First-time novelist Amélie Wen Zhao reportedly received a six-figure advance for her trilogy of young-adult novels, which she sold last year to a Penguin Random House imprint. Her story is set in a fictional empire with an enslaved underclass called Affinites; protagonist Princess Anastacya Mikhailov lives in hiding because of her similarity to the Affinites, and the plot unspools from there. Blood Heir, the first novel in the series, was scheduled to publish next month. That was before the novel came under a tidal wave of criticism from early readers who saw in the book an offensive likeness of American slavery and black oppression. In January, Zhao abruptly issued a statement apologizing for the “pain” her book had caused and asked her publisher to cancel its publication.
Now, Zhao told the New York Times, she has changed her mind. Reeling from the criticism after pulling the book from publication, she took time to reread her manuscript several times and decided her critics were wrong. In March, she contacted her editor at Delacorte Press to tell her she wanted to proceed after all. Zhao and the publisher solicited new feedback from experts including a human-trafficking scholar, “academics from different multicultural backgrounds,” and multiple “sensitivity readers” who scan manuscripts for stereotypes. She made additions and revisions in response. “We ultimately think our YA readers are very smart,” her editor told the Times. “They can read what they want to read and use their critical thinking skills to work through it.” The tweaked version of Blood Heir will be published in November.
Blood Heir is not the only book to have run into the wood chipper of “YA Twitter,” the small but influential community of largely adult online readers who can make or break a book’s fortunes—or at least its online reputation—long before it is available to most readers. Laurie Forest’s much-hyped debut novel, The Black Witch, faced serious backlash in 2017 after one YA blogger called it “the most dangerous, offensive book I have ever read” in a nearly 9,000-word review that blasted the fantasy novel as “racist, ableist, [and] homophobic.” (The book was published on schedule.) Author Keira Drake postponed and revised her fantasy novel, The Continent, after early readers criticized it for trafficking in ugly stereotypes of Native Americans. In March, Kosoko Jackson pulled his first novel, a romantic thriller about a relationship between two teenage boys set in the Kosovo War, after a Goodreads reviewer called it out for representational offenses. Jackson issued a statement apologizing to “those who I hurt with my words.” (Like Zhao, he addressed his apology to “the book community.”) His next novel, about a gay teen who time-travels to the scene of the Stonewall riots, is scheduled to be published next year.
In hindsight, Zhao’s handling of the episode is a master class in turning an online backlash into a boon. The move allowed her to make a public gesture toward taking her critics seriously, while also winning sympathy and support from the many people who view the YA community’s self-appointed representation police with distaste. Although the withdrawal looked like a defeat at the time, it also boosted Zhao’s profile significantly. The announcement of the book’s return was granted flattering coverage in the Times. And the novel itself will be published less than six months later than originally scheduled. The return of Blood Heir is a reminder that for all the agita about free speech and “Twitter mobs,” so-called cancellation isn’t always permanent in the wider world.
One of the early criticisms of Blood Heir was that it seemed to depict a black character named May being rescued from the slave trade, and then dying so the white protagonist can live. As one Twitter critic, YA novelist L.L. McKinney, put it at the time, the book was “pretty much about slavery and oppressions suffered by the Black community.” I haven’t read Blood Heir, which obviously has not yet been published. But Slate’s Aja Hoggatt read the first version in January and concluded that it’s not even clear that May is black. Zhao, who was raised in Beijing, said at the time that she intended to refer to indentured labor and human trafficking in Asia.
In a new statement announcing the book’s comeback, Zhao goes further. “I researched extensively on the subject of modern-day human trafficking and indentured labor throughout the world and specifically from my heritage,” she writes. “It is my hope that Blood Heir will confront the silence surrounding this epidemic that continues to affect 45 million victims globally.” She emphasizes several times that she is writing from within her own culture, an important assurance for YA Twitter, which uses the term “own voices” to refer approvingly to a book written by an author whose marginalized identity (or identities) matches her protagonist. (Dip into this thread by one of Blood Heir’s early critics, in which she performs “50-page tests” on novels she is not sure she wants to read, rejecting many for violations like “Indian-inspired fantasy by a white woman” and “I don’t like reading about allocishet white boys, thank you.”) Zhao’s statement concludes that she is excited for readers “to have a chance to engage in further dialogue about these important social issues.”
Time will tell how substantive Zhao’s revisions are and whether they will satisfy her critics. Does YA Twitter really want authors to change, or does it just want to tear down those who don’t kowtow to them? But reframing her fantasy novel as an invitation to “engage in dialogue” about a real-world issue is savvy, given the context. It’s easy to reject a “problematic” novel; according to the new rules of YA Twitter, that rejection can even be a moral act. It’s harder to reject an attempt to “confront the silence” around an indisputably horrific human tragedy. In emphasizing a social issue rather than a story, Zhao may have given her novel a second chance at life. It remains to be seen whether it will actually be good for her story.