So this is going to be a long, ramble-y review through a lens of Christianity*, and how I felt RAYBEARER had powerful religious symbolism, and it will obviously contain spoilers, so read on with that in mind.
To begin, I have lately developed a deep affinity for Saint Mary Magdalene, as I have started to view her place in the greater Christian landscape. I’ve especially been reckoning with the fact that the Church is so inherently patriarchal, and I could not believe that a God, who one part of is classically non-binary (the Holy Spirit), and so I did a deep-dive into who Mary Magdalene was. And I realized that I think she is the true 12th Apostle. (This will become important to this book, I promise).
Let me preface this by saying that I don’t want to argue with anyone, but essentially, I believe that Jesus anointed her as the replacement to Judas when He spoke to her after He was risen, and then bestowed the Holy Spirit in the form of tongues of fire on her head at Pentecost (something that was only also given to the Apostles). But scholars have since tried to disparage her reputation by claiming there were groups of women when she would do things (for example, some modern scholars believe there was no Martha, and that it was always only Mary) and creating the rumor that she was a prostitute. But this misogyny is also prevalent in the original Apostles themselves, because they refused to believe that a woman could be an Apostle, so they took it upon themselves to anoint a new 12th Apostle.
Why is this relevant to RAYBEARER, which is based on African mythology? Well, a common theme through the story is that there have only ever been male Raybearers. There was once a female Raybearer (king, though for purposes of this metaphor, I like to think of them as priests, which are descended from the original Apostles, though my metaphor for this will become mixed later; I’ll explain), but historians have worked to de-legitimatize her place in history, by saying that she was only blessed by Am (the Creator/Storyteller) because her brother, the true Raybearer, had died prematurely.
Tarisai, someone who was not supposed to exist, due to her being half-demon, and whose entire existence is to kill Dayo, finds herself as one of the 12 most important people in the land. (If I haven’t made it clear already, 12 is a holy number, as there were 12 Apostles. Here, there is one Raybearer and 11 council members… perhaps).
The truth becomes more sinister when Tarisai realizes that one part of the Arit kingdom, Songland, had been historically had children ripped from their families, sent through the pits of hell, and only a few lived to tell the story, forever haunted by their memories of the Underworld. No other child from any other part of the kingdom had been forced this way. I believe Songland symbolizes women, more specifically women of color, who have to deal with intersections of misogyny and hate from the time they were young (Black little girls specifically have historically been treated as more “adult” than white little girls, because of implicit racism). Mary Magdalene was a woman of color, living in early A.D., who was routinely prevented from succeeding no matter her lot in life (and it is actually theorized that she was quite wealthy after her spouse died, so she was able to literally fund some of Jesus’ travels, but okay [women married young back then, so it’s possible she married an older man who died of natural causes of the time, and she became a widow in her 20s or 30s]).
Eventually, Tarisai realizes that she, too, has the Ray, and is destined to rule alongside Dayo, the other Raybearer she had originally been meant to kill. I think this is a unique plot point, but I will say that it’s interesting (to me) that the author used the metaphor of being the bearer of the Sun’s rays, because the Sun has historically been worshipped as its own god (Egyptian, Mayan, etc. mythologies), and the duality of Jesus being the Son of God, so a pun of sorts.**
Tarisai, as one of the Raybearers, has to form her own council, so she has to pick 12, due to the demon’s wishes, and so she picks one from each realm, including Songland, therefore solidifying the metaphor (as Apostles were each chosen based on who their ancestor was, dating back to the Old Testament, the 12 tribes of Israel, so each Apostle was descended from one tribe).
Anyway, take this analysis what you will, but I will say, this book means a whole lot to me. I hope I didn’t project a Western view of this book that didn’t need it, but I just wanted to express my appreciation for this book and author for reinvigorating my faith, and making me feel that women truly deserve a place at the table in the Church, and that maybe one day it won’t be so men-centric. I can only hope.
In the meantime, Tarisai and her story will live on in my heart.
*As a note, I am Catholic, so some of my beliefs might not align exactly with a specific Christian denomination.
**I don’t think Tarisai symbolizes Jesus, though there is a bit of light Dayo symbolism in that his death would guarantee that the ehru would be free of being trapped to the land, and could live free, which could be a metaphor for humans being able to live in Heaven after death, as opposed to Hell. However, Dayo doesn’t die, so this symbolism is light (although Jesus came back to life, so take that what you will).