Blood Debts by Terry J. Benton-Walker is a tricky novel to review. On the one hand, it is a story about intergenerational magic, revenge, and power that is dark, dangerous, and seductive. On the other hand, the execution of the story could be more masterful than the plot suggests. There is much to love and, unfortunately, a lot that would make a reader set it aside unfinished. What you think about the book depends on your patience and willingness to ignore some unfortunate prose for a great plot. Myself, I struggled until the story engrossed me enough to be able to ignore its faults.
To say that Mr. Benton-Walker’s writing style is simplistic is to understate the issue. The problem with Blood Debts is that it reads like a young teenager, still in the throes of puberty young, wrote it. No matter their age, every character sounds like a whiny teenager complaining about not getting their way. While this makes sense for Clement and Cristina, who actually are teenagers struggling to find their identities, school bullies, boyfriends, mean girls, and other high school drama, it makes less sense for the adults in their lives. Even the oldest character sounds a bit like Regina George, crowing at her power over the entire school, or in this case, the council. In addition, each sentence is as basic as you can get. While it makes for easy reading, it does not make for the best descriptions. Mr. Benton-Walker’s metaphors and similes are too prosaic and less poetic. It makes Blood Debts feel clinical, dry, and dull when the plot is anything but that.
Where Mr. Benton-Walker excels is his story. There is something magical about any story set in New Orleans, which he uses to his advantage. In Blood Debts, he takes NOLA back from Anne Rice’s vampires and brings the focus back to the true magical heart of the area, its long history of magic in the hands of its Black citizens. In this case, it is the intergenerational magic given to formerly enslaved people by their gods as a way to break free from their oppressors. With its roots in Hoodoo, Voodoo, Haitian Vodou, and European witchcraft, the magic the Trudeau family practices is unlike what we usually expect when we hear the word “witch.” Theirs is darker, more dangerous, and more prone to cause harm to the person casting the spell as much as to the intended recipient.
The other impressive aspect of Blood Debts is that Mr. Benton-Walker highlights his characters’ failings and uses them as character development tools for them to learn and grow. In Clement’s case, he must overcome his severe anxiety and the trauma he feels upon the death of his father and his mother’s failing health. While it happens more often, a novel in which a character’s mental health is not just a convenient plot device but rather an integral part of the character itself is still rare. For all his writing faults, Mr. Benton-Walker makes Clement a likable character because of his mental illness and not despite it. Through Clement, we understand what it feels like to suffer severe anxiety, and we rejoice when he stops letting it hinder his ability to obtain his goals.
I like Blood Debts by Terry J. Benton-Walker. The story is dark and bloody, and revenge stories never get old. Where I struggled, and where I see many people struggling, is with Mr. Benton-Walker’s writing style. It does not match the nuanced and complex story he builds. Every voice is too immature, and each sentence reads like a middle-grade English textbook. Given that, I am still deciding whether to continue the series. I want to discover what happens to Clement and Cristina, but I wonder if I should put myself through the writing issues again.