Blood Heir – review

Author: Amelie Wen Zhao
Publication date: November 19, 2019
Genre: young adult fantasy
My rating: 3.5/5 stars

For a novel that has inspired such intense feelings from fellow readers–both positive and negative–Blood Heir was a surprisingly lukewarm read for me. Though it does have its moments, especially with its handling of some real-world problems in a fantasy context, its overall impression on me was still that of a fairly common, predictable YA fantasy.

Scattered throughout this review are some quotes I particularly enjoyed. Some take place in logical order; others I just kind of dropped in there. Sorry in advance for the casual tone of this review–it just felt fitting.

I suppose we are all heroes in our own eyes, and monsters in the eyes of those who are different.

Quick plot summary: Ana is a princess on the run. Having fled her kingdom after being framed for the murder of her father, she teams up with the criminal Ramson Quicktongue and sets off to find her father’s true murderer, a man she knows by face but not by name. Constantly plaguing Ana is the fact that she is also an Affinite, in possession of the ability to supernaturally manipulate a specific thing–in her case, blood, an Affinity previously unheard of. Affinites are not exactly treated well in Cyrilia: the rich have their abilities suppressed by a poison known as Deys’voshk, while the poor–including immigrants who come to Cyrilia seeking work–are sold and used for slave labor or forced to entertain, depending on the type of Affinity they hold. As Ana and Ramson work together, each seeking their own personal vengeance, they uncover much more sinister forces at work than just a cruel slave trade. A revolution is brewing, the royal family is in danger, and all of Cyrilia’s future might depend on the actions of these two outlaws…if they can trust themselves, and each other, to make the right choices.

In a world of con men, crime lords, and cutthroats, there was no honor and there were no rules to the game. You only played to win.

First off, the quick-yet-generic details everyone wants to know. The writing is elegant and smooth, making for a very easy read. Our two main characters, Ana and Ramson, both have tragic backstories and ruthless streaks a mile wide, which only narrowly conceal their hearts of gold. The two also frequently snipe at each other with witty banter that, I will admit, made me laugh at times. Ramson in particular is the sort of suave, charming, cocky guy you would hate if he wasn’t also incredibly smart, ferocious, (allegedly) good-looking, and harboring his own code of surprisingly strong ethics. Ana is naive, yes, but she grows quickly. Plus, she can literally bleed a man dry just by thinking it, and that’s freaking awesome. In other words, our two leads are some of my favorite character types, which means they were a delight to read about. There were some compelling side characters as well, mostly young Affinite revolutionaries, with their own ideals and nifty magical abilities…but there were some predictable elements there, too: the childhood best friend, the little girl who is wise beyond her years, the mystical and spiritual old woman. That’s not to say that they weren’t enjoyable, but their roles felt a little bit like stock characters rather than original concepts.

“You clean up nicely for a criminal.”

“Darling, you’d do well to remember it’s often the criminals who are the best-dressed.”

The worldbuilding is decent, though some elements–the nature of the monarchy, how Deys’voshk works, why Affinites exist in the first place, how Cyrilia interacts with its neighboring countries–were left a bit too vague for my liking. It would be fine if characters at least questioned these things, if no explanation was available, but nobody even wondered. In a story where setting is crucial, with sociopolitical problems taking center stage, this failure to fully detail the world is a dramatic shortcoming. (Plus, if we’re being honest, the whole Russian-inspired fantasy world concept has been having a major moment–the Grishaverse, the Winternight trilogy, Spinning Silver, and so on–but it is starting to get a little overplayed, especially since there is very little to differentiate these worlds from each other aside from their different magic systems.)

Let’s get to the point: this book’s greatest strength is that it carries a strong sense of social justice, with recurring themes including human trafficking, what happens when those in power turn a blind eye to corruption, and how a push for revolution can go too far. The Affinites are struggling and are a very literal stand-in for modern human trafficking, their plight magnified by the fact that people are either (a) unaware of their plight, (b) turning a blind eye to it because they don’t care, (c) turning a blind eye to it because powerful people will hurt them if they protest, or (d) actively participating in it. In other words, the novel illustrates how this is not a bad phenomenon happening in isolation; it is the whole system that is working to support it. And with the enslavement of Affinites serving as the backbone of Cyrilia’s economy, is it any surprise that the whole nation ends up complicit in such a horrible practice?

Choices were for those with privilege and power. When you had none, all you could do was survive.

That is not to say that people are okay with it. Ana is shocked and horrified when she learns just how bad the trafficking of Affinites is at the border, while Ramson–who, for a crime lord, has a surprisingly strong sense of morality–used to make sure that, no matter what sordid deeds he undertook, he never directly involved himself in the actual slave trade. For many, their unwillingness to rebel stems either from ignorance (Ana) or from a drive for self-preservation (Ramson).

All of these heavy topics are underscored by the book’s other major emphasis, about duality and self-determination. Constantly, Ana considers herself to be a monster, both for having an Affinity in general (Affinites are referred to by some as deimhovs, or demons) and for her specific ability to literally manipulate people’s blood. At the same time, she is constantly reminded by others that the important thing is not this thing she is born with, but rather how she decides to wield it. Sometimes this obsessive return to the concept of personal choice felt a little heavy-handed, but it drove home the necessary message that we are never truly powerless to change our ways, or our selves.

Thing is, Ramson, you can achieve everything in this world, but if it’s for someone else, it’s pointless. Figure out what you want to do in this life. Live for yourself. You might be the world’s strongest battleship, but you can’t navigate without a compass.

Given these strong themes, though, I was disappointed by how downright predictable many of the plot elements were. While I won’t say too much for fear of spoilers, I will say that very few of the “twists” felt like actual twists to me, and things mostly went exactly as I expected. There is at least one major character death I could predict within a few pages of meeting said character. Maybe I’ve just read too much YA fantasy to be surprised by these things, but I don’t know. And, of course, they throw in one of my least-favorite tropes: there is a romance forced in there for literally no reason. Why can’t there just be a friendship? It went too quickly, I think, and didn’t feel natural at all. As if that wasn’t enough, why, for the love of all that is good in this world, did they have to have that typical type of scene where the guy gets injured, he takes off his shirt so the girl can help treat the wounds, and she ends up ogling his muscles and falls in love with him basically on the spot? Just…why? WHY IS THE WHOLE “SHIRTLESS SCENE” A THING?

/end rant

“You’re a despicable human being,” he spat.

“I’m a despicable human being who gets things done. You’d do well to remember that the next time you ask me to get more creative.”

Of course, this review would not be complete without some sort of commentary on all the controversy this book generated. In the spring of 2019, advance readers of the book were quick to criticize Zhao’s depiction of slavery…on the grounds that (forgive me if I’m paraphrasing this incorrectly) it did not mirror the way slavery had happened in America, and she herself was not black.

America, not everything is about us! Zhao is from China, a nation with its own history of slavery–and even if she wasn’t from China, she never tried to claim this novel was historical; it is set in a fantasy world! Human trafficking is a real problem that persists globally, even today, for people (especially women) of many walks of life, and to address it in the context of a world other than our own is not problematic. Beyond that, nothing in Zhao’s writing glorified the practice in any way. Quite the contrary: she showed the pain of separated families, the physical abuse and neglect Affinites experienced, the cruel behavior of others toward this minority group, and the way Affinites were sometimes fetishized for their skills and forced to perform onstage for the wealthy to gawk at. All of these were handled skillfully, not sugar-coated, but not turned into the sort of “torture porn” that some authors like to write about these difficult topics.

The other major point of controversy, I won’t go into here, since I like to keep my reviews spoiler-free and it has to do with a character’s death, but just know that I think the critical interpretation of that scene is missing the point of it altogether. Maybe I’ll write a Spilling the Tea post on it another day.

I think there is good and bad in everything, Ana. And it is the good of this world that makes it worth saving.

Anyway, the takeaway is this: Blood Heir is good, but aside from its elements related to slavery, there is very little to differentiate it from other YA fantasies on the market. Go ahead and read it–goodness knows, given all the crap that Zhao went through in trying to get it published, she deserves to get some money from it–but, if we are being honest, your mind will probably not be blown.

TRIGGER/CONTENT WARNINGS: slavery/human trafficking, torture, lots of blood/violence

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