Nnedi Okorafor – Lagoon

Worlds Without End has seduced me to join four (!) different challenges this year. I don’t know what possessed me during a time where my job is more time-consuming than ever before. Nnedi Okorafor goes on a few of those lists, so I was all the happier when I received an ARC from the lovely people at Hodder. *dances*

by Nnedi Okorafor

Published by: Hodder & Stoughton, 10th April 2014
Paperback: 393 pages
Review copy from the publisher
My rating: 6/10

First sentence: She slices through the water, imagining herself a deadly beam of black light.

Three strangers, each isolated by their own problems: Adaora, the marine biologist. Anthony, the world-famous rapper. Agu, the troubled soldier. Wandering Bar Beach outside Lagos, Nigeria’s capital city, they’re more alone than they’ve ever been before.
But when a meteorite hits the ocean and a tidal wave overcomes them, these three people will find themselves bound together in ways they never imagined. Together with Ayodele, a visitor from beyond the stars, they must race through Lagos and against time itself in order to save the city, the world… and themselves.

Nnedi Okorafor blew me utterly away with her beautiful Who Fears Death. With that in mind and this gorgeous Joey Hi-Fi cover in front of me, I was sure that great things would expect me in her newest novel. Hailed as an original and unusual first contact story, and as the author’s answer to the movie District 9, it paints the picture of a city during crisis.

The ostentatious protagonists – Adaora, Agu, and Anthony – were never really what the story is about. They meet on the beach just seconds before a meteor strikes (or so they believe) and an alien creature emerges from the sea. After that, chaos ensues throughout the entire city, violence rules the streets, religious zealots hunt witches and the alien “demons”, people frantically film the strange events on their phones or cameras, and the world goes completely bananas.

It is this human reaction to something new, something strange that we don’t immediately understand, that is the heart and soul of Lagoon. Every short chapter is almost a tiny short story that shows us Lagos through a myriad of people’s eyes. This may do wonders for world building and setting a scene, but the quick changes of view point disrupts the narrative in ways that make it hard to stay engaged. The moment one of the proper plot lines got interesting, it was dropped for a quick interlude. This made Lagoon a strenuous read when it should have been engaging.

Getting to spend so little time with the main characters – and leaving them during the most interesting moments of conflict – made it difficult for me to identify with them or care for them in any way. Their personalities never really rise much above what the blurb gives us. Adaora, a marine biologist… well yes, she likes the sea and knows about its inhabitants. She is also a decent person with two kids. I can’t give you anything else because I never had a chance to properly meet her. The same goes for Anthony, who gets to wear the “world-famous Ghanaian rapper” cap and nothing else. Agu, a soldier, stands out only in that he – like Adaora – is a decent human being who will defend people weaker than himself against violence.

The biggest copout of the novel are the actual aliens. I didn’t read this expecting a creature feature. I knew going in that Okorafor would paint a city and its people in all their facets. But, hey, if aliens land on the fucking planet, I’d at least like to know a little bit about them. But every. single. time. there is a scene that gets us close to the real wonders from “beyond the stars”, the scene ends and the characters conveniently don’t remember anything. I, as a reader, feel cheated. I put faith in the author to tell me a story worth reading and every time things got interesting – either with the humans in the city, or with the aliens – we fade to black and hop into a character’s head I neither know nor care about, and who will never show up again for the rest of the novel anyway.

lagoon cover

All of that said, these short chapters are beautifully written. I believe a lot of subplots could have been handled better. In the beginning of the novel, some time is invested in a religious group and their zealous leader, as well as an LGBT organization and their struggle to be themselves in a hostile environment. For the amount of set up and world building involved, these two plot lines were dropped rather unceremoniously. Nnedi Okorafor’s writing may be fantastic, but even if you describe utter chaos, structure is your friend.

A handful of moments make up for some of the novel’s failings (such as turning into a mermaid or gigantic spiders – I’ll always love reading about gigantic spiders) but all things considered, Lagoon didn’t deliver on anything I had hoped for. It may be sold as science fiction, because aliens and magic, but in reality, it is a fix-up novel that only grazes these alien life forms, and focuses more on the humans (and animals) in and around Lagos. Little vignettes, connected by the arrival of aliens off the coast that show humanity in all its ugly beauty.

As much as I loved Who Fears Death, I won’t pounce on the next Okorafor novel. I’ll wait and see what others have to say about it first. If I finish a book only because I feel I should (because it’s an ARC from the publisher) then it failed me as a reader. As it will be published in only one week, I will be on the lookout for reviews to see if I maybe just picked it up while in the wrong mood, or if other readers have the same misgivings.

MY RATING: 6/10  –  Okay


8 thoughts on “Nnedi Okorafor – Lagoon

  1. lynnsbooks says:

    This is an interesting review. I have a copy of this and had started but then put down, then picked up, then put down. I wondered if it was just me but something wasn’t really gelling for me. I will undoubtedly go back and give it another try but I have struggled so far. I won’t review it if I don’t finish – maybe I need to be in a different mindframe.
    Lynn 😀


    • Nadine says:

      That is exactly how I felt. It took me almost a month to read the book. Whenever I’d pick it up I would think “Yeah, this isn’t bad.” but then all the other books on my TBR suddenly looked way more interesting.
      If you do finish it, I’ll be looking forward to your review.


  2. Joachim Boaz says:

    “It may be sold as science fiction, because aliens and magic, but in reality, it is a fix-up novel” — I’m confused how these two points relate. SF novels are often “fix-up.”


    • Nadine says:

      I should have said a contempporary fix-up novel. The thing is – the aliens don’t get to do much. They are mostly catalysts, and the horrific things that happen do so because of humans. Which is, I guess, part of the point.

      And yeah, some SF novels work brilliantly as fix-up novels. It depends on the length of the “short stories”. Hyperion, for example, was just that, but still gave me enough time to delve deeeply into each character’s life and story.

      If you spend two pages with a random guy who witnesses a riot, then jump to half a page about a bat, then you get three pages with a random prostitute on a beach, and THEN you return to a main character, that’s not even a proper fix-up novel. I don’t know what to call it.


  3. alixheintzman says:

    I feel like I might have been overly harsh with this because it wasn’t Who Fears Death…but no, it didn’t really pack the punch it needed. I did think it was pretty valuable/worth it just because of the setting. Lagos and West Africa don’t really get SFF screentime.

    Also, in keeping with my unintentional theme of reading everything you read, I’ve ordered The Goblin Emperor and The Blade Itself. But also–Steles of the Sky is out! AHHHHH.


    • Nadine says:

      Yay for book twins! I just know you’ll love The Goblin Emperor.

      I still need to catch up on Shattered Pillars first but the buzz for Steles of the Sky is already making my mouth water.

      And there will be a new Cat Valente novel this year! Plus Joe Abercrombie’s YA novel. What an exciting year for us SFF geeks.


    • Nadine says:

      P.S. Who Fears Death was so good and so brutal and heartbreaking, it was nearly impossible to surpass. Maybe Okorafor tries something more similar to Onyesonwu’s story in her next book.
      You can’t really compare the two but I felt the same way.


  4. kamo says:

    Just finished reading this myself and nope, it’s not just you with the misgivings. While I actually quite liked the unknowability of the aliens I completely agree with the weaknesses of the human characters. It’s like in trying so hard to tell the story of the city she forgot to tell the stories of any of the people in it.

    I know a lot of people whose opinions I respect (you among them) really liked Who Fears Death, but that felt a little flat to me in similar ways to Lagoon. Too much telling and not enough showing. At the time I thought it was down to characterization choices regarding the narrator, but I’m coming to think it’s just Okorafor’s style, and it’s one that’s not really for me. Which is a shame, because there’s lots to admire about both books, but I might not be rushing too quickly to get her next one.


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