In January 2019, YA author Amélie Wen Zhao announced that she asked her publisher to cancel her upcoming book, Blood Heir, in response to various accusations. Among the complaints were accusations that the book was “anti-black” because of its depiction of slavery and subsequent death of a character, and anger that a book description (probably not written by Zhao) read that, in Blood Heir‘s fantasy world, “Oppression is blind to skin color.” In Zhao’s fantasy world, anyone with magic is viewed with suspicion and hostility, and a potential victim of human trafficking, regardless of their ethnic background. Subsequently, however, Zhao chose to release Blood Heir after revising it to attempt to ensure that readers would understand she wished to shed light on human trafficking and indentured servitude in Asia, and not trying to represent the enslavement of African Americans in the United States.
However, though Zhao’s book seemed poised to be a major release, the controversy now seems to have subdued enthusiasm for the title. Readers might be wondering what content Zhao’s book contains and whether they should give Blood Heir a chance, or stay far away from a controversial title. Here’s a quick guide on what to expect from the book (potential spoilers ahead!).
Does the book depict slavery?
Blood Heir is very careful to explain that the Cyrillic Empire, a Russian-esque fantasy world, is deeply involved in a form of what we might call modern-day slavery. By page four, the book has already explained that “foreigners without documents” are a form of “cheap labor” and people can buy their contracts. Protagonist Ana muses, “She’d heard of this corruption. Foreign Affinites lured to Cyrilia with promises of work, only to find themselves at the traffickers’ mercy when they arrived” (4). Affinites are individuals who have an affinity for a specific type of element and so can control it–wind, water, earth, flesh, blood, etc. The people of Cyrilia fear Affinities, but have found a way to subjugate them. They steal their papers, then force them to sign unfavorable employment contracts so they can never escape, but keep earning more debt.
Corruption is spread throughout the empire and Ana, once a sheltered princess, now fears that, because she has an Affinity to blood, she can be captured by guards meant to “protect the empire.” They will then sell her into indenturement. This issue is raised repeatedly throughout the book. Page 29, for instance, has Ana musing on indenturement once again. Page 45 has the con man Ramson reflecting on how migrants from the Aseatic Kingdoms are exploited when they arrive in Cyrilia. When the characters are not simply pondering the existence of indenturement, they are actively trying to avoid being captured and sold, or attempting to aid others who are already indentured.
It is unclear if the incessant references are part of the revisions to aid readers in understanding the real issue Zhao wants to address. But, altogether, it seems fairly obvious that Zhao is not trying to depict the enslavement of African Americans in the U.S. She is focusing instead on the human trafficking of immigrants across the globe, as she also explained in an interview with NPR:
So these are forms of modern slavery that continue to impact 20 to 40 million victims around the world in countries such as North Korea, India, Thailand, Russia, Eastern Europe. What’s so threatening about these is that they continue to thrive because they’ve found a way to go in between the laws and to avert them and take advantage of vulnerable populations in the world, such as immigrants and refugees.
In Blood Heir, readers will find human traffickers luring potential victims across the border, then stealing their papers, and forcing them into bad employment contracts, which are sold secretly in back rooms of certain establishments. It is a form of slavery that goes beyond the cultural context of many U.S. readers.
Who is oppressed in Blood Heir?
As explained above, it is primarily immigrants and refugees who are lured into indenturement in Blood Heir. Their place of origin is irrelevant to their captors. More important is that many of these immigrants are Affinites (what we might call magic workers). Cyrillian Affinities can also be captured and sold. So the oppression in the book is not based on skin color, but on magic.
This is a fairly common fantasy trope. It can be found in other books such as Leigh Bardugo’s bestselling Grishaverse, where Grisha are feared by some countries, as well as in Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone, and even in a season of The Legend of Korra. It’s unclear why Blood Heir should be seen as offensive for depicting an oppressed magic population when other works are not.
What about the character who dies?
There was some controversy about the initial controversy surrounding the character who dies. The initial critique was that a black character dies to save a white character after escaping slavery. Slate, however, noted that it is difficult to tell if the character in question is meant to be Black. She is described as having “bronze” or “tan” skin and “ocean blue eyes” in the original story, as read by Slate. Her race is not entirely clear.
In the revised book published in November of 2019, this character is first described as having “dark hair” and “turquoise” eyes. I do not remember any direct references to her skin color. She is a migrant from the Aseatic Kingdoms, but it is difficult to determine if Zhao means this to reference a particular geographic area in our own world, or which area that might be.
Blood Heir is set in a fantasy world, but attempts to depict the horrors of modern-day slavery. Much of the original controversy seems to have stemmed from readers’ unfamiliarity with global human trafficking. Perhaps Blood Heir can draw more attention to the issue.