In This Strong Sequel, Taking The Throne Is Easy — Keeping It, Not So Much
Redemptor continues the breathtakingly beautiful tale of a young woman who is being torn apart by the responsibilities of being both empress and sacrifice. After the events of Raybearer, Tarisai is now the empress of Aritsar — but laden with grief and guilt.
In that first book, we saw Tarisai make a bargain with the abiku, spirits of the underworld, to end a pact that had kept peace at the price of children's lives: She must form her own ruling council, linked by the psychic power of the Ray, then surrender herself to the underworld in two years' time.
Grief and guilt are the villains here
Tarisai's guilt is the true antagonist of the book, driving her to dark corners of her mind, where she risks using her powers to control and dominate others "for their own good" — and allowing the abiku to manipulate her. Though Redemptor struggles with an overly large cast, Tarisai's arc and the empathy you feel for her (and her guilt) more than makes up for it.
This theme is one of the most arresting parts of Redemptor: No one person can make up for the deaths of thousands of children, or the abuse of the impoverished by the nobility — but the ghosts and demons that taunt Tarisai tell her that in fact she can, and she must. She is literally haunted, but by thoughts she'd have had anyway.
It's hard to make me want to yell about emotional decisions like you'd yell at someone going into the basement in a horror movie, but that was absolutely the vibe here.
Watching Tarisai distance herself from her loved ones, often seeing their concern only in the worst of lights, was painful but all too believable. So, too, was the way that she saw those who burned themselves out for a cause as worthy of emulation. It's hard to make me want to yell about emotional decisions like you'd yell at someone going into the basement in a horror movie, but that was absolutely the vibe here.
Ifueko understands that recovering from trauma isn't just an easy, single-step journey. Oftentimes when books try to depict characters backsliding into trauma responses, it can feel forced, as if the authors are pulling bits into place so that the backslide happens. For the most part, Redemptor avoids that.
Speaking of obvious, there are a couple of obvious twists in the story (I guessed the identity of the Crocodile, our Batman/Robin Hood/Killmonger immediately), but Ifueko doesn't stop there. The implications of the reveals are the point, as is how the reveals affect Tarisai's relationship to her trauma. Redemptor often speaks of how removing the pain and trauma removes or alters someone's story (not to be confused with that old trope, "you need pain to make art"), and brings the point home multiple times.
Family connections hold the story together — but sometimes gum it up
Love and connection has always been a main theme in these books. In Redemptor, Tarisai must have her new council love her to complete the bond, but what does that love mean? What parts of her must they love? Tarisai's first council, the one she joined in Raybearer, is already psychically bound to her, council siblings and partners. Some of this family have excellent moments in this book — Sanjeet, Ai Ling and Dayo particularly shine, with several moments each to take center stage.
However, having a psychically bonded family of nearly a dozen, who experience a maddening "council sickness" when separated for too long can make for a cluttered cast. This is especially true when Tarisai has to make a new family of 12. This leads into one of the largest stumbling blocks of the novel: There are a lot of names, a lot of characters, and many of them vanish quickly. Council sickness is handwaved with an herb that prevents it (that is mostly used for other, more interesting purposes), and while it is held up as a threat the whole novel, you never have to deal with it.
The ending suffered from the same kind of handwaving, but this time it was in the pacing. Now to be clear, I loved the ending. The language, trials of the underworld and the way that Ifueko faced the book's major themes was amazing. However, the last six or so chapters felt as if they were originally a third book. There's even an unnecessary speedup at the end — why give a longer timeline when, in a single sentence, you're going to say "I decided to move a year early. People didn't like it," and say nothing else about it?
Diversity and disability are mostly handled well
Ifueko shows a true range of diversity in Redemptor and for the most part she does it incredibly well. In particular, the conversations about babies between Dayo and Tarisai (Dayo is sex averse, and Tarisai is unsure if she wants babies at all, but they are expected to have an heir) were handled very well. Dayo's asexuality is respected, and it was notable to me in Redemptor that Ifueko chose to only have those that respected his boundaries ever talk about it.
Overall, I found 'Redemptor' impossible to put down.
That said, I struggled with disability rep in some of the smaller characters. Ifueko gives most of these characters individual stories, and allows them to actively reject Tarisai's desire to assuage her guilt by healing them. However, in a world where everyone is mystically gifted or tremendously talented, it was hard to ignore that the disabled characters had talents that instantly made you connect to their disability: Her blind brother sees the future, her bard has a trauma-induced stutter, and the character that lost her arms was a calligraphy dancer. I wish that their abilities were less connected in this way; that said, I do think the bard and ex-dancer are some of my favorite smaller characters.
Overall, I found Redemptor impossible to put down. Most of the flaws come from the fact that the world and characters Ifueko gave us were so enthralling that it was frustrating to watch them vanish in the background. I wonder if there could have been a way to show how Tarisai's trauma distances her, without making everything vanish for the readers as well. That said, I hope we get more in this world, and I am sold on anything that Ifueko creates for her audience from this point on.
Danny Lore is a Black SF/F writer of prose and comics. They hail from Harlem and the Bronx.
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