Review: Blood Debts
A Magical Celebration of Black Culture and Identity
by Terry J. Benton-Walker
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"At time I resent her for being able to hold on to hope when it slips through my fingers. Hope is for white people and idiots."
Let’s just get this out of the way: some of you will be appalled that this book is classified as Young Adult. There is bloody violence, abundant colorful language, sex, and (some off-page) drug use. I can see you clutching your pearls from here, aghast that Macmillan has set the age range from 13-18. Unclench. No one is saying your thirteen-year-old has to read it. If you feel this book is inappropriate for your young reader, save it for a later date. And I do mean save it because Blood Debts by Terry J. Benton-Walker is not a story to be missed. This novel is chalked full of representation and reckoning with the sordid history of racism in the United States, specifically NOLA. There are plenty of fantastical elements, but the story is grounded in the veritable experiences of the not-so-distant history of the South and the mark they have left on the present.
Christina (Chris) and Clement (Clem) are fraternal twins whose relationship has become strained after the death of their father and their mother’s severe and mysterious illness. But that is hardly the only trouble to befoul their family. This magical world of New Orleans in which they live is home to Generational or Gen magic and the seat of the magic counsel. A counsel of which their grandmother was the queen until she was dethroned and her family disgraced. But the reader quickly learns all is not what it seems. While misfortune has caused Chris to retreat from magic, Clem rejoices in it, becoming yet another source of conflict for the siblings. However, with trouble brewing all around them, they’ll need to find a way to unite.
This book is a love letter to Black folks. It is unflinching in its examination of oppressive systems while being a celebration of the grit and vibrant tenacity of the Black community. It validates all the feelings of culture, family, and frustration. It explores intergenerational trauma and the effect of present-day racism. The peruser gets to observe thoughtful characterization of intersecting identities. It lives up to the Author’s Note, in which the reader will have to sit and ponder the many nuanced issues introduced in this novel. And it does so in such a way that younger readers will be able to take part in these conversations about morality and liberation.
I am always super impressed when an author weaves multiple complex storylines into a cohesive and satisfying end product. Sure there are a couple of loose threads, but that has more to do with leaving the door open for a sequel. Clem and Chris feel like real teenagers, even with magic involved. The magical system that Benton-Walker created is rooted in Black spirituality and religious practices. The pantheon of gods is both helpful and meddlesome, and it will be interesting to see where Benton takes them in the next book.
Having the pleasure of listening to the audiobook, I really enjoyed the narration. Because there were so many characters (some with similar names), I had to go back several times to figure out who was who. Although not necessary to the story, I would have loved a glossary of the gods and magical terms. The language used throughout the book prioritizes authenticity and accessibility, so there is no flowery prose to be found here. And while I had no pages to turn, it certainly left me staying up later than I had intended wanting to know what happened next.
Blood Debts is the perfect read for those looking for BIPOC and queer representation who love magical realism and urban fantasy.
Blood Debts will be available on April 4, 2023.