Rating: 4.5 stars
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Length: Novel


Clement and Cristina Trudeau used to be close. As twins, they have shared so much of their lives together, but when their father died, Cristina began to pull away both from Clem and from magic, and Clem has no idea why. The coolness between them isn’t helped by Clem’s disdain and outright dislike for Cristina’s white boyfriend, Oz, and his fascination with gen magic— the generational magic of black slaves passed down from parent to child — or Cristina’s equal disdain for Clem’s own haphazard collection of boyfriends. Now, though, the two of them have something more important to do than snipe at one another, because their mother is dying.

However, it turns out that it’s not cancer killing their mother; someone is actually trying to kill her. Someone used gen magic to put a curse on their mother and drain her life away. If Clem hasn’t accidentally found the doll, their mother would be dead within weeks. Now, they have time; now, more than ever, they need their family to join together and work some protection magic, but their mother’s sisters have long since gone their own ways, and getting them to come back for a working is easier said than done.

Clem and Cristina will have to put aside their own grudges and find some way to bring their family back together, and in doing so will uncover secrets thirty years dead.

Blood Debts is the first book in Terry J. Benton-Walker’s new Blood Debts series and it’s a fun, mean little book. Life has kicked Cristina’s family one too many times, taken one too many people from her, and Cristina — with the help of her family — is going to start fighting back. This book has mentions of a car accident, gun violence, and character death, along with mentions of forced sex work, attempted rape, drugging, and both attempted and successful murders. If you’re uncomfortable with tales of vengeance and violence, this might not be the book for you.

This is also a book that deals heavily with generational trauma, as the younger generation — Clem, Chris, Yves, Zac, and Valentina — is bearing up under the weight of their parents’ traumas, and often their grandparents’ pain and suffering, as well. The cycles of violence and behavior, how children learn from their parents and pass on those lessons to their own children is brought up several times. Valentina idolizes her grandmother and holds her own mother (whose marriage is violent and deteriorating) in contempt. She only knows how to hurt other people and use other people, because her grandmother uses and manipulates her daughter-in-law much as she manipulates Valentina herself. Zac tries to both care for and follow in the footsteps of the father who he views as a hero — but who is suffering from the PTSD he gained in the military with violent, rage-filled outbursts — and sees having a gun as having power, as being manly, as being able to avenge all of his slights and hurts. And then there’s Yves, a gentle spirit whose sister, at 18, became parent and guardian to her brother when her parents were killed in an accident. Tricked into sex work, she has since clawed her way to freedom and has taught her brother through example kindness and compassion, the same kindness and compassion she gives to the sex workers who work in her brothel. Yves is a romantic who sees sex as something that gives pleasure, and love as something that brings him joy. A joy he shares with Clem.

Clem loved his father, and his father’s death hit him hard. With his mother sick and his sister turning away from him, Clem became more desperate, more clingy. Ursula, his favorite aunt, the one he was closest to, hurt him terribly when she left, and when there’s a chance to have her back, he grabs on and holds tight with everything he has so she can’t leave him again. It’s that same need to be loved, to be seen, to be wanted that has him falling for Yves’ bright and sunny warmth. Yves is a balance to all the shadows that have attached themselves to Clem, his light and joy a balm to Clem’s fractured self. Their romance is fast, their declarations of love instant and intense … but they’re both 16 and filled with hormones. Clem falling in love with the first boy he sleeps with, with someone who makes him happy — especially given what he’s been through and what he’s going through — makes perfect sense to me. The two boys click together well, with a natural chemistry and ease.

Cristina is one of the most talented gen magic users in her family. Or at least, she was. When Valentina stopped being her friend and instead turned against her, Cristina cast a spell to balance out the evil. To give Valentina back what she was giving; no more, no less. And then her father died, and Cristina has no way of knowing if her spell, if her moment of hatred and her desire to hurt someone may have caused it. Ever since, she’s refrained from using magic, the thing that brought her the most joy, that granted her a large part of her identity. And now that she has cause to use it, Cristina keeps finding reasons not to.

I really, really enjoyed this book but there are some pacing issues. The first half of the book is focused on building the family relationships, showing through Clem and Cristina’s eys hints of the troubles and traumas the older generation endured, hinting but never answering anything … until halfway through the book and suddenly everything is being answered all at once. There are points where it got a little contrived and some moments and characters were given short shrift because there simply wasn’t time to give them the same care other characters got. Hopefully, we’ll see more of those characters and their storylines in the next book.

There are also moments where I felt that the writing got away from the story, where the language became too formal or too overwrought and florid for a given scene — particularly when the rest of the scene and the sentences before had been relaxed and natural. Some scenes felt disjointed with stiff or jarring transitions when style took over the storytelling, but there aren’t many of them.

It was nice to see a book with almost entirely black characters, with it mentioned often and lovingly the color of their skin, the texture and shape of their hair, the shades of their eyes and their clothing. The world building was a little flat, for me. The story takes place in New Orleans, but I didn’t really get a feel for the city as a character in this book. The magic system, though, is the best part of this book for me, and I’d recommend it for that, alone. The generational magic, based very loosely on Voodoo (as the author notes in the Acknowledgements), is beautifully realized. There is emphasis on ancestors and on the cycles of mother to child, from one generation to the next. How an ancestor filled with magic, prayed to by descendants, empowered by those prayers, can rise to become something mythic, to become a god.

I can’t wait to see more magic, and more of Cristina and Clem. Especially Cristina, who is, I think, my favorite character, though I also enjoyed Cristina’s mother, who — through everything she’s endured and everything done to her — will not bend to anyone. Her morals are her armor and her shield, and heaven help the people who try to touch her family. I highly recommend this book, if you couldn’t tell.