Nnedi Okorafor

Binti, by Nnedi Okorafor

Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti [Amazon | B&N | IndieBound] is one of the finalists for the Nebula Award in the Novella category. From the official description:

Her name is Binti, and she is the first of the Himba people ever to be offered a place at Oomza University, the finest institution of higher learning in the galaxy. But to accept the offer will mean giving up her place in her family to travel between the stars among strangers who do not share her ways or respect her customs.

Knowledge comes at a cost, one that Binti is willing to pay, but her journey will not be easy. The world she seeks to enter has long warred with the Meduse, an alien race that has become the stuff of nightmares. Oomza University has wronged the Meduse, and Binti’s stellar travel will bring her within their deadly reach.

If Binti hopes to survive the legacy of a war not of her making, she will need both the the gifts of her people and the wisdom enshrined within the University, itself but first she has to make it there, alive.

Like all of Okorafor’s work, Binti is full of imagination, fantastic worldbuilding, and layer upon layer of cultural development and conflict. Binti herself is a 16-year-old harmonizer, a gifted, courageous girl and the first of her people to leave the planet. She faces alienation and racism and loneliness, but she’s determined to grow and learn. She’s on her way to study at Oomza Uni when her ship is attacked by the Meduse, a violent, jellyfish-like race with a vendetta against humanity.

Communication is at the heart of the story. An ancient device called an edan allows Binti to communicate with the Meduse. It’s the key to everything that follows. Communication and harmony as the antidote to violence and war. It’s not easy; in fact, it’s terrifying and dangerous. That’s part of what makes Binti’s story so powerful.

The plot itself is relatively straightforward, as Binti tries first to survive the war between humans and Meduse, and then to change that war. But this isn’t a story you read for the plot. You read for the beautiful characterization, the deep cultural clashes both among Binti’s people and between humans and other races, and for enough fascinating ideas to fill several novels.

I finished the story wanting more, and will be waiting impatiently for a novel set in this universe.

You can read an excerpt of the novella here.

Writer’s Ink: Nnedi Okorafor

Nnedi Okorafor - TattooWhile I was at Detcon1, I noticed how many of my writing buddies had tattoos, and an idea was born…

Introducing Writer’s Ink, a feature I’ll be running more or less weekly for a while, until such time as I stop doing it. (How’s that for specific?)

I’m going to start with Nnedi Okorafor, who was the YA Guest of Honor at Detcon1. Her novels include Who Fears Death (winner of the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel), Akata Witch (an Amazon.com Best Book of the Year), Zahrah the Windseeker (winner of the Wole Soyinka Prize for African Literature), and The Shadow Speaker (winner of the CBS Parallax Award). Her short story collection Kabu Kabu was released in October, and her science fiction novel Lagoon was released in April, 2014. Her young adult novel Akata Witch 2: Breaking Kola is scheduled for release in 2015. She has a daughter named Anyaugo and is an associate professor at the University at Buffalo, New York.

I asked Nnedi to tell us a little about her tattoo:

It’s an illustration from my first novel Zahrah the Windseeker [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy] (found on page 63 of the paperback). My character Nsibidi was a windseeker (a person who can fly) who worked with fortune-telling baboons. She had this drawing tattooed on her chest; it means “storyteller.” The drawing combines the Nigerian writing script called nsibidi and the creative ideas that I gave the book’s spot artist. My tattoo artist was Chicago-based artist Ryan Henry. I learned about him in a documentary about Black tattoo artists called Color Outside the Lines. It was screened at a conference to which I was also and invited guest. I love how everything is connected.

Thank you, Nnedi, for letting me show off your art! Click the photo to embiggen and get a better look at the tattoo. I also snapped a pic of page 63 for comparison, since I just happened to have the book sitting on my shelf…

Zahrah the Windseeker, Page 63

The only danger I see with this series is that by the time I’m done, I may need to get a tattoo of my own. Because there are some writers out there with seriously cool ink.

Akata Witch, by Nnedi Okorafor

I finished reading Nnedi Okorafor‘s YA fantasy Akata Witch [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy] on the flight to Colorado last week. I then recommended the book to a number of different people at the conference. It’s fun, interesting, fast-paced, and just plain good. From the publisher:

Twelve-year-old Sunny lives in Nigeria, but she was born American. Her features are African, but she’s albino. She’s a terrific athlete, but can’t go out into the sun to play soccer. There seems to be no place where she fits. And then she discovers something amazing — she is a “free agent,” with latent magical power. Soon she’s part of a quartet of magic students, studying the visible and invisible, learning to change reality. But will it be enough to help them when they are asked to catch a career criminal who knows magic too?

I’ve seen a few reviews that describe the book as being inspired by or too similar to Harry Potter. Both are coming-of-age stories about children who discover they have magic. Both protagonists explore a hidden magical community, and ultimately, they both have to face a rather terrifying Big Bad. But none of these elements are new or unique to Harry Potter, and Okorafor’s story and worldbuilding are a refreshing change from most “magical teenager” stories.

I loved the characters, all of whom have distinctive personalities and voices, from Chichi’s bluntness to Sasha’s rebelliousness and American sensibilities to the different mentors and teachers Sunny meets. I also appreciated the excerpts from Fast Facts for Free Agents, a rather condescending but informative book about people like Sunny, who have non-magical parents. The book-in-a-book does a nice job of helping orient the reader while doing the same for Sunny.

It’s not all magic and soccer and fun, of course. Sunny’s world is harsh and unforgiving. The artistic wasp who creates a new sculpture each day will also sting you if you’re not suitably appreciative. Sunny risks being caned for disobeying the rules of magic, and her lessons are potentially deadly. At home, Sunny lives with an abusive father (making this the second YA book in a row I’ve read with an abusive father.) And then there’s Black Hat, a man who’s been murdering children, and whose magic is far stronger than that of Sunny or her friends…

The book is steeped in Nigerian culture and folklore, and recognizes real-world tensions and conflicts without ever feeling preachy. There’s a brief reference to 419 scams, acknowledgement of racism and prejudice in Nigeria and the U.S., and more.

My only nitpicks would be that the final confrontation with Black Hat felt a little quick, and I was disappointed to not see more of a resolution between Sunny and her father. But neither of these things took away from my enjoyment.

Like I said at the beginning of this review, I recommended this book a number of times over the weekend, and I’ll recommend it again. It’s a good story, well-written, with great characters and magic. And I’m happy to say that Okorafor has confirmed there will be additional books in this series.

Also recommended: A review of Akata Witch that discusses the cultural context and references in ways I’m not able to do.

Who Fears Death, by Nnedi Okorafor

Nnedi Okorafor‘s Who Fears Death [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy] won the 2011 World Fantasy Award for best novel and made a number of other award shortlists and “Best of the Year” lists. This is a powerful book, one that looks unflinchingly at issues like rape and genocide, slavery and female circumcision. Unlike many books I’ve read, Okorafor’s approach never felt exploitative; she writes honestly. The book is sometimes brutal and sometimes beautiful and occasionally both at once.

The book is set in post-apocalyptic Africa, and tells the story of Onyesonwu. The bones of Onyesonwu’s story will be familiar to fantasy readers. She is an outsider in her village, marked as a child of violence by her sand-colored hair and lighter skin. She possesses magical powers that she must learn to master. There is a prophecy she hopes to help bring about, one which leads her to leave her home and set off on a quest with her companions.

But Who Fears Death is so much more than a quest story. What impresses me most is that this book never looks away. It never glosses over beauty or ugliness, love or hate. It doesn’t present simple answers, and never shies away from the complexities and contradictions of life. Good things can come from the most evil or brutal acts, while evil and darkness can come from the best intentions.

Okorafor has talked about the genesis of Onyesonwu’s story, some of which is posted on the Amazon listing for the book.

“My father’s passing caused me to think about death, fear, the unknown, sacrifice, destiny and cosmic trickery. Only a week or so after my father’s passing, I read the Washington Post article, We Want to Make a Light Baby: Arab Militiamen in Sudan Said to Use Rape as Weapon of Ethnic Cleansing by Emily Wax. I was absolutely infuriated. The storytelling spider in my head started weaving faster. I realized that this article was showing me why the people in my story’s town disliked Onyesonwu and why she was so troubled.”

The result is a book that feels both universal and intimately personal.

The ending was fascinating, and while I’m not going to spoil things by going into details, I’ll say it’s another example of Okorafor refusing to follow the simple, oft-trod paths of the fantasy genre.

I suspect the book would be triggering for some readers due to rape and other violence, but with that disclaimer, I strongly recommend it.

I know a number of you have also read this one, and I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Zahrah the Windseeker, by Nnedi Okorafor

Zahrah the Windseeker [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy] is Nnedi Okorafor‘s first published novel. I’ve wanted to read Nnedi’s work for several years now, and having finally done so, I’m cranky at myself for taking so long. (Fortunately, I’ve already got another of her books waiting for me on the shelf.)

This is a YA novel which, in some respects, follows a very familiar storyline. Zahrah is different from the other kids. She’s picked on by her peers at school. She’s shy, but destined for greatness. She has a popular friend named Dari who encourages her to be more daring and explore with him. When something happens to Dari, this provides Zahrah with the push she needs to overcome her timidness and set out on her own to try to save him…

Sound like something you’ve read before? Now try this.

Zahrah was born dada, with vines growing within her thick locks, vines that twined themselves to her hair while she was still in the womb. She lives on a planet colonized ages ago and developed with biological technology, a world rooted in African culture and folklore. Zahrah grew her own computer from a seed. Shots are given using insects, and the patient is swabbed with sugar water so the insect will bite and inject the medicine. And oh yes — Zahrah can fly.

I loved it. I loved the animals, the talking gorillas and the trickster frog and even the poor, confused war snake. I loved the details, from the mirror-adorned fashion to the glitchy electronic guidebook to the background history of the library to the underlying theme of rebellion against ignorance. I loved Papa Grip and his pink caftans, and the rhythm beetles who were drawn to the music.

There were times during her quest in the forbidden jungle when it felt like Zahrah was a little too lucky (such as her encounter the whip scorpion), when other animals and characters conveniently arrived to help her. I definitely noticed these points, but they didn’t throw me out of the book. It felt right for this kind of story, which blends the flavors of science fiction and folklore and fairy tale and makes it work.

Random side note: the day after I finished this book, I dreamed about flying. (I also dreamed my car fell into a lake, but I don’t think that had anything to do with the book.)

I’d recommend this one to pretty much anyone.

Open Books Post

All right, time for a break from the intense blog posts. Let’s talk books! Last night I finished The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms [B&N | Mysterious Galaxy | Amazon] by N. K. Jemisin.

Wow. I’d heard a lot of buzz about this one, which always makes me nervous, because big book buzz doesn’t always translate to a book I’ll enjoy. But I have to say, this is the best book I’ve read so far this year, and as soon as I can remember how, I’ll be recommending it for the Nebula.

Was it a perfect book? No book is. But I loved the narrative style, I loved the worldbuilding, I loved the gods and most of the characters. It was a very well-written fantasy that sucked me in and kept me up late for the past two nights to finish it.

Jemisin has the first three chapters posted on her web site. Go forth and read.

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One of the nice perks of being an author is that you get the occasional ARC or review copy. This has been a good month. Sitting on my To Be Read pile are review copies of:

I love being a writer 🙂 I’ve also got a copy of Nnedi Okorafor‘s Zahrah the Windseeker [B&N | Mysterious Galaxy | Amazon], which I picked up at her signing in Lansing last week.

What about you? What have you read and enjoyed lately, and what are you looking forward to picking up next?

Jim C. Hines