Akata Witch is a children’s fantasy novel set in a marvelously vivid modern Nigeria, in which a society of magical Leopard People operates out of sight of the Lamb People, which is to say, us.

Twelve-year-old Sunny is already used to living in two worlds, as she’s both Nigerian and American, and a black person who looks white due to being an albino. So when she discovers that she’s a free agent Leopard Person – born with magical powers, but without magical parents – it’s all part of her cultural between-ness. Both that and her albinism turn out to be key to her powers: Leopard People who are physically disabled or non-neurotypical are often extra-powerful, with magical abilities which relate to, but do not erase, their disabilities. (This trope is hugely controversial, so I’ll just say that I thought it was sensitively handled. Your mileage may vary.)

Sunny is initiated into the world of the Leopard People, learning to summon her spirit face and make an invisibility spell from a sheep’s head (she does this quite openly in her kitchen, and feeds the leftovers to her family as soup), and rewarded for knowledge gained by showers of magical coins and friendly magical insect companions. The story ambles along episodically, as Sunny learns the ways of the Leopard People, makes friends, and tries to balance her new magical life with the need to stay in school and not let her family find out. One of my favorite parts of the book is the excerpts from a magical how-to book Sunny reads, written by a snarky, superior Leopard Person who looks down from a considerable height upon both Lamb People and free agents.

At a somewhat late point, she is told that she and her buddies need to stop a serial child-killer; they don’t do much about it until they are abruptly told that the time is right, and then they hastily confront him in a battle which, while dramatic, was too rushed to feel truly climactic. I could have done without that whole storyline. I was much more interested in seeing Sunny poke around her strange new world, being traumatized by witnessing bizarre Leopard People duels and conscientiously praising her pet magic wasp’s artistic creations lest it get so disappointed in her as to commit melodramatic suicide before her eyes, as magical wasps are apparently wont to do.

I also would have liked to have seen more attention paid to Sunny’s family. I couldn’t tell from her narrative whether the level of corporal punishment tipped over into abuse or not, but the situation with her father seemed so bad, emotionally if nothing else, that I wanted it to be dealt with more than it ever was. That and the serial killer stoyline were tonally different from the magical dangers in the rest of the story in a way that never quite meshed.

This is the third book I’ve read by Okorafor. It has many of the same virtues of The Shadow Speaker (my favorite so far) and Zahrah the Windseeker: a playful sense of humor, a fantastic sense of place, and a packed-to-the-brim sense of invention. It also shares the flaw of a rushed and poorly set up climax. Her worlds and their funny, clever details are fantastic; her prose and plotting don’t reach the same heights. (I read a little bit of her adult novel Who Fears Death, before setting it aside for a time when I’m more steeled for depressing content, and the prose in that much more was much more impressive.) Akata Witch is fun but the worldbuilding, while charming, didn’t feel as deep as it did in her more profoundly transformed settings.

Akata Witch
Sponsored by [personal profile] tool_of_satan.

The world has been transformed by magic, science, and war. In a future Niger, West Africa, storms and camels speak with human voices, teenagers type and listen to music on their e-legbas, and some children are born with the ability to fly, call rain, or listen to shadows.

Ejii is a teenage shadow speaker. Her father once ruled her village according to harsh traditions, but he was executed by a woman called Jaa, whose rule is more egalitarian and modern, but who is equally ruthless. Jaa wears a translucent burka and wields an otherworldly living sword; when she speaks, sometimes red flowers fall from the sky. When Jaa hears that the people of another world are planning to invade, she asks Ejii to come with her on her mission to stop them. Ejii's mother forbids it, but after consulting the shadows, Ejii takes off after her anyway, across a magical, dangerous landscape.

The worldbuilding in this is absolutely fantastic. The blend of magic, technology, and magical realism is utterly convincing and really fun to read. Unlike the last 20 or so futuristic YA novels I've read lately, people have cultures and religions and tribes, they speak different languages, the ecology is weird but believable, towns have economies, and the whole world feels real enough to touch.

The first two-thirds of the novel, which sets up the story and then follows Ejii's quest across the desert, is simply plotted but made fresh and new by the strength of the world. The final third has some good moments but is a bit of a mess in plot terms, with too much chaotic action and several crucial moments falling flat. Read more... ).

The prose is plain, occasionally poetic but also occasionally clunky, and the characterization is solid. But one of the main reasons I like sf and fantasy is for the chance to explore new worlds, and this is a great new world. Despite my caveats, I liked it a lot, and I would recommend it. It's more obviously flawed than Zahrah the Windseeker, to which it's loosely related, but its strengths are much stronger and it's overall a better book.

I also love the cover. Nnedi Okorafor's books all seem to have great covers.

The Shadow Speaker
Sponsored by [personal profile] gwyneira.

A completely adorable children's science-fantasy set on an Africa-derived planet in which Earth is a legend and most of the technology is biological. I am a complete sucker for biotech, not to mention science-fantasy, and the extravagant invention and playfulness of the world gives the novel enormous charm.

All the best books about plants are written by northeasterners, be they about pruning your office building or growing and maintaining the perfect personal computer from CPU seed to adult PC.

Zahrah Tsami is born with dadalocks - dreadlocks with vines growing in them. This marks her as potential trouble in her conformist culture, so she grows up quiet and shy, keeping her head down and trying to ignore the teasing from other kids. She gains the ability to levitate with menarche, but since she's afraid of heights she's reluctant to explore it.

But her best friend, the young radical Dari, persuades her to venture with him into the Forbidden Greeny Jungle, where he can explore and she can, maybe, learn to fly. He promptly gets bitten by a deadly snake, and the only antidote is the egg of the scariest creature in the very scary scary jungle... into which Zahrah ventures, armed only with a grumpy compass, a malfunctioning digi-book, and a talent she's afraid to use.

Though the prose is overly simplistic and sometimes clunky, the setting is so great, and the tone is so sweet and playful, that I read this with a huge smile on my face. It's also one of the few American children's fantasy novels with an African (ish) heroine, written by an African-American author, AND with a black girl on the cover, so it could probably use some support. If you know any little girls (or boys) who liked Coraline, they would probably like this.

Zahrah the Windseeker


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