Review: Redemptor, by Jordan Ifueko
eagle at eyrie.org
Sat Jan 8 19:21:29 PST 2022
by Jordan Ifueko
Series: Raybearer #2
Publisher: Amulet Books
Redemptor is the second half of a duology that started with Raybearer.
You could read the first book without the second, but reading the
second without the first will not make much sense. I'm going to be a
bit elliptical in my plot description since there's a lot of potential
for spoilers for the first book.
Tarisai has reached a point of stability and power, but she's also
committed herself to a goal, one that will right a great historical and
ongoing injustice. She's also now in a position to both notice and
potentially correct numerous other injustices in the structure of her
society, and plans to start by defending those closest to her. But in
the midst of her opening gambit to save someone she believes is
unjustly imprisoned, the first murderous undead child appears,
attacking both Tarisai's fragile sense of security and her self-esteem
and self-worth. Before long, she's drowning in feelings of inadequacy
and isolation, and her grand plans for reordering the world have turned
into an anxiety loop of self-flagellating burnout.
I so much wanted to like this book. Argh.
I think I see what Ifueko was aiming for, and it's a worthy topic for a
novel. In Raybearer, Tarisai got the sort of life that she previously
could only imagine, but she's also the sort of person who shoulders
massive obligations. Imposter syndrome, anxiety, overwork, and burnout
are realistic risks, and are also important topics to write about.
There are some nicely subtle touches buried in this story, such as the
desire of her chosen family to have her present and happy without
entirely understanding why she isn't, and without seeing the urgency
that she sees in the world's injustice. The balancing act of being
effective without overwhelming oneself is nearly impossible, and
Tarisai has very little preparation or knowledgeable support.
But this story is told with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, and in a
way that felt forced rather than arising naturally from the characters.
If the point of emphasis had been a disagreement with her closest
circle over when and how much the world should be changed, I think this
would be a better book. In the places where this drives the plot, it is
a better book. But Ifueko instead externalizes anxiety and depression
in the form of obviously manipulative demonic undead children who
(mostly) only Tarisai can see, and it's just way too much. Her
reactions are manipulated and sometimes externally imposed in a way
that turns what should have been a character vs. self plot into a
character vs. character plot in which the protagonist is very obviously
making bad decisions and the antagonist is an uninteresting cliche.
The largest problem I had with this book is that I found it thuddingly
obvious, in part because the plot felt like it was on narrowly
constrained rails to ensure it hit all of the required stops. When the
characters didn't want the plot to go somewhere, they're sidelined,
written out of the story, or otherwise forcibly overridden. Tarisai has
to feel isolated, so all the people who, according to the events of the
previous book and the established world-building rules, would not let
her be isolated are pushed out of her life. When this breaks the rules
of magic in this world, those rules are off-handedly altered.
Characters that could have had their own growth arcs after Raybearer
become static and less interesting, since there's no room for them in
the plot. Instead, we get all new characters, which gives Redemptor a
bit of a cast size problem.
Underneath this, there is an occasional flash of great writing. Ifueko
chooses to introduce a dozen mostly-new characters to an already large
cast and I was still able to mostly keep them straight, which shows
real authorial skill. She is very good with short bursts of
characterization to make new characters feel fresh and interesting.
Even the most irritating of the new characters (Crocodile, whose
surprise twist I thought was obvious and predictable) is an interesting
archetype to explore in a book about activism and activist burnout. I
can see some pieces of a better book here. But I desperately wanted
something to surprise me, for Tarisai or one of the other characters to
take the plot in some totally unexpected direction the way that
Raybearer did. It never happened.
That leads directly to another complaint: I liked Raybearer in part
because of the freshness of a different mythological system and a
different storytelling tradition than what we typically get in fantasy
novels. I was hoping for more of the same in Redemptor, which meant I
was disappointed when I got a mix of Christianity and Greek mythology.
As advertised by Raybearer, the central mythological crisis of
Redemptor concerns the Underworld. This doesn't happen until about 80%
into the book (which is also a bit of a problem; the ending felt rushed
given how central it was to the plot), so I can't talk about it in
detail without spoiling it. But what I think I can say is that
unfortunately the religious connotations of the title are not an
accident. Rather than something novel that builds on the excellent idea
of the emi-ehran spirit animal, there is a lot of Christ symbolism
mixed with an underworld that could have come from an Orpheus
retelling. There's nothing inherently wrong with this (although the
Christian bits landed poorly for me), but it wasn't what I was hoping
for from the mythology of this world.
I rarely talk much about the authors in fiction reviews. I prefer to
let books stand on their own without trying too hard to divine the
author's original intentions. But here, I think it's worth
acknowledging Ifueko's afterword in which she says that writing
Redemptor in the middle of a pandemic, major depression, and the George
Floyd protests was the most difficult thing she'd ever done. I've seen
authors write similar things in afterwords when the effect on the book
was minimal or invisible, but I don't think that was the case here.
Redemptor is furious, anxious, depressed, and at points despairing, and
while it's okay for novels to be all of those things when it's under
the author's control, here they felt like emotions that were imposed on
the story from outside.
Raybearer was an adventure story about found family and ethics that
happened to involve a lot of politics. Redemptor is a story about
political activism and governance, but written in a universe whose
bones are set up for an adventure story. The mismatch bothered me
throughout; not only did these not feel like the right characters to
tell this story with, but the politics were too simple, too morally
clear-cut, and too amenable to easy solutions for a good political
fantasy. Raybearer focused its political attention on colonialism.
That's a deep enough topic by itself to support a duology (or more),
but Redemptor adds in property rights, land reform, economic and social
disparity, unfair magical systems, and a grab bag of other issues, and
it overwhelms the plot. There isn't space and time to support solutions
with sufficient complexity to satisfyingly address the problems. Ifueko
falls back on benevolent dictator solutions, and I understand why, but
that's not the path to a satisfying resolution in an overtly political
This is the sort of sequel that leaves me wondering if I can recommend
reading the first book and not the second, and that makes me sad.
Redemptor is not without its occasional flashes of brilliance, but I
did not have fun reading this book and I can't recommend the
experience. That said, I think this is a book problem, not an author
problem; I will happily read Ifueko's next novel, and I suspect it will
be much better.
Rating: 5 out of 10
Russ Allbery (eagle at eyrie.org) <https://www.eyrie.org/~eagle/>
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