In April 2022, N. E. Davenport’s debut sci-fi fantasy, The Blood Trials, was released and became one of the newest additions to the realm of novels depicting Black characters in fantasy worlds. The novel follows the (bloody) trials and tribulations that Davenport’s main character, Ikenna Amari, faces following the death of her beloved grandfather, Verne. Since 2022, the complete duology — a series comprising two novels — has been published, with the second book, The Blood Gift, published in April 2023. With both books, Davenport showcases their talent for worldbuilding and developing an ensemble of dynamic characters. Unfortunately, the larger impact of publishing—with hard time constraints and lack of investment in Black writers—had a massive effect on the final chapters of Davenport’s debut duology.

The world of the Blood Gift duology centers on a nation named Mareen and its Mareenian citizens within the larger world of Iludu. As a world, Iludu is full of many nations and histories that Davenport crafts with precision to ensure that the novels feel grounded in deep political, historical, and social contexts. As a reader, you quickly learn the structures that shape Ikenna’s worldview and how carefully she must maneuver through them in The Blood Trials. Having read both novels, I can say that Davenport’s worldbuilding reminds me of Jordan Ifueko’s Raybearer series both writers weave together magic systems, political allegiances, and the stark consequences of structural inequity in fantastical worlds.

Davenport is careful in using the sci-fi fantasy genre as a vehicle for telling a heartbreaking story of a grandchild’s grief after the sudden loss of a grandparent. Both books in the duology are set in the aftermath of Verne’s death and grounded in the reality that Ikenna feels alone in a nation that never wanted her in the first place. This crisis of personal and national identity is a core conflict for Ikenna. She is a 19-year-old Black girl grappling with making a life for herself in Mareen while knowing Mareenians hate her darker skin and her grandfather’s rise in military rank. With the family’s former working-class status, darker complexion, and commitment to the people of the Republic rather than its leaders, Ikenna faces insurmountable odds.

Davenport’s devotion to character development is the strength of both The Blood Trials and The Blood Gift. Ikenna Amari, and other characters throughout the novels, like Selene Rhysien and Darius Reed, are three-dimensional, with personal histories, motivations, and allegiances that support the expansiveness of Iludu as a setting. It can be easy in sci-fi and fantasy novels for characters to be quickly engulfed by the richness of the world and lose their sense of authenticity and clarity. Davenport evades this by making her characters developed in their own right so the geographic frame doesn’t wash them out. 

The best parts of the duology are when the story focuses on its core: Ikenna’s grief. Throughout the novels, Davenport reminds readers that Ikenna isn’t fighting one personal battle but is fighting against structural neglect, interpersonal violence, and a nation that needed her grandfather as a soldier while never respecting him as a person. This rich foundation offers a solid start for The Blood Gift duology and sets high stakes for an action-packed series. As the story unfolds in the second novel, there’s a crisis where pacing and the novel’s structure impact the plot, and in the end, Ikenna’s journey feels rushed and incomplete. Ultimately, the publisher’s decision to shorten The Blood Gift series from a trilogy of three stories to two novels shortened the timeline for Davenport as a writer and has consequences for the audience. 

Another strength of The Blood Gift duology is the series’ significant commentary on nation-states and their power over their citizens and others. Davenport’s choices critiquing borders, citizenship, and ethnonationalism are creative and direct without feeling out of place in a fantasy novel. Characters in both novels struggle internally and externally to make sense of their roles in reinforcing or defying imperialism and genocide. This series offers a lot for readers grappling with their way in the world in an ongoing COVID-19 pandemic that has created immense grief and caused some to interrogate their definition of community beyond nationalism.

Ikenna Amari is a real, raw, action-packed main character, unlike any of the protagonists I have read in recent years. In a contemporary moment that continues to gift readers with more and more Black protagonists, it’s refreshing to encounter new and distinct characters that surprise me. In the last decade, there’s been an increased presence of Black writers and Black characters in the publishing marketplace. As a Jordan Ifueko, Akwaeke Emezi, and Tracy Deonn fan, I have been immersed in fantasy worlds overflowing with Black characters falling in love, striving against villains, and trying to find community in chaotic times. 

Davenport offers something new and unique with Ikenna. While many real-life and fantasy Black girls are told to lay low, work hard, and persist in the midst of degradation, Ikenna Amari is a fresh new take on Black girlhood, violence, and the utility of confrontation. Truthfully, Ikenna Amari reminds me of a character pulled from poet June Jordan’s imagination. In her famous poem Resolution #1003, Jordan writes, “I will love who loves me … I will hate who hates me,” and Ikenna’s pursuit of vengeance in a world full of racist military officials and their arrogant offspring is a testament to Jordan’s words. Despite the issues in pacing and plot, I recommend reading this series if you’re searching for a badass protagonist who is not overwhelmed by moral conundrums or respectability. Ikenna shines as a character who hits first and unpacks the consequences later because she knows what is required to survive violence.