Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Reading with the kids - Book Review of Akata Witch, by Nnnedi Okorofor

Stop me if you've heard this one before:

A young person ignorant of the secret world of magic and witchcraft which exists around us finds that they have great potential and is taken to a hidden place of magical schooling. Lessons are learned, friendships and alliances are formed with peers. There are moments of mistakes and hubris, but our protagonist eventually grows up somewhat and is forced to face a potent and malevolent foe with a surprising personal connection.

No, I'm not talking about Harry Potter. I'm talking about Nnedi Okorofor's YA novel Akata Witch, which takes the broad tropes of "learning magic" out of the familiar British, American, or faux-medieval settings to Nigeria. It's also a very smart and elegantly written book which, in various ways, answers some of the issues raised by other novels in this genre.

I came to this one because, of course, of Chloe's interest in fantasy fiction (those who follow here will know that she's my daughter, that we read the Narnia books together last year and the late Sir Terry's "Tiffany Aching" subseries of Discworld more recently). And no, I don't want her to read fantasy exclusively but I do see her developing a love and appreciation for it, and want to feed that with diverse voices.

Akata Witch is the  story of Sunny, a twelve-year old girl or African descent whose family has moved back to Africa from the United States. As an immigrant and an albino she is, in her way, doubly an outsider. Early on there's a portent of an apocalyptic future, a meeting with fellow gifted students who've already been initiated into the secret worlds of magic and, ultimately, a trip to the hidden parts of our world in which magical arts are taught and studied. In addition to the African setting which, quite honestly, is something of which I don't get enough in my reading, here are several  unique elements including a parallel magical economy based entirely on learning. It's also quite refreshing to see Sunny's magical education as a secret she needs to carry, with no convenient departure from the "mundane" world; she simply needs to learn to juggle actual school lessons, a home life, and secret meetings with powerful users of magic who might come to mentor her.

There is, of course, a threat in a mysterious ritual killer stalking children the same age as Sunny and her new companions. The relationship of the four members of what we learn is an "Owa coven" - a group put together by chance to meet some challenge - is one delightful part of the book. In too many of these stories such groups devolve into a "chosen one" and "spear carriers". In this case, it doesn't appear to be so. While Sunny is definitely our protagonist, the others make as many mistakes, solve as many challenges, and are portrayed as equals.

There's also real menace throughout, the threat of loss, and a few moments of rather graphic and brutal violence. None of it is gratuitous, and it does fill its role in raising the stakes considerably. The book is paced a tiny bit oddly in that the final confrontation and climax seems rushed, but the more I think about it the less it bothers me; most stories about vanquishing a monster are not really about said monster, but about coming of age and learning something about oneself. Of the growing and learning we get plenty, even if there probably could have been a little bit more time devoted to certain family stories and secrets.

Is it a worthwhile YA coming-of-age magic book? I'll go beyond that and simply say that it's a worthwhile book. The benefits of exploring variations within a genre and even a sub-genre are something extra.

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