Eat. Dance. Fight.: A Review of Daughters of Oduma, by Moses Ose Utomi

            Young adult fiction is one of the cornerstones of the literary world and, too often, gets a bit of a bad rap.  At one time, YA fiction dominated the market.  Books turned into series, which turned into best-sellers, which turned into the sale of movie rights and the establishment of franchises.  But then, something happened.  The established authors lost their footing, and cast a black mark which affected new authors as well.  At its core, YA fiction simply means books that are aimed at readers between the ages of 12 and 18.  However, there have come certain tropes and plot points that readers now associate with this broad category, which can contain every genre in existence, for it is not a genre in itself: it is a target audience.  To truly succeed in this area, the story needs to be something different than what came before.  It needs to take risks, to break from the established formula, and, above all, it needs to treat its target readers like actual people rather than the bundle of stereotypes some YA stories saw them as.

            Moses Ose Utomi is a new author on the young adult scene with a brilliant imagination and an understanding of story that is sure to leave some jealous.  In the interest of full disclosure, I am friends with Moses Utomi and attended the graduate creative program with him at Sarah Lawrence College.  However, this review was not solicited and I did not request an advanced reading copy of his book for this review.  His debut novel is Daughters of Oduma, but his writing career is just getting started.  At the time of writing, his second piece, the novella The Lies of the Ajungo, has just been released, and we can expect many more works from him in the future.  Utomi describes himself as a fantasy writer, martial artist, and nomad and has obtained a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Sarah Lawrence College.  The son of a Nigerian-American family, Utomi has taken that inspiration and experience and transformed it into a love of story and culture.  Daughters of Oduma wears its West African inspiration proudly and encourages readers to experience a fantasy story that delights in song and tradition, while simultaneously breaking from the traditions set by the previous generation of young adult fiction.

            Daughters of Oduma is set in Na South of Na Isle, and that is about as much world-building as we get, for the most part.  Without diving too deep into spoiler territory, the lack of knowledge about the world ends up becoming a welcome plot point, as I am certain readers will immediately start asking questions about the world at large once the story gets moving.  In this region, there are no adults save one.  We quickly learn that, on someone’s seventeenth birthday, they become an adult and must leave to parts unknown for some unknown purpose.  The characters, however, do not dwell upon this fact for too long as this is just an accepted part of life.  Besides, they are Bowers, and the great tournament is coming up.  In this region, the children and teenagers who live here are broken into distinct classes, with the bowers standing above everyone else.  Bowing is a unique martial art that seems to blend aspects of many real-world martial arts and fighters are expected to put on both pounds and muscles to be considered serious contenders.  Aside from the fighting itself, bowing carries with it a strong tradition of feasting and dancing, culminating in a grad tournament between the strongest members of each team, or Fam.  All of our heroes hail from the small, but fierce, Mud Fam, and the story never fails to put their character arcs first.

            The main character of Daughters of Oduma is Dirt, although the story takes brief forays into the points-of-views of a few of the supporting cast.  Told form the third-person perspective, Utomi always centers us in the mind of the character we are following, although there is a very cool storybook aspect to the tale as well.  Every once in a while, an omniscient narrator makes an appearance to foreshadow something or to reveal events the characters cannot possibly now about in that exact moment.  These moments are wisely kept few and far between, which only adds to their import.  But, returning to Dirt.  Dirt is sixteen years old which, on the island, is considered very old.  Once she turns seventeen, she will leave to join the adults wherever they may be, but, in the meantime, she serves as the coach and second-in-command of the Mud Fam.  Unlike the other members of the Mud Fam, Dirt does not fight.  We quickly learn that, while knowledgeable, she never found the competitive spirit needed to be a true Bower.  Dirt is sure to be an incredibly relatable character for many readers.  She feels like an outcast, even when surrounded by her sisters: she is out of shape, suffering from undiagnosed depression, and plagued by intrusive thoughts that threaten to unravel her psyche with their slander against her.  She has a lot of overcome, and that is even before the main plot kicks in and she finds herself at the forefront of conflict and chosen by the gods themselves.

            There is a lot going on in the story of Daughters of Oduma, but the plot is secondary to the message the story is trying to convey to both Dirt and the readers along for her journey.  Ultimately, this is a story about finding the self-confidence to be yourself, to accept who you are, and to choose which paths in life you wish to follow.  For most of the story, we see Dirt trying to follow the paths she believes she is supposed follow as laid down by tradition and those who came before, only for those to lead to tragedy or her own misery.  That is not to say that the story is opposed to tradition; far from it.  However, the story makes it clear that there is a difference between blinding following traditions to the detriment of all and honoring the traditions of your ancestors and family.  You can honor those traditions while still choosing the path that is best for you.  Aside from Dirt, we also see how the events of the story affect a few other characters.  Namely, Bibi Nana, who, more than any other character, sets out on a path to break tradition.  If there is one criticism of the book, it is that I wish we spent a little more time with Nana as her chapters serve the secondary purpose of supplying world building on top of showing how stifling the world can be to a young woman who feels stuck in place.

            There are villains in Daughters of Oduma, but they could hardly be called evil in the same way villains of YA novels are evil.  In many books aimed towards this particular demographic, the villains can come across as almost one-not or cartoonishly evil.  They do things that do not really make much sense for a person to do, but certainly have an effect on the main characters.  Here, however, the antagonists are not true villains.  Sure, they engage in some questionable activities, but they are far from evil.  Rivalling the Mud Fam is the Vine Fam, a much larger bower team led by their first, Carra Carre and their second, Verdi.  Verdi in particular drives much of the plot, pushing Carra Carre to engage in less and less sportsmanlike conduct and believing that the leader of the Vine is being called to a higher purpose.  While Verdi is easy to dislike, Carra Carre ends up becoming a sympathetic antagonist, pushed into a similar position as Dirt by the circumstances of the world and wanting only the best for her sisters.  Verdi’s motivations in pushing her friend to villainy also hint at the larger machinations happening behind the scenes, and tease what could come in any potential sequels.

            By the end of the novel, there are enough plot threads and world building established to set up a sequel, even if the role of these particular main characters is now over.  In some ways, Daughters of Oduma does stumble a bit when read by an adult reader.  Some characters do not get as much attention as they could, and we never see much of the setting beyond a few small locations.  However, this is not a book meant for adults.  This is a novel for young adults, kids and teenagers who are struggling with discovering who they are or are fighting against expectations to establish themselves.  This book is for the young adults struggling with depression and anxiety while looking at the world around them and their place in it.  Ultimately, the message of Daughters of Oduma is that you can find love, and support, and self-confidence, and people who care about you for who you are, not for who they think you should be.  In that sense, Moses Utomi’s debut novel is an absolute success.

Daughters of Oduma can be found in store, online, or wherever books are found

Total Read Time: 6 days

Next on the List: The Lies of the Ajungo, by Moses Ose Utomi


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