Blood Heir: a Review and a Reflection

I have a confession to make: last Spring’s controversy over the highly anticipated YA release Blood Heir, by Amelie Wen-Zhao, only made me want to read the book more. Not necessarily because I was that drawn in by the plot (very loosely based on the historical story of Princess Anastasia Romanov), but because my inner drama-llama wanted to know what all the fuss was about. I assume I’m not alone.

To recap, Blood Heir was very nearly “cancelled” when accusations started appearing, based on advance copies of the book, that the Blood Heir was anti-Black. Op-Ed articles appeared in Vulture and Slate and the New York Times, and Wen-Zhao, a Paris-born Chinese citizen and long term resident of the United States, ultimately pulled her debut book, effectively cancelling herself. Later, she announced that the book would be published after all, but at a much later date. At the time of the controversy, only a handful of people had read the ARCs, and so it was hard to really get a firm grasp, as an outside observer, on what exactly had happened. Adding to fuel to the media’s flames were claims that all of this had started as some sort of personal Twitter beef, which prompted much hand-wringing about how social media could ruin the career of a new author out of spite alone.

I hadn’t read the ARC, but I remembered feeling a pang of sympathy for Wen-Zhao, recognizing in her many of my own Beijing and Kunming-based friends, people who had grown up in international communities with a sense of social justice that was disconnected from what is expected in American progressive circles. The issues were different, and in Beijing, oppression was much more likely to be class based than racially motivated. Wen-Zhao claimed that her portrayal of indentured mages was meant not as a commentary on race-based chattel slavery, but on the human trafficking problem that is so prevalent in Asia today. I remember feeling a hint of irritation, as someone with a more international background myself, that the US-centric assumption seemed to be that Wen-Zhao, a non-American, was obligated to write to American sensibilities.

On the other hand, I saw the point. The main complaint seemed to be a complaint about a child who had been (possibly) coded as a person of color dying so that the main character might live. There were also complaints about “oppressed mages” as a problematic trope in general. While Blood Heir is hardly the only book guilty of this sin, the point stands that treating oppression as somehow an inevitable reaction to the “danger” posed by the oppressed class seems to imply that oppression happens for justifiable reasons — which is clearly not a message that needs to be perpetuated.

But none of it mattered until I could read the book for myself, and way back in April, around the time the story reached its peak, I could not. However, it is now December, Blood Heir has been out for a bit under a month, and I have, finally, read it, and finally, I can say something educated, something informed, about this whole controversy, right? But here’s the thing: I thought Blood Heir was an alright book, and that’s about it. Is it groundbreaking? No. Is it terribly offensive? It’s not that either. Is it awful? No. In fact, it’s pretty run of the mill YA fantasy fare. A lost princess, a roguish thief, enemies to lovers, mages with different affinities — none of this treads new ground. And I’m left wondering, quite frankly, what all the fuss was about.

It is quite possible that in the intervening months between the would be cancelling and the eventual release, Blood Heir was scrubbed clean of any hint of scandal. The fact that the oppressed mages are in fact indentured workers, lured into unfavorable contracts, rather than chattel slaves, is made abundantly clear. Many of Wen-Zhao’s affinites are also portrayed as having extremely mundane magical powers. During one key scene, the main character, Ana, and her young charge May, are given cookies by a girl who is described as a “grain affinite,” an unglamorous magic if I’ve ever heard one. It seems that in this world most of the affinites, instead of being feared, are seen as useful commodities. Ana herself is feared, and for good reason, since she can drain a full grown man of all blood in a matter of seconds, but overall, rather than fearing affinites, the rich seem perversely intent on collecting them, like some grotesque version of human Pokemon. May, whose death in the original controversy provoked much outrage, is no longer explicitly coded as Black, but instead is, at best, racially ambiguous, with aquamarine eyes, tan skin, and dark hair.

I don’t know if the controversy made Blood Heir a better book because of the controversy, but I am certain it became a more careful book. But for all that care, I have my doubts that the critics will truly be satisfied. While yes, there are some crucial distinctions between chattel slavery and modern human trafficking, the way they’re depicted in fiction is always going to strike some similar crucial chords. I could refer to Wen-Zhao’s affinites as slaves and still not be wrong, and readers unfamiliar with human trafficking in Asia will still read Blood Heir and see echoes of the slave trade.

Furthermore, some of that painstaking, but ultimately futile care that Wen-Zhao took to make human trafficking in her world explicitly NOT reminiscent of the Atlantic slave trade, was effort that could have been spent on the narrative. The end of Blood Heir feels rushed, and certain revelations come late. While the main characters are well-crafted, side characters are introduced and only minimally developed. I would certainly have liked to understand better, say, the connection between Ana and her childhood friend who is the world’s equivalent of a Marxist, if only to make it less jarring when Ana eventually agrees to one day run away with him.

At the end of the day, Wen Zhao’s book left me vaguely unsatisfied. Perhaps I expected something either blatantly offensive, or a book that unequivocally got it right. Instead, it was something in-between, and I am left wondering whether or not the initial effort at calling out Blood Heir might have been better spent elsewhere. When there are so many good — no, great — books out there, books that handle sensitive issues with impeccable grace, books that are excellent examples of representation, why do we not instead focus on those books? Because here is one thing I know for certain: Wen-Zhao’s book got much more attention for its imperfections than it would have otherwise. YA fantasy releases come and go, and it takes quite a lot for a book to truly stand out. This book, while it is an entertaining read and I might pick up book two in spite of everything else, is not remarkable. I don’t know that it ever was. So why did we all collectively spend so much time on it back in Spring? Could we not have better spent that time lifting up great books that got things right? Books like The Merciful Crow by Margaret Own, (which tackles injustice in a fantasy world better than any other book I’ve read this year), or non-problematic #ownvoices books like We Hunt the Flame, by Hafsah Faizal, or Spin the Dawn, by Elizabeth Lim?

Ultimately this is perhaps one of my biggest problems with the idea of (forgive me for using the term) cancel culture as applied to literature: the results are ultimately dissatisfying and no one really wins. Major popular white authors are never truly canceled, and continue blithely along, while marginalized writers must respond to the criticism or else risk their careers. Wen-Zhao’s book is perhaps the first time we’ve seen a book undergo a revision after a near-cancellation, and the results are honestly underwhelming. It occurs to me that this might be the difference between a careful book, and a good book. And perhaps we’ve got it backwards. Perhaps, rather than rewarding the caution needed to not get it wrong, we need to reward the bravery necessary to get it right.

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