.
There are so many characters here and it’s impossible not to fall in love. We only follow the POV of our MC, Tarisai who is a sheltered young girl sent to the capital to become a part of the crown prince’s council. She may have been educated on a lot of things since childhood with the intention of making it onto the council, which makes her very smart and strategic and capable – but all she wants in life in love. She wants to be loved and touched and comforted and that’s what she longs for, and it’s heartbreaking at times to read. But she also has a great sense of justice and compassion, and tries her best to do the right things even when she is being compelled not to do so.
What she finds in the capital is what she seeks – unconditional love. And all the characters who form the council are such a powerful example of the beauty of found family that I can’t describe it in words. Crown Prince Ekundayo (or just Dayo) is the best friend we all wish we have. He may be the next emperor but he has the purest heart, wears his love and emotions on the sleeve, and is just a gem of person whom you wanna protect with all your heart. His relationship with Tarisai is precious and while many on the outside mistake their closeness for a romantic entanglement, they are best friends and soulmates rolled into one and I loved them.
Sanjeet is another council member who is expected to be the general because of his strength and his magical abilities but all he wants to do is protect Dayo, if possible without having to resort to violence. His relationship with Tar goes through so many trials but it’s a bond forged through fire and I could totally feel why they were so inseparable. And then comes the most amazing female friendship I could have asked for – Kirah and Tar. They are a delight as children, sharing all their hopes and dreams and as they grow old, trust each other completely even when circumstances try to tear them apart.
We don’t really get to feel that emotional connect with every other member of the council but their love for each other is palpable through the pages. And there are so many more who play the roles of mentors, father/mother figures, the mysterious Lady who has her own intentions – we can never guess who is being truthful and who is acting in bad faith, and it’s all just so much fun to discover as the story goes on. There wasn’t a single character who I thought didn’t have an impact on the story, despite it being a huge ensemble.
There are so many themes the author sheds a light on in this book, I don’t think I can even get to most of them. As I’ve mentioned above, found family is the major backbone of this story and while I absolutely adored it, there were also moments where we question if the bonds would be the same if they weren’t all bound by the Ray. There’s immense trust and vulnerability that they share with each other, but would they all be so open without the scare of council sickness. And this also ties in to their desire to find their own identity – wanting to do something that they believe in rather than what they are destined for and expected to – and learning to navigate this thin line while ensuring the greater good of the empire.
We also get to see the perils of patriarchy and lust for power taken to the extreme, and how they can change the victims and take them on paths that they would have otherwise not chosen; and also how the powers to be keep making grave mistakes after another to hold onto their power. One thing that really resonated with me was the idea of how colonization tries to erase indigenous cultures and traditions, and tries to homogenize everything in the name of assimilation, only resulting in people being forcibly disconnected from their roots, ultimately breeding resentment and rebellion.
There is so much more I could talk about that I loved in this debut fantasy novel but I think I’ll stop now. In the end, all I want to say is that if you want to read a YA fantasy that will make you feel a part of the world and it’s characters, a story that is gripping, evocative, thought provoking and thoroughly unputdownable – then this is the perfect recommendation for you. The audiobook is an extra level of spectacular and I would highly suggest anyone to go for the format to experience the beauty of this story to the fullest. This West-African inspired ownvoices fantasy is truly one of the best and most magnificent stories I’ve read this year, and I’m so glad that we are being blessed with many such amazing books these days.
PS: Thank you to Blackstone Publishing and Libro.fm for providing me with this advance listening copy. All opinions expressed here are unbiased and solely mine.