Your Questions about Blood Heir Answered

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!).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

15 thoughts on “Your Questions about Blood Heir Answered

  1. Isobel Necessary says:

    I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, Zhao’s decision to halt publication and revise her book because of early comments stems from today’s “cancel culture”, where snap judgements against an individual can be made based on little evidence. At the same time, I think it’s great when people respond to accusations of insensitivity or what I would call “accidental” racist undertones by engaging in a considered dialogue rather than pressing on regardless.
    Human trafficking is a really important topic to address and bring to wider attention. There are more people in slavery or bonded labour today than at any time in history, and while that fact doesn’t diminish the awful events that went on during the transatlantic slave trade, or the continued structural impact of historic slavery (especially in the US), I think you’re right to point out that the slavery Zhao alludes to has a different context.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, great post.


    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      I do think it’s a good idea take criticism of your work seriously and put some thought into whether you do need to revise based on feedback you received, and it’s clear the author here did want to take concerns seriously and make sure she wasn’t offending where she had no intention to offend.

      However, I also am not a fan of “cancel culture” in the sense that one bad review can suddenly sway everyone’s opinion of a work of art. People who previously praised it suddenly change their minds. People who never read the book (or saw the movie or whatever) start posting think pieces about why it should be cancelled. Etc. One person can have A LOT of influence…and that’s concerning if the person is not necessarily correct in their interpretation.

      In the case of Blood Heir (I also read the book, even though Krysta wrote this post), it is so blatantly obvious to me that this book is about modern day slavery that I am honestly baffled how someone came to the conclusion it was a commentary on the enslavement of Africans in the early US. This isn’t a case of just interpreting the book differently or through a different lens or something; the claim this book is about Black slavery is just completely incorrect and ignores all the content of the book that suggests otherwise. In that sense, I think it’s a shame it was cancelled initially and that people who never read the book (and some who did and originally liked it?) decided it must be offensive.

      Liked by 3 people

      • Krysta says:

        I think cancel culture can be a problem, too, in that, when people criticize a book, it is usually debut authors or authors who have less industry support who tend to cancel, rather than those who already have a large fan base and a large amount of prestige. Because it is so obvious this book is about modern day slavery, I can’t help but wonder if Zhao initially pulled the book because she’s young, she’s a new author, and she didn’t have the confidence/know how to stand behind her book and say, “Actually, if you read it, this has nothing to do with Black slavery in the U. S.” It seems like she had to take a step back and get off from social media and away from all the scary messages to reevaluate her work and her stance towards it.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. MetalPhantasmReads says:

    Great post! I remember reading the author’s comments on how she was presenting slavery in Asia since she’s from China and bringing her own experiences. But it sucks how people were like “it’s anti-black!” when that wasn’t the point. I hate the whole cancel culture thing as well; I think we need to have the confidence that the author and all the people involved in the publishing process to bring something honest and true to the author’s experience. I still want to read it and get my own thoughts on it. Great post as always 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      Cancel culture is antithetical to how Americans at least have largely viewed freedom of speech and freedom from censorship. The ALA’s position, for example, is that we shouldn’t censor authors and should trust that the public can recognize good from bad. I don’t know what happened, but it seems like Twitter no longer believes the public can be trusted to reject bad books. It’s justified by the need to “protect” teens, of course, but that’s the same argument that’s been used to keep teens from accessing works about things like sexual health. You can’t set up a scenario where it’s okay to keep books off shelves in one case, but not another case. I shudder to think about the precedent that’s being set here.

      Liked by 1 person

      • MetalPhantasmReads says:

        Yeah the double standard that seems to be rear its head on occasion isn’t worth it. I hardly take anything talked about on Twitter too seriously. I do my own research to form my own opinion which more people should do 🙂


  3. Jackie B @ Death by Tsundoku says:

    Confession: I haven’t heard of this book before! It makes me sad that Zhao felt she needed to pull her book due to such outcries from readers, but I’m also super glad she revised it and still published. That takes a lot of resilience!

    It sounds like you read the book, yes? (I cannot find a link to a review anywhere) If so, what did you think of the book?


  4. theorangutanlibrarian says:

    I’ve been so curious about this, while not necessarily wanting to read it (I just don’t think it’s for me), so thanks for this post! It makes no sense that people would see an oppressed magic system as offensive, when it’s such a common trope in fantasy! I think it’s really good that this can draw attention to such an important issue!


    • Krysta says:

      As a YA fantasy, I would say it’s pretty on trend with the whole dark “fairy tale” retelling set in a Russian-esque world thing. It relies on a lot of common YA tropes, too, like the tomance between a princess and a rogue who initially hate each other. I don’t find it strikingly original, but I do think that, without the controversy, it would have had a great chance at being a bestseller. So I’m sad the author’s debut was ruined.

      But, yeah, people who are oppressed for magic is sooo common. Leigh Bardugo does it and no one bats an eye! But I guess it’s easier to target a debut author without a large following?

      Liked by 1 person

      • theorangutanlibrarian says:

        Yeah I definitely think that it was set to be a bestseller (just cos I’m not the target audience for it, doesn’t mean I can’t see what people like about this sort of thing). Agreed! I kinda wanted to buy it just to support her (might give a try someday)

        Yeah absolutely!!

        Liked by 1 person

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