Where the Black Flowers Bloom

HarperCollins/Clarion. Jan. 2023. 240p. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781328841629.
Gr 4-6–It is Telling Day, a ritual on Asha’s 13th birthday in which a mark from the gods will appear on her body as a sign of her “true path in life.” A baobab tree appears on Asha’s back, baffling Madame S, the wise woman who cares for her, and more strange omens follow. When a shadowy flock of bird-men with an allegiance to the mysterious Shrike attack the camp looking for Asha, she sets off to find an underground kingdom where she hopes to uncover her destiny. Smith’s latest tome fills a much-needed gap in middle grade fantasy novels, where invented kingdoms are often European-inspired. His elaborate worldbuilding will draw escapist readers in, and creatures inspired by African mythology add freshness and excitement to the story. A drawback is that the characters at times feel one-dimensional, and the novel rides the theme of destiny almost to a fault, as it feels like the characters never really have much choice in their path. Be warned that there are occasional scenes of fighting and war, and several characters die, but the descriptions are vague and graphic details are avoided.
VERDICT Hand this to young readers seeking adventurous new fantasy, and who aren’t quite ready for "Lord of the Rings."

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