A Song of Wraiths and Ruin book review: Roseanne A Brown deftly weaves African mythology into classic YA Fantasy elements

A Song of Wraiths and Ruin retains the traditional elements that make YA Fantasy captivating, such as strong female characters, a sense of otherworldliness, and intrigue, while also stepping out of the norm by weaving in West African culture, to create an intricate background to this exquisite tapestry

Kaavya Muthuganesan August 13, 2020 14:35:45 IST
A Song of Wraiths and Ruin book review: Roseanne A Brown deftly weaves African mythology into classic YA Fantasy elements

“To listen to a griot was to enter a new world, one where heroes danced across the heavens with spirits in their wake and gods churned mountains into being with a flick of their wrists. Malik’s body seemed to move forward of its own accord, caught on the hypnotic lure of the woman’s voice.”

The ancient oral traditions of Africa go far beyond keeping historical records of past events — they provide opportunities to understand much deeper matters, such as the relationship between the creator and the creation, the relationship of humans to the environment and the universe, matters of life and death, spirits and beyond.

Just as Malik is hypnotised by the griot, so too are readers when they pick up A Song of Wraiths and Ruin, a compelling tale that embellishes the traditional Young Adult Fantasy novel with the rich culture of West Africa. Released in June, A Song of Wraiths and Ruin by Roseanne A Brown is the first work of mythological fiction in an enthralling duology that speaks of courage, acceptance and dealing with irrevocable loss.

The book's release came shortly after the shocking death of George Floyd that sparked worldwide protests against police brutality and racism, and added new vigour to the Black Lives Matter movement. This event also set the stage to reveal the long-simmering cauldron of disparities in the publishing industry, through the #PublishingPaidMe movement.

Brown's is a story with a seemingly simple plot, but the trajectory it takes is anything but simple or straightforward. Princess Karina and the refugee Malik find themselves on a path where they each need to kill someone, in order to save someone they love. Malik’s sister has been kidnapped by a vengeful spirit who will only return her if Malik kills the princess. Karina’s mother has been assassinated, and to resurrect her, she requires the beating heart of a king. Every 50 years, the kingdom hosts the Solstasia festival. Seven champions for the seven alignments compete to see which of their patron deities will rule over the next era. In order to get the heart of a king, Karina decides that the winner of the championship will be offered her hand in marriage.

Meanwhile, Malik decides that his best chance to get close to the princess is as one of the champions. We are immediately immersed into Ziran, when Malik and his sisters arrive at the city as refugees, hopeful for a better life. It is here that we are introduced to the main themes of the book – systemic oppression and family relationships. Malik and his sisters are a part of the Eshrani people, a tribe that has been deemed the lowest of all the cultures in this world. The Ziran government controls the life of Eshranis and refuses to allow them to enter Ziran. Two centuries ago, Ziranis entered the Eshran mountains to quell a dispute, and since then have continued their occupation, in order to have access to the fertile land and resources in the mountains.

Writer Devdutt Pattanaik once said, “Mythology itself is about figuring out worldviews of cultures — how did people think in a culture.” When asked which cultures inspired Brown, she answered, “I knew from the start that I wanted to set the story in an analogue to the trade routes between the Sahara Desert and West Africa because that region has had some of the most interesting kingdoms in all of African history. I drew a lot from the ancient kingdoms of Ghana, Mali, and Songhay plus a bit from the history of the Almoravid and Almohad empires of Morocco. The magic system drew inspiration from the spiritual beliefs of the Akan people of Ghana, my mother’s people.”

She paints an image of the lush landscape, and her prose draws you in, deep into the world, transporting you to a place with gods and demons, magic and stories.

One of the things Brown brings in from her culture is the role of the griot as a storyteller. A griot is a West African historian, storyteller, praise singer, poet, or musician. Renowned writer and composer Francis Bebey wrote about griots in his book African Music, A People's Art: "The West African griot is a troubadour, the counterpart of the medieval European minstrel... The griot knows everything that is going on... He is a living archive of the people's traditions... The virtuoso talents of the griots command universal admiration. This virtuosity is the culmination of long years of study and hard work under the tuition of a teacher who is often a father or uncle. The profession is by no means a male prerogative. There are many women griots whose talents as singers and musicians are equally remarkable.”

Stories transmitted in the form of songs are an interactive and engaging experience that involves the audience through a ‘call and response form’ to explore the various myths that entrench the rich and diverse culture and traditions of the African society. These myths play an important role in instilling deeper values, helping understand human life, and in bringing coherence and stability to the society. Most of these historical tales, myths, cultural beliefs, and legends from generations ago still live on to this day, due to the oral traditions that have continued despite all the modernisation in the current era. This unique tradition helps bridge the past with the present, ensuring the accessibility of the myths.

Brown must have imbibed something from the griots, as she has cleverly decided to allow us to see Ziran through the lenses of both familiarity and newness. We learn about this place through the eyes of Malik, and we see it as known territory through Karina’s eyes. The world building and plot are intertwined with details like the masks of deities and shadowy spirit creatures.

One famous West African-inspired folktale can be found in this book – the tales regaling Hyena the trickster. In both West African culture and Zirani culture, there is a set of stories revolving around Hyena and her exploits. In Brown's world, Hyena is a trickster who often lands up in trouble, while in Ziran, Hyena is who the people turn to when in desperate need of help, by making deals with her.

Chapters of the book alternate between Malik and Karina's points of view. Malik breaks the mould of the typical male character found in YA Fantasy; he’s a lover of stories, a dreamer at heart, and sensitive and caring. Karina is a princess who wishes to be a musician and longs to leave her kingdom. She is passionate and bold, while also uncertain of her capabilities as Sultana. They have each gone through the pain of loss and failure. They deal with PTSD, while Karina also suffers from chronic migraines.

The first half of the book is set at a leisurely pace, allowing the reader to get acquainted with the world, while the second half is quite literally un-put-down-able: you won’t want to miss a single plot twist. Secrets are revealed, history revealed, motivations revealed — you’ll wonder how you missed seeing all these elements in the beginning. Perhaps you got lost or distracted by the vivid scenery, exquisitely developed characters, or the rich folklore.

This book retains the traditional elements that make YA Fantasy captivating, such as strong female characters, a sense of otherworldliness, and intrigue, while also stepping out of the norm by weaving in West African culture, to create an intricate background to this exquisite tapestry.

A mesmerising tale that mirrors the current global reality, and seamlessly blends the modern and the ancient, A Song of Wraiths and Ruin has everything you could want in the perfect book for a relaxed lockdown reading during a monsoon evening.

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