A fantasy novel about an albino girl in Nigeria who, on the cusp of adolescence, discovers she is a witch and works to save the world with her newly found best friends. On the surface, Akata Witch sounds like it will be ripe with predictability and poorly represented characters filling tropes. But it is so much more than that.
Prejudice begets prejudice, you see. Knowledge does not always evolve into wisdom.
Sunny is twelve-years-old and can’t seem to fit in anywhere. To begin with, her body is gangly and she is smart in a way which annoys her peers. Not to mention as an American-born Nigerian back in Nigeria she’s classified as an akata, a term used as a pejorative for African Americans, by her classmates. And, to top it all off, Sunny is an albino. She looks different, acts different, and all around feels out of place. One day, when a classmate Orlu steps in to save Sunny from bullying her world changed forever. She just doesn’t know it yet.
Let’s get this out of the way: Akata Witch is brilliant because we have a novel so ripe to be filled with preaching, misrepresentation, and troupes. And yet almost none of that appears. This book was written appropriately. Sunny’s albinoism is important only in that it makes her special amongst the Leopard people, or juju (magic) -wielders. Dr. Okafor doesn’t preach about what it means to be a Nigerian woman, albino, or an American in Nigeria in a world where these things are often looked down upon. Instead, these are aspects of Sunny’s life and only brought up when it mattered.
We embrace those things that make us unique or odd. For only in these things can we locate and then develop our most individual selves.
I really enjoyed the world building in Akata Witch. Dr. Okafor knows her Nigerian culture and folklore inside and out. I have relatively little experience with Nigerian culture aside from what I have gleaned from reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s works. But Dr. Okafor’s characters and their experiences parallel those so closely, I feel like I am starting to better understand the culture. While I don’t agree with the male supremacy over women and the idea of caning poorly behaved children, it’s obvious this is part of the Nigerian culture.
Also, the world building involving juju and the Leopard People feels natural. As Sunny and her peers are learning about juju from the Scholars so it the reader. It doesn’t feel preachy. As much of the learning is done through explanation as much as experience. Plus, the culture of the Leopard People is such that they are rewarded for learning. Every time they learn something new they are rewarded.
There are more valuable things in life than safety and comfort. Learn. You owe it to yourself.
The characters are a ton of fun. Our quartet of students all bring their own unique qualities. Chichi is blunt and aggressive, steeped in Leopard People culture and Nigerian traditions. Sasha is rebellious and unabashed, as only someone who grew up in America should be. Orlu is the quiet, soft-spoken peacemaker and well-respected leader.
What made this book exceptionally appealing to me was how Sunny’s role was executed. She is the missing piece, but she isn’t “The Chosen One”. Sunny is struggling to learn about this new world she has been introduced to throughout the entire book. She is always a little behind. She isn’t quite where her friends are. And this makes sense! She was brought into this life much later than everyone else. There is a bit of deus ex machina towards the end which left me unsatisfied, but the whole ending felt rushed, so I won’t contribute that to Sunny’s role.
All in all, this was an incredibly enjoyable book. I could have had another 150-200 pages of Sunny’s learning and worldbuilding and still been happy. I recently learned that this originally stand-alone novel will become a duology in late 2017, and that’s pretty exciting to me. There is so much left unexplored in this world. I can’t wait to explore it more and see what else Dr. Okafor has in store for us.
What do you think?
- Have you read anything by Dr. Nnedi Okorafor? If so, what books and what did you think?
- The original title What Sunny Saw in the Flames, is based on the opening chapter where Sunny learns she has magical powers by having a premonition. What do you think about this title change?
- This book is said to parallel Harry Potter but in a Nigerian setting. Do you agree?
- Have you read other books featuring albino characters? What books? Did you enjoy them?