The idea for the third book in Tomi Adeyemi’s hit “Legacy of Orïsha” saga “exploded out” of her before she’d even finished the first. The second, not so much.
“Book two was the enigma,” the Nigerian American novelist told The Times. “I was like, I know what happens [in book one]. I know, basically, what happens in book three. So how does it go down, essentially, in book two?”
Adeyemi’s groundbreaking debut, “Children of Blood and Bone,” introduced Orïsha, an ornate fictional kingdom inspired by Nigerian and Yoruba folklore. It’s a world where magic is outlawed and those blessed with gifts from the gods — a.k.a. “divîners” — are violently persecuted. The young adult fantasy centers on Zélie, a fiery young warrior who is the key to liberating her community of divîners from an oppressive monarchy determined to destroy magic once and for all.
The epic tale became a New York Times bestseller and caught the attention of literary and Hollywood heavyweights, including Stephen King, Beyoncé and Jimmy Fallon. Before the book was published, Adeyemi scored a major movie deal with the producers of “Twilight” and “The Hate U Give” at 23.
Then she had to write book two. She started on the first of many drafts — each with its own disparate players and plot — working her way through hundreds of pages until she explored enough possible outcomes to “make a Frankenstein statue” of Atlantean sanctuaries, high-stakes battles and bitter betrayals.
Adeyemi finally whittled those drafts to a 416-page sequel, “Children of Virtue and Vengeance: Legacy of Orïsha, Book 2,” published this week.
“I put more pressure than someone can put on me because I’m crazy,” Adeyemi said, laughing. “So from a quality perspective, it took me 88 weeks to be like ... ‘I’m satisfied with the job I did’ on book one. And I only know it was 88 weeks because it was 88 weeks on the bestsellers list. And I decided, I’m OK with that.”
The sequel picks up in a new Orïsha, where magic has been restored — at a cost. Together, Zélie, Princess Amari and their squad of rebels must fight to keep unmediated power out of the wrong hands — all while coping with the crippling grief of losing their loved ones.
If themes of intergenerational genocide and debilitating loss sound heavy for a YA fantasy, they are. So heavy, in fact, that Adeyemi conducts what she calls “emotional research” to enter the mindsets of her characters. To tap into their pain, she immerses herself in other fictional and nonfictional accounts of grief and suffering, as shown in films, written in songs or experienced by her friends and family.
Not too long ago, Adeyemi recalled getting frustrated with one of her own fictional heroes, Harry Potter, when fits of hopelessness interrupted the thrilling action of his journey. Now, the San Diego-based 26-year-old author, who has been compared to J.K. Rowling, better understands the journey of creating complex fictional characters who must deal with adversity.
Growing up in Illinois, Adeyemi says she began writing stories around age 5. She went on to study English at Harvard University and West African mythology in Brazil. After graduating, she submitted an early version of “Children of Blood and Bone” to the mentoring program Pitch Wars and landed a publishing deal with Henry Holt & Co.
She credits her hyperactive imagination with conjuring her novels, from enchanted temples and majestic “lionaires” to the agony of losing a parent or sibling. Adeyemi’s latest story sees her newly orphaned and sometimes suicidal heroine struggling to work through her trauma while coming into her full magical abilities.
“Something that I tried daily, deliberately to do is to make my fantasies human,” she said. “The further away it is from our reality, the more human I need the characters to be. Because you’re already doing all this stuff that I can’t fully relate to. So the emotion behind the magic needs to be something I can do.”
Though she can’t directly relate to Zélie’s orphan status or her supernatural abilities, Adeyemi knows exactly what it is to feel like an outsider on her own turf — something her dark-skinned heroine must overcome to rise up against the lighter-skinned, nonmagic kosidán who rule Orïsha.
Adeyemi’s parents are first-generation Nigerian immigrants, and Nigerian culture was ever present in her childhood home. She recently returned home to the Chicago-area suburb of Hinsdale for Thanksgiving, feasting on jollof rice instead of turkey.
“In my house, I was Nigerian,” Adeyemi said. “I was treated as Nigerian; my parents are Nigerian. Outside in the world, I was treated as black.”
Reflecting on her Midwestern high school experience, she compared her teenage self to a “fly in milk,” coming of age in the predominantly white town of Hinsdale. Though not as outwardly aggressive as the injustices in her books, she recalled certain incidents, such as the time a substitute teacher predicted she’d work at McDonald’s, that reminded her of a “racial divide.”
“But it was very easy to say, ‘You’re wrong,’” she said. “I was like, ‘I know I have the highest average in the school. I know I’m smarter than you.’ So those aren’t really soul-crushing. They’re annoying. They hurt. But they’re not as bad as the things I wrote about.”
But the effects of underrepresentation, microaggressions and silent disappointments — such as never getting asked to a school dance — manifested in other ways. By the time she turned 18, for example, Adeyemi said she realized the heroes of her creations were always white.
With “Blood and Bone” and “Virtue and Vengeance,” she hopes to change how women of color see themselves as well as how others view those who are different from them.
“When I see the book in a young black girl’s hands, it’s like, I know that that can possibly save them 10 years of not seeing themselves in their own imagination, of not feeling like they can be the hero, of not feeling like they’re beautiful, of not feeling like they’re smart just because of the color of their skin,” she said. “Because that’s the message everyone else is giving them.”
Adeyemi is excited at the prospect of taking her characters from the page to the big screen in the forthcoming “Children of Blood and Bone” movie, directed by Rick Famuyiwa and written by Kay Oyegun. She says the Lucasfilm project is “moving along really well,” although no release date has been set. When the adaptation does hit theaters, she’s hopeful an all-black, powerhouse cast of characters can make a “Black Panther"-level impact.
“It allows someone who hasn’t seen themselves to be seen and feel worthy of being seen,” she said. “And it [allows] someone who maybe might not share my identity, but who also hasn’t had a lot of experience seeing me, to see me — to connect with someone who looks like Zélie, to feel for her. That helps you connect with someone who looks like Zélie in the real world.”