Book Review

Blood Debts

Blood Debts 

  • Author: Terry J. Benton-Walker
  • Genre: YA Fantasy
  • Publication Date: April 4, 2023
  • Publisher: Tor Teen

Thank you to NetGalley, YA Books Central, and Tor Teen for sending me a copy of this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

CONTENT WARNING: murder, death of a parent, anxiety, grief, excessive use of profanity, racism, homophobia, bullying, violence, depression, toxic relationship, gaslighting, gore, gun violence, trauma

Thirty years ago, a young woman was murdered, a family was lynched, and New Orleans saw the greatest magical massacre in its history. In the days that followed, a throne was stolen from a queen.

On the anniversary of these brutal events, Clement and Cristina Trudeau—the sixteen-year-old twin heirs to the powerful, magical, dethroned family—are mourning their father and caring for their sick mother. Until, by chance, they discover their mother isn’t sick—she’s cursed. Cursed by someone on the very magic council their family used to rule. Someone who will come for them next.

Cristina, once a talented and dedicated practitioner of Generational magic, has given up magic for good. An ancient spell is what killed their father and she was the one who cast it. For Clement, magic is his lifeline. A distraction from his anger and pain. Even better than the random guys he hooks up with.

Cristina and Clement used to be each other’s most trusted confidant and friend, now they barely speak. But if they have any hope of discovering who is coming after their family, they’ll have to find a way to trust each other and their family’s magic, all while solving the decades-old murder that sparked the still-rising tensions between the city’s magical and non-magical communities. And if they don’t succeed, New Orleans may see another massacre. Or worse.

Terry J. Benton-Walker’s contemporary fantasy debut, Blood Debts, with powerful magical families, intergenerational curses, and deadly drama in New Orleans.

I’d be lying if I said that the stunning cover isn’t what caught my eye first, but the summary held my attention, and I couldn’t wait to escape the New York winter for the sultry heat of a New Orleans summer. There was so much that I enjoyed about this one, although there were a few things that fell a teeny bit short for me. But overall, it was a bumpy ride and I couldn’t put it this page-turner down.

Clement and Cristina are fantastic and well-developed characters. I loved the difficult dynamic that they have with each other, as twins who are struggling with various relationships in their lives, but in different manifestations. And most importantly, they are struggling with their relationship with the other twin, in the aftermath of the death of their father and their mother’s sudden illness. While Cristina is blaming herself for her father’s death, Clement is struggling with mental health issues, vacillating between depression and anxiety, and closing himself off from most of his meaningful relationships other than Cristina, who has been slowly pushing him away.

It isn’t just the dynamic between the twins that is difficult, but the story also addresses other relationship difficulties, whether it is between friends, families, or romantic partners, and that is where a lot of the strength in the story comes from. It’s an intensely relatable situation, not just the situation in Clement and Cristina’s family, but in the other narrators as well—a family with parents that aren’t willing to separate but only fight between themselves and don’t have enough emotional resources to devote to their child, and even a queer child who plays a role in an effort to appease their intensely homophobic parent. It allows a snapshot into each of their lives, although it doesn’t necessarily feel like we get enough insight into some of the side characters that play a smaller role.

Another strength of the story is the way that it doesn’t hesitate to talk about the hard topics—the magic system is rooted in a way to fight back against oppression during slavery and beyond, yet it sets up additional conflict by entitled characters who feel as though they have the right to learn and practice generational magic that doesn’t belong to them. We see multiple instances of racism and preferential treatment of white characters in terms of justice, as well as the very different ways that the white and Black characters are treated by law enforcement. There’s also no shortage of homophobia, and the presence of magic itself is another facet for control of Black people, as evidenced by the growing movement for legal control over generational magic, while the forms of magic that are practiced by white people aren’t even addressed as needed to be controlled. 

There’s a lot of profanity in the story. And I do mean a lot. This is coming from someone who curses like a drunken truck driver, and even in an adult book, I’d find it to be excessive, but when it’s in a YA book, finding an f-bomb on nearly every single page at least once, and sometimes more than that feels like a bit much. There were also some intimate situations discussed, but at least one sex scene occurs semi-explicitly between two of the teen characters. As an adult reader, this didn’t bother me and wasn’t anything as graphic as would be found in an adult romance, but probably wouldn’t be as suitable for readers on the young end of the YA spectrum. 

The other, more pressing issue that I found with the story is that it felt as though it was trying to do almost too much in too short of a time. Although there was a range of POVs in the story, not all of them really played out fully throughout the storyline, and some of the plot threads were kind of left hanging by the end of the book. We never get any resolution for three of the side characters, and I was left wondering if they just got away without any consequences for their own actions, despite the massive harms that they had throughout the book, and there’s no explanation at all for the actions of one of them.

Overall, this was a fantastic debut, and I loved the way the story unfolded. I was hooked early, and only got more so the further into the book I read. Clement and Cristina are two characters that I was sad to say goodbye to, although their story still felt complete by the end of the book. I especially loved the world-building and the way the magic system was connected to their history of oppression and ancestry, both distant and recent. Benton-Walker is absolutely a talent to watch.

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