Sunny Nwazue confuses people. She was born in America to Nigerian parents, but she’s albino, with blond hair and pale skin that burns in the sun. Things get worse when the family moves back to Nigeria. Sunny’s bullied for looking white. No one will play soccer with her even though she’s great at it, all because she’s a girl. And she starts to see things in candle flames, terrifying visions of the end of the world…
In any fantasy book, this is where a wise mentor would pop up to help the hero grow into her powers. It happens here, too, as Sunny meets other Leopard People (witches and wizards, if you will) and is introduced to a circle of elders. But aside from these generalities, Akata Witch is unlike any fantasy book I’ve ever read.
Let’s start with world building. The book is steeped in West African mythology, and it’s a welcome addition to a fantasy genre so dominated by white/Christian/Greco-Roman roots. Even the basic terms are different: juju instead of magic/witchcraft, Leopard People for those with juju powers, Lambs for ordinary, non-magic folk. Ceremonial masks play a part, and instead of wands, the Leopard People use juju knives. Best of all, Okorafor eases you into the world bit by bit so it feels magical and new, but never bewildering.
It is, however, dangerous. Juju demands respect, and it feels more real, more of this world than the hand-wavy magic of most fantasy books. Instead of turning beetles into buttons or making people tap dance, Sunny learns to command insects, fly across a river, make herself invisible. And the stakes are sky-high. Novices who try to use too-advanced magic can easily end up dead—or loosing mass destruction on the world.
But despite the grittiness there’s plenty of levity to lighten the mood. Sunny and her friends grumble and compete like typical teenagers. They keep ridiculous pets, like an artistic wasp that builds sculptures out of cookie crumbs (it’s cuter than it sounds, really). And the Leopard People have a value system to die for. In their world, learning literally equals wealth. Their money, called chittim, comes in the form of tiny pieces of metal. You can use chittim to buy food and juju books, but you can’t earn it by holding down a job. The only way to gain chittim is to learn—every time you perform a new spell, chittim come raining out of the sky. So wisdom brings riches, and unsurprisingly, the center of the world is a temple-like Library (now, if only libraries in the real world had a quarter of the respect that they get in Sunny’s world…)
Library-love aside, the book is never escapist. Sunny faces a load of –isms: there’s racism and sexism in the normal world, and once she’s initiated as a Leopard Person, she becomes yet another target. Unlike most of her peers, Sunny doesn’t have two Leopard People as parents. She’s what’s known as a Free Agent (her closest magical relative is her grandmother), and plenty of Leopard People think it should make her weak—so they’re furious when she exhibits potent innate power. And finally, Okorafor brings the book full circle by making Sunny’s ultimate enemy a powerful Leopard Person who also wrecks havoc in the normal world. This is actually the only part where the book falters, as the climax breezes by too quickly. But it’s a minor quibble. Sunny’s world hooked me. I have my fingers crossed for a return trip, and Okorafor’s left the door open for a sequel. The countdown begins now…
*Stolen shamelessly from the subtitle of Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword by Barry Deutsch, another genre-shattering fantasy book.