Fantasy Young Adult

Blood Heir by Amelie Wen Zhao

After all the drama surrounding this book, I never actually got around to reviewing it until now. I started reading it in late 2019, and I meant to actually write the review after I read it, but I got sick and then it just fell to the wayside.

Until now.

This is a retelling of the Anastasia Romanova myth – that the Archduchess Anastasia survived the massacre of her family, the Imperial Royal Family of Russia, at the hands of the Bolsheviks. This myth was, and still is, pretty popular, and was even made into an animated film very much akin to Disney’s popular princess films (although the film, titled Anastasia, was a 20th Century Fox production, the studio of which is now owned by Disney). I have always seen retellings as kind of sad because of course, we now know that Anastasia did not survive and that her remains were eventually found.

Blood Heir is a very loose retelling of the myth, the author having created a rich and fascinating world for everything to take place in. The main character, Anastacya Mikhailov (aka Ana), is the heir to not the Russian Empire, but an empire called Cyrilia, which is inspired by Russian history and culture. Ana has a magical ability that is seen as dangerous – she can control the blood of other living beings. Her father, the emperor, is murdered, and she is blamed for it. Ana flees the palace, vowing to find her father’s killer, and eventually meets up with Ramson Quicktongue, a cunning criminal. He’s pretty much the only person who can help her get justice for her father’s murder.

Now, of course, this book was originally due to be released in June 2019, but because of the backlash due the depiction of slavery in the book, the author originally decided to cancel the publication outright. Then she changed her mind. She made some changes, hired some sensitivity writers and eventually published it in November 2019. It is this version that I read (and own).

You can read more about the controversy at this New York Times article (archive link).

So, is the book still “racist”? Is it any good?

The author was inspired to write the novel after a family trip to Russia. From the NYT article:

“She came up with the plot for “Blood Heir” in 2014, during a family trip to Russia. She imagined a fictional empire where a group of people called Affinites, who have special powers, are feared and trafficked for labor by the powerful elite — a system that is challenged by a fugitive princess who wields magic. In describing the plight of Affinites, Zhao aimed to invoke real-world issues, including human trafficking and indentured servitude in Asia.

“What I sought to interrogate and critique was the modern-day epidemic of human trafficking and endured labor,” Zhao said. “It wasn’t something I had seen in Y.A. literature.”

She also drew on her own experience as an immigrant and her feeling of being powerless and not belonging, she said.”

There was a lot of hay made about a scene in which Ana is witness to a slave auction or something. I cannot speak to what was in the original manuscript, but in the final version, there is no “slave auction” – what we do see is Ana and her young companion May at a nightclub where contracts for indentured Affinites are bid upon. The Affinites themselves would stand on a stage and demonstrate their abilities to the bidders.

Affinite trafficking is a big issue in Cyrilia, where Affinites are essentially powerless, discriminated against and exploited. I guess you could still see the nightclub auction scene as a “slave auction” or whatever, but it didn’t bother me. I very much doubt the original scene would have offended me either. Just because an author depicts something in their works does not mean they endorse it, but evidently, a lot of people don’t seem to understand that.

Then there was the issue with May, the young girl Ana travels with. First of all, people were upset that May, who they thought was a black girl, was rescued from the slave trade and then died. Then they accused the author of plagiarizing a line from Lord of the Rings and of plagiarizing a scene from The Hunger Games in which Katniss sings her own childhood song as her fellow contestant, Rue, dies in the arena. In the original manuscript, Ana sings May’s favorite childhood song to her as she dies, and then buries her surrounded by flowers.

So this scene appears to have been removed. May’s death is quite different and Ana does not sing to her. Ana does bury May in one of her friend’s back garden, beneath a tree that does have flowers. I can’t remember if the line in question was removed or not.

May, as described, isn’t black. She has blue eyes and is from a realm known for people with light brown skin. She probably looks more Hispanic than black.

May is like a little sister to Ana. She feels protective towards May and a lot of what she does is motivated by her relationship with May. May’s death is a tribute to the kind of person she was, someone who wanted happiness for everyone, particularly her fellow Affinites.

There’s nothing really offensive about the character May and what happens to her, really. I can only refer to the final version of the book, but if there were any “racist” elements to the story, it’s all been removed.

Ana is definitely not a Mary Sue, thankfully, because that would be boring. She has a temper, and often lets it get the best of her, leading to impulsive decisions that often end in disaster. Fortunately, the guy she meets, Ramson Quicktongue, is a foil to her impulsiveness, as he is cunning, calculating and very careful in everything he does. He is obviously going to be the love interest, but there’s no instalove in this story, and for a while I honestly thought they’d just remain friends.

The story’s point of view alternates between Ana and Ramson – it is mostly Ana’s story, but it is nice to see this fantasy world from Ramson’s perspective, since he is more worldly and experienced than Ana.

One thing the author did not change was the way Ana’s family name is written. In the Russian language, the surnames of women are usually given an ‘a’ at the end, so Mikhailov would actually be Mikhailova whenever referring to Ana by her full name. However, the setting of the story is a realm entirely of the author’s imagination, so I figured it was no big deal.

This story is meant to be a trilogy, so it ends on a cliffhanger somewhat, leaving the primary villains to be dealt with in the next installment, Red Tigress, of which I have also read and will offer a review shortly. I kind of wish it would be longer than a trilogy, because the other realms, such as the Southern Crowns, the Nandjian Empire and Kemeira sound very interesting.

It’s no secret that I liked this one a lot – I gave it a whopping five stars at Goodreads, which I don’t often do. I am glad the author reconsidered, even if she did resort to using sensitivity readers. It’s got a lot of action and some of the violence can be gory at times – it’s pretty dark, so it’s more appropriate for older teens. The book is pretty good and if you like Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse or Sarah J. Mass’s Throne of Glass saga you’ll like this one.

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