‘Forged By Blood’ author Ehigbor Okosun discusses how culture shapes the magic of stories

Ehigbor Okosun joins us to talk about her debut novel, Forged By Blood, and how stories can be fashioned from culture, both ancient and modern, to create new and exciting tales.

I’ll admit, I’m a sucker for a good cover, and Forged By Blood immediately caught my attention. Not only does it have an array of spectacular colors, but the strength of the woman on the front begged several questions: Who is she? What has she been through? What is she destined to overcome?

Taking a peek at the synopsis gives us a few of those answers. Inspired by Nigerian folktales, Forged by Blood is the starting point in a duology following a young woman as she fights to survive a tyrannical society and seeks vengeance for the spilled blood of her people.

Immediately, I knew this book would be right up my alley. If you want to learn more, you only have to read the official summary below. After that, we have an essay from the author herself who explores the importance of magic in fantasy and how different cultures mold those kinds of stories into different shapes.

If Forged By Blood sounds like a book you can’t wait to dig into, be sure to scroll down to the bottom of this article for the links to purchase it or add it to your Goodreads list.

About ‘Forged By Blood’

In the midst of a tyrannical regime and political invasion, Dèmi just wants to survive: to avoid the suspicion of the nonmagical Ajes who occupy her ancestral homeland of Ife; to escape the King’s brutal genocide of her people—the darker skinned, magic wielding Oluso; and to live peacefully with her secretive mother while learning to control the terrifying blood magic that is her birthright.

But when Dèmi’s misplaced trust costs her mother’s life, survival gives way to vengeance. She bides her time until the devious Lord Ekwensi grants her the perfect opportunity—kidnap the Aje prince, Jonas, and bargain with his life to save the remaining Oluso. With the help of her reckless childhood friend Colin, Dèmi succeeds, but discovers that she and Jonas share more than deadly secrets; every moment tangles them further into a forbidden, unmistakable attraction, much to Colin’s—and Dèmi’s—distress.

The kidnapping is now a joint mission: to return to the King, help get Lord Ekwensi on the council, and bolster the voice of the Oluso in a system designed to silence them. But the way is dangerous, Dèmi’s magic is growing yet uncertain, and it’s not clear if she can trust the two men at her side.

A tale of rebellion and redemption, race and class, love and trust and betrayal, Forged by Blood is epic fantasy at its finest, from an enthusiastic, emerging voice.

forged by blood ehigbor okosun

Ehigbor Okosun on ‘Forged by Blood’ and magic as a mirror

I’ve heard it said that it doesn’t matter who tells a story so long as it’s a good one. But I argue that culture is the sculptor that gives stories their shapes, carving new myths from old, etching fresh tales on canvases that have never been considered before.

Thus, I set my debut novel, Forged By Blood, in a West African landscape, where magic is ubiquitous, a core part of the people and the world. Oluso, or Spirit Bound, are those who retain magic as a conscious part of who they are and live with the sacrifices and consequences that magic demands on a daily basis. Ajè, or Spirit Broken, are former Oluso who lose that magical portion of themselves when they commit murder, and the weight of this decision is that their descendants are also born as Ajè, cut off from magic. In a land ravaged by colonialism and governed by the Ajè who now outnumber the magical Oluso, magic as a core part of a person’s identity takes on both political and existential implications. Nothing is simple. Especially for our protagonist, Dèmi, who is both Oluso and the final royal remnant of the conquered nation state that once ruled Ifé.

In this terrain, magic or the lack thereof becomes an embodiment of your sense of self. Magic that does not always resolve itself as an explicit display of power forces you to reckon with the choices you make and choose the paths you go down knowing that you may not always emerge on the other side.

This is a deliberate tribute to many fantastical traditions where divinity is a tricky thing. From generationally inherited tales spun by African griots to communal legends woven and interpreted five thousand ways by Asian scholars and seafaring merchants, the supernatural is intertwined with the everyday. Magic is in the flood that comes after a decade of drought and the bells that ring only in your head before you discover your father has died. Ancestors walk through life with you, warning you in dreams before you come to a crossroads, demanding only that they be fed, remembered and worshipped a few times a year. Magic’s insistence on affecting the very fabric of your world denotes it as a communal good—or blight. The only thing certain about magic (and thus power) becomes its inherent uncertainty, its ability to disrupt your surroundings and make demands of you.

In contrast, many readers are familiar with Western fantasy which often harkens to the old English belief in the Chain of Being; simply put, people were born into the roles they were meant to have. So kings came into the world with the divine right (and supposèd wisdom) to rule, and jesters with the preternatural gift of humor. Yes, preternatural, because we all know so many unfunny people and when you meet a truly funny person, it’s an experience—hopefully a good one.

Viewed through this lens, the point of magic is power, and power chooses its vessel. There are no arguments or takebacks. In some Western fantasies, magic is divinely given, a gift that sets its wielder apart from everyone else, anoints them as a Chosen or Prophesied One.

Still this framework gives rise to many different kinds of stories in part because it sets out explicit expectations. It’s what makes the twist in Tracy Deonn’s Legendborn so delicious, amongst other things. Deonn introduces us to the Legendborn society, an order that believes strongly in power passed through the blood and has opinions on who can be a respected vessel of that power. Readers do not question Nick as the Scion of Arthur because for years, we’ve been conditioned to expect Arthur to appear a certain way. When our expectations are subverted, we see the story Deonn has been weaving all along, one where the world of a Chosen One clashes with the decidedly undefined world of root magic, the rich, mystical inheritance of Black people who fought to protect their myths from the erasure of slavery. Note also that Deonn sets the story in the modern United States, a country still reckoning with the ghosts of its past and chasing the better angels of its future hopes. Main character Bree becomes an embodiment of warring narratives in the landscape itself, and we are all the more interested for it.

Even in a more traditionally depicted Western fantasy such as the 2000s television series Merlin, the screenwriters’ choice to call Colin Morgan’s Merlin by his Welsh name Emrys deepens our experience of his internal struggles as he aids the English King Arthur. We may know that Merlin is destined for greatness, but how he gets there and reconciles the divided loyalties he has keeps us enraptured.

Dèmi, too, fights for freedom in a world at war with itself, a fight defined by the brutal nature of the Ifé landscape where power exists in a matrix, doling out benefits according to shifting social hierarchies and intersectional identities. Her best friend, Colin, grapples with issues of identity and morality, and the fraught landscape gives him room to decide whether his best or worse impulses deserve to govern the day. Though Jonas, the enemy prince who Dèmi and Colin set out to kidnap, arguably begins Forged By Blood with a positive power matrix, he too wrestles with his beliefs as the lack of an entrenched order of things opens up room for new possibilities. Their struggles are reminiscent of the diverse West African world grappling with the painful history of colonization while trying to rediscover its past and forge an identity that will empower its constituents to a brighter future.

Regardless of how magic is defined in a world, the wonderful thing about speculative fantasy is the room it gives the author to make decisions that will take readers on a journey of discovery—or rediscovery—and adventure. Culture spawns new lenses through which we interact with the world, and when we tie those to story, we imbue them with the power to shift perspectives, and thus, our lives.

I hope you’ll journey with me and pick up Forged By Blood. It might just be what you’ve been looking for.

‘Forged By Blood’ published on August 8, 2023

Buy Forged By Blood by Ehigbor Okosun from HarperCollins, Bookshop.org, or Amazon. You can also add it to your Goodreads list.

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