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Daughters of Oduma

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About The Book

An elite female fighter must reenter the competition to protect her found family of younger sisters in this “absorbing, striking” (Publishers Weekly, starred review) young adult fantasy inspired by West African culture, perfect for fans of The Gilded Ones and Creed.

Eat. Dance. Fight.

This is the life of the girls who compete in the Isle’s elite, all-female fighting sport of Bowing. But it isn’t really Dirt’s life anymore. At sixteen, she is old and has retired from competition. Instead, she spends her days coaching the younger sisters of the Mud Fam and dreading her fast-approaching birthday, when she’ll have to leave her sisters to fulfill whatever destiny the Gods choose for her.

Dirt’s young sisters are coming along nicely, and the Mud Fam is sure to win the upcoming South God Bow tournament, which is crucial: the tiny Fam needs the new recruits that come with victory. Then an attack from a powerful rival leaves the Mud without their top Bower, and Dirt is the only one who can compete in the tournament. But Dirt is old, out of shape, and afraid. She has never wanted to be a leader. Victory seems impossible—yet defeat would mean the end of her beloved Fam. And no way is Dirt going to let that happen.

Excerpt

Chapter 1: The Mud Fam

1 The Mud Fam
SIS DIRT, the Second of the Mud Fam, stood on the edge of the jungle, staring down the narrow path. Heavy fig and yaro tree branches dangled over it. Drooping vine bridges spanned its scant width, easy crossing for the snakes and gekko. The path was near invisible if a girl didn’t know where to look.

But Dirt had known the path her whole life, knew it better than any girl alive. She wasn’t there to learn its winding curves.

She was waiting for her sisters.

They were out on their morning run, the start of every Bower’s day. For the younger girls, the morning run helped build the endurance, strength, and discipline they’d need for Bowing competition. For the older girls who were already competing, the run gave them a chance to prepare their mind for a day of hard training.

A small part of Dirt missed it. Those jaunts through the jungle had made up much of her early life. But those years were behind her. Now she was an elder, more suited to a day of tea and sitting than one of runs and hard training. She was almost seventeen, after all.

Dirt heard her sisters before she saw them, their footfalls echoing through the bush as they rounded the bend and jogged into camp. Swoo was first, of course. Even in training, she needed to win. Despite the long run, her half-length top only had a few dark drops of sweat. Her pants, baggy around the thighs and cinched at midcalf, had none. What would have been a workout for some was barely a warm-up for Swoo.

“Na good day, Sis Dirt,” she said, still jogging in place.

“Na good day, NoBe Swoo. Where are na Bibi?”

Swoo shrugged. “Too slow.” She drew her handaxe from her waistband and squared off with an imaginary foe. The handaxe was for chopping wood, but Swoo used it mainly to practice chopping enemies. “But I say to them, ‘Any Bibi too slow will feed na jungle cat.’ So they will hurry.”

Dirt suppressed her irritation. It was Swoo’s duty to watch over the young ones. A Fam was only a Fam if each sister played her role.

“While we wait for na Bibi,” Dirt said, “your Sis Dirt wants tea.” She gave Swoo a flat look.

Swoo scowled, then went to get the requested tea, mumbling under her breath.

Dirt turned back to watch for the younger sisters, but called out over her shoulder, “I cannot hear you, NoBe Swoo.”

“Your tea is coming,” Swoo said sweetly before adding, in a lower voice, “you shabby goat.”

Dirt ignored her. Swoo lacked the size and fat a Bower at her level should have, but she more than made up for those in other areas. She was as unbearably confident as a Flagga boy, tenacious as a starving street dog, faster than any other NoBe and half of the Sis. She’d finished the season with five wins in a row and, with her exciting Bowing style, flashy dance skills, and fashionable haircut—shaved on both sides with a high strip of tight curls leading back to a fluffy bun—had become a fan favorite.

And she knew it. Her ego was growing faster than her belly.

Any other day, Dirt would have disciplined her. But today, peace was more important than pride. If Dirt had to swallow one to keep the other, then so be it.

Soon the Bibi came huffing out of the jungle. With her long strides, seven-year-old Nana led the way. She was the skinniest Bower that Dirt had ever seen, but her body was tall and strong, and she had a quick mind for technique. Little Snore, straggling behind, was the opposite. Short, more round than long, and with plenty of good child fat left on her bones, the four-year-old had the look of a future champion, but the mind and mood of a very sleepy mamba. When she was awake, she was tireless and always plotting trouble.

When she was awake.

“Sis Dirt!” Nana said. “Na good day!” She was missing a lower tooth, knocked out in yesterday’s training. The gap only made her smile more endearing.

“Na good day, Sis Dirr,” Snore said with theatrical exhaustion. She collapsed onto her back, swinging her arms and legs in the dirt like she was splashing in a puddle. “Sis Dirr, I am tired.”

“Up, up,” Dirt said. “You are home. Na training must begin.”

They groaned their disagreement.

The Mud camp lay in a muddy clearing amid the South’s untamed jungles. In the rear corner was the Mud Fam’s sleep hut, a driftwood shack bound by twine. Beside it lay the garden, which was half for crops—peppers, tea leaves, various fruits and vegetables—and half for chickens. In the center was the fighting ring, essential to any Bower camp. It was five strides in every direction, filled a finger deep with golden sand, and enclosed by a ring of canvas sandbags that divided it from the muddy grass of the rest of the Mud camp.

As Dirt ordered the Bibi into the ring to begin the day’s training, Swoo returned with the tea and an eye roll, offering both to Dirt before sitting over by the sleep hut to watch.

“Time to train, Swoo,” Dirt said. She could ignore the eye roll, but she couldn’t ignore the break from routine.

“Why train with na Bibi? I am no longer NoBe.”

It was somewhat true. Swoo would be a Sis next season and no longer compete as a NoBe. But the next season hadn’t started yet, and the girl needed to show some humility.

Dirt wanted to say something sharp, but she looked over at the sleep hut, where Sis Webba slumbered, and thought better of it.

Peace, not pride, she said to herself. Peace, not pride.

So instead she turned back to the Bibi.

“Stand strong!” Dirt boomed. The Bibi hurried into their Bowing stances, feet shoulder width apart, one in front and one behind. They bent their knees just slightly, hands up, upper bodies loose. When they were in position, she began the Bowing sequence. “Slap na water!”

The two Bibi did as told, rolling their shoulders, palms reaching out and smacking down atop an invisible waterline.

“Ride na wind!”

They crouched low and surged forward, so close to the ground that each girl’s rear leg dragged through the sand before she hopped back to her feet.

“Trap na fire!”

They smacked palm against palm and tightened their grips around the waist of an imaginary enemy.

“And Bow to na earth!” Dirt finished.

They were supposed to bend forward or backward or rotate sideways, bodies arcing like the unique swoops of narrow tree trunks.

But they were young.

Nana, indecisive as ever, couldn’t commit to any direction. So she did all of them, wobbling around like a palm in a monsoon. Completely ineffective.

For Little Snore, it was playtime. She fell forward, flat on her face. Her coughed giggle dispersed the sand around her mouth.

As the Second of the Mud, it was Dirt’s responsibility to train the Bibi and NoBe. She had to teach them not just the rules and traditions of Bower life, but also the fighting art of Bowing. She had learned long ago that she didn’t have the spirit for competition, but she knew the craft of Bowing well and had made herself into the best trainer she could be.

“Breathe easy, Nana,” Dirt said in a low voice. As usual, Nana was stiff. Even though she’d done the sequence a thousand times, her shoulders were tight with worry.

Nana let out a long exhale, the way Dirt had taught her years ago.

“Snore, up, up!” The youngest Mud sister stood back up and fell into her Bowing stance.

Once the Bibi were settled, Dirt continued. “Again!” she growled.

Even as the Bibi flopped through their techniques, Dirt felt a warm pride watching her sisters train. Ever since she was a Bibi, she’d dreamed of being the First of a mighty Fam, one with hundreds of sisters and a camp large enough for them all. She’d dreamed of walking among the ranks of her sisters as they trained, fixing their technique, adjusting their posture, giving a word of encouragement here and a reprimanding look there. Though she would never be a champion Bower herself, she could still experience the glory of victory through her Fam. That would be her legacy.

Her dream still eluded her. She wasn’t a First, she was a Second. And the Mud Fam didn’t have hundreds of sisters, it had five. But every tree started with a seed, and with water and sun and a little bit of—

“Chaaaiii,” Swoo exclaimed, watching the Bibi with mock disgust. “You Bow like sicksick dogs.” She hopped to her feet and headed for the ring. “I will show you.”

Snore laughed at Swoo’s criticism and barked like a dog. Nana, however, stared hard at the floor as if she’d been scolded. She was a sensitive girl; Dirt often had to protect her against Swoo’s flippant tongue.

Dirt felt a flame of anger starting to burn within her. Only Swoo ever made her that angry.

“NoBe Swoo, sit dow—” Dirt began, but Swoo was already going through the whole sequence.

She Slapped quickly, then glided low and cat-quick in a Ride, her favorite technique. She was one of the best Riders in the whole South, even when compared to full Sis. That was where her name had come from. The crowds that watched her fights loved to shout “SWOOOO” like the sound of rushing wind as she Rode.

Swoo snapped up to her feet, arms forming a tight Trap. Without slowing, she moved right into a flashy Back Bow, bending backward at the hip, far enough to threaten gravity, but not far enough to drive her head into the sand. Her Bowing technique was still years away from the level of the South’s elite Bowers, but it wasn’t bad for a NoBe.

Snore’s tiny hands broke into applause as Swoo finished. “Chaaaiii,” she cooed as Swoo flexed her muscles and soaked up the admiration.

Any other day, Dirt would have given Swoo such a tongue-lashing the arrogant girl wouldn’t be able to look Dirt in the eye for a half moon.

But not today. She couldn’t risk a loud argument.

“Your toes,” she said.

Swoo raised an eyebrow.

“When you Bow,” Dirt explained, “you must rise on your toes.” She stretched her back nonchalantly, wincing at the small, satisfying pops.

Swoo rolled her eyes. “Sis Dirt, this is training.” She did the whole sequence again, faster. Dirt grunted at the increasingly sloppy technique, but she envied the youthful athleticism. “Training is not fighting.”

“Train bad, fight bad,” Dirt said.

“Train fast, fight faster,” Swoo countered, still battling the air.

Dirt looked to the Bibi. “Give Swoo no mind. There is much she does not know.”

Swoo smirked. “Eh heh, and what do you know, eh? Do you fight?”

The mood shifted, as if a pebble had struck and sent a ripple through the camp. The Bibi’s eyes slid from Dirt to Swoo and back.

“Na Sis knows many things, NoBe Swoo,” Dirt said.

“Then come and show me,” Swoo retorted. She stepped toward Dirt, competitive thirst in her eyes. “Teach me, wisewise Sis Dirt.”

“Chaaaiii,” cooed Nana and Snore.

Dirt sipped her tea, maintaining her calm. “How can I teach one who knows all? Go and sit.”

But Swoo didn’t move. She stayed in the ring, her face a mask of stubbornness tinged with curiosity.

Dirt understood what was happening. NoBe were young, strong, eager to prove themselves. The only reason they didn’t challenge Sis more often was out of respect, not humility. And Dirt was old and out of shape, her belly shrinking, arms skinnying. Even in her prime, she’d been a notoriously terrible competitor. In a fight, the best Bowers were able to clear their minds and focus on battle, but Dirt’s mind would get overwhelmed by her opponent’s moves, the crowd’s reaction, her sisters’ encouragement, and, mostly, her own doubts. She was the only Sis in all the South who didn’t actually compete.

In short, she was a perfect target for an overeager NoBe. To Swoo, Dirt wasn’t a threat, she was a trophy.

But the only thing worse for Dirt than having her weak body and rusty Bowing skills exposed by a NoBe would be ignoring the challenge altogether. The Bibi would never respect her again if she backed down.

“You breezy, Sis Dirt?” Swoo goaded, delight in her eyes. “You breezy to Bow with Swoo, eh?”

So Dirt did what had to be done.

“I see you wish to learn,” Dirt said. She hiked her baggy pants up at the waist, slid the cinched legs above her knees. “Then come. I will teach.”

About The Author

Photograph © Moses Ose Utomi

Moses Ose Utomi is a Nigerian American fantasy writer, martial artist, and nomad currently based out of Honolulu, Hawaii. He has an MFA in fiction from Sarah Lawrence College and has had work published with Tor and Fantasy Magazine, among others. When he isn’t reading or writing, he’s indulging his restlessness by traveling about, making progress on his martial arts journey, or doing karaoke—with or without a backing track. Visit him on Instagram @ProfSeaquill and TikTok @MosesOseUtomi.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers (February 27, 2024)
  • Length: 368 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781665918145
  • Grades: 7 and up
  • Ages: 12 - 99
  • Lexile ® 780L The Lexile reading levels have been certified by the Lexile developer, MetaMetrics®

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  • Kansas NEA Reading Circle List Junior Title

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