Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor. First read / library book: 349/349.
TW: violence, child murder, death, gore, bad parents, insects
It is unbelievably great to read a fantasy novel not set in Europe or pseudo-Europe. Akata Witch is set in Nigeria, and it paints in broad strokes (and well-selected details) the complexity and variety of Nigerian cultures, as well as a full and fascinating culture of magical people–Leopard People. The main character is Sunny, an albino Nigerian who was raised in the United States, but who has moved back to Nigeria with her family. She finds out about her juju and becomes part of a four-person coven of young Leopard People, whom the high-ranking Scholars plan to send up against serial child-killer Black Hat.
Now, I don’t think it actually serves a book (except in sales, maybe) to offer the praise of, “Great for fans of Harry Potter!” I don’t know that it is great for fans of Harry Potter. However, I’ve been reading all this Harry Potter, and there are a lot of structural similarities, and I think it’s great to see a book that uses all those elements really well. So I don’t want to compare as much as I want to contrast.
I loved reading a book with a twelve-year-old protagonist (although, side note–I never believed she was twelve, which was one of the few moments of dissonance in the book for me) who discovers she has magical powers and joins a magical school and meets magical friends. I loved that she has a complicated background–a white Black American or possibly Nigerian–and constantly negotiating her own identity is unapologetically written as part of her everyday life.
I like that the the magic is dangerous and grisly and this is the fact of the matter. Everyone takes a fairly casual view towards death–but that it’s acknowledged as the price of magical culture and is a stated good reason for not getting above yourself, magically speaking. I like that punishment is brutal and death is frequent and no one plays it off as a joke or a pantomime. In this book, there are no pantomimes, but a Masquerade is something you can raise that brings monsters that can destroy you.I like that they have knives–real tools!–instead of wands, and the way you know which is yours is which leaps up and bites you.
I love, LOVE, the idea of Leopard People’s true faces. They’re incredibly private–seeing someone’s true face is compared with seeing them naked–and they have their own shape and their own voice. They also tend to be incredibly masklike–exaggerated, still, geometric. It ties into traditional mask arts–about which I really wish I knew more, not least because of the way Okorafor draws on them. At any rate, it’s really darn cool.
I liked that the hidden piece of magical world, Leopard Knocks, isn’t a few tiny villages with no amenities, but a sprawling, bustling, vibrant, perilous place that you actually have to work to get into. And yet, Leopard People, living in secret among Lambs, know how Lamb society works.
I like that instead of repeating the same economic inequalities of the “muggle” world with a confusing, baseless wizard currency, in Nigeria you do magic well or you learn something doing it and little metal rods fall from the air at your feet. Merit-based, heavenly money. I like that in this world, a Scholar is the greatest level you can achieve and being Head Librarian is a prestigious position.
I like that NOTHING IS AN ALLEGORY. Everything is what it is and you meet it on those terms.
I like that the person who stands against the evil magic-user, at the end, isn’t a white boy but an albino African girl, fighting–not really a man. I like that she is taken aback and horrified by all the parts of this new world that are actually horrifying and strange, but she learns fast and works hard. I like that she finds her confidence and her strength, and that her magic lets her walk in the sun without being burned.
I also think there is plenty of room for an apocalyptic sequel, and I really hope Okorafor is writing it.