Zelie can remember a time when her people had magic, a time before the Raid where magic was taken away and all the maji, including Zelie's mother, were murdered by order of the king. Now the powerless diviners are oppressed by King Saran and his guards who demand higher payments and take liberties with the girls while looking down on them. In an effort to make enough money to pay their latest debt, Zelie and her brother Tzain go to town to sell a rare fish. While there, a fugitive on the run from the palace guards begs for assistance and Zelie helps her escape from the city walls. Only later do the brother and sister realize they have helped the princess who has stolen a sacred scroll that helps ignite long lost powers in the diviners. With some of her magic awakened, Zelie learns that she is chosen to take three artifacts to a sacred place on the solstice to reconnect with the goddess and return magic to everyone. But the king and his son will do anything to make sure that doesn't happen, even while the prince discovers he has powers of his own.
I am not entirely settled on a rating for this book. Most parts of it are a solid 4.5 stars and other parts are just a three so I guess you could say that it was up and down for me - but mostly up. I really liked all three main characters and their growth (and their regression) throughout the book. Zelie is strong at parts but not so cocky that she has no insecurities as well. The pain she feels from previous traumas is presented so clearly by Adeyemi that you can feel it as a reader without crossing the line into being showy or just a passage in the book that is meant to be emotional but doesn't actually evoke feelings. Amari's journey from being the victim in palace sparring matches to really feeling herself as lionaire is beautiful and so wonderful for me as a woman reading it. And what's the story with her and Binta? I feel like there was something there but even if there wasn't, I loved that Amari's biggest source of support came from a woman. Meanwhile, Inan is such a huge sexy, disturbed mess that I both couldn't wait to see what he did and cringed every time his chapter arrived. He didn't really surprise me when all was said and done, but he made me sad all the same.
One thing that will make me love a story is ambiguity in good and evil, hero and villain, and course of action. This book had ambiguity not just in the characters, but also throughout the plot. You're cheering for magic to come back and yet there are scenes that left me totally understanding the king's point of view about destroying it. NOT the way he also massacred his people, but there's real danger in the magical abilities and I'm old enough to know that "absolute power corrupts absolutely" so I was worried about what was actually the right course of action here. I couldn't just skim the story, I had to put some real thought into it.
Finally, the world of Orisha is fully developed with enough world-building to make it a different place from here (except in terms of the politics of the place which has some definite similarities to real life, in particular to violence against the minorities in the land) but not so extreme that I couldn't grasp the rules of the world and get involved in the story. There is a map on the endpapers but I could visualize where the group was traveling just from the descriptions in the text and I could completely see the secret maji village and the temples and the broken bridge and the coliseum...
The only thing I can think of while reflecting on the book is that if it had lost about 100 pages - and I don't have any particular part in mind that I feel was unnecessary, I'm just talking about the length in general - it would've been about perfect. But that's a kind of nitpicky point, mainly thinking about the ability to attract a few more readers to something a little shorter. My epic readers, however, will LOVE having something new and I will begin selling it on Monday. And then I will be buying at least one more copy because it will be in hot demand.