When someone hands me a book and says that it is one of the best books I will ever read I am often skeptical. There is no reason to be skeptical when it comes to Raybearer, the debut novel of Jordan Ifueko. From its first pages I was utterly enchanted by its protagonist, Tarsai, who at seven years old has stolen into the night, away from her gilded cage, with only a sack of mangoes.
Tarsai is a lonely figure. She is raised in isolation by a series of frightened tutors, her mother an often-absent figure who is obsessed with owning and controlling her as much as loving her, and never calls Tarsai by her name. She knows nothing of other children, of true kindness and friendship, until she is sent from her home region of Swana to the capital of the Arit Empire, Oluwan. But her journey is not one of her choice. The crux of Tarsai’s dilemma is thus: she has been commanded and compelled by her mother to kill the crowned prince as soon as she is anointed as part of his circle of Eleven, but she cannot be anointed until she loves him.
Tarsai’s inner battle, between her love for her friends and her love for her mother is heartbreaking. More than anything, Raybearer pushes the boundaries of what it means to be family to one another — in terms of friendship, in terms of blood, and in terms of romance. The book also pushes forth the question of how to settle cultural differences in a blended Empire. Toward the beginning of the book seeds are planted which eventually burst forth into blooming flowers, as tensions rise between those from the different realms of the Arit Empire and conflict erupts. The leading events and the harsh Imperial response are integral to the book, and speak to more than this fictional universe alone, but to all notions of Empire and the nuances and similarities of assimilation and oppression.
Raybearer pushes many boundaries and asks one to consider the lengths they would go for love, as well as what kinds of love we would choose above others. Characters choose for whom they would die and for whom they would kill, prioritizing one love over another, forced to save the one they could not bear to lose, forced to make impossible choices. The stakes in Raybearer are higher than in any other book I have read, and my heart pounded with every line. There are secrets within secrets — some hardly uncovered — and even when the reader thinks they know more than the protagonist its only to discover that we really knew hardly anything at all. Were there some things I could see coming? Sure. And it is true that sometimes, when I can see a twist coming in a book, it ruins that twist entirely. In Raybearer? I was all the more pleased, because I got the satisfaction of being right… while still a little bit wrong.
Raybearer is a fantastic addition to the literary canon and I will be recommending it for years to come, as well as pre-ordering the sequel. If you have not read it already, I implore you to get a copy from your local library or an independent bookshop today!