Nnedi Okorafor’s wonderful Who Fears Death was one of my favorite reads a few years ago. Naturally, I jumped on most things she’s written since then. Her short story collection Kabu-Kabu was great, with one standout story that I will mention again during this review. A quasi-prequel to Who Fears Death, it was clear that I needed to get my hands on The Book of Phoenix ASAP. It wasn’t what I expected, it wasn’t as good as Onyesonwu’s story, but it had wonderful parts that made up for the messier bits.
Published by: Hodder & Stoughton, 2015
Ebook: 240 pages
Series: Who Fears Death #0.1
My rating: 7/10
First sentence: I’d never known any other place.
The stunning stand-alone prequel to the World Fantasy Award-winning Who Fears Death.
They call her many things – a research project, a test-subject, a specimen. An abomination.
But she calls herself Phoenix, an ‘accelerated woman’ – a genetic experiment grown and raised in Manhattan’s famous Tower 7, the only home she has ever known. Although she’s only two years old, Phoenix has the body and mind of an adult – and powers beyond imagining. Phoenix is an innocent, happy to live quietly in Tower 7, reading voraciously and basking in the love of Saeed, another biologically altered human.
Until the night that Saeed witnesses something so terrible that he takes his own life. Devastated, Phoenix begins to search for answers – only to discover that everything that she has ever known is a lie.
Tower 7 isn’t a haven. It’s a prison.
And it’s time for Phoenix to spread her wings and rise.
Spanning contents and centuries, The Book of Phoenix is an epic, incendiary work of magial realism featuring Nnedi Okorafor’s most incredible, unforgettable heroine yet.
I have completely rewritten this review three times now and I’m still unable to properly express how I feel about the book. My reading experience sounds much more negative than it was. Yes, I had problems with the book and I didn’t adore it. But I still liked it and enjoyed the read. The Book of Phoenix is a good book that just didn’t go my way. That’s taste for you.
The first chapter was absolutely stunning. In the prologue, Nnedi Okorafor establishes the timeline and makes the connection to Who Fears Death, but the heart of the story is Phoenix’ first person narrative of her own life. Trapped in Tower 7, she is quite happy with her infinite amount of books and the company of her lover Saeed. But a few moments change her entire life and she escapes what she comes to realise has always been a prison, not a home.
Once out of Tower 7, the tight narrative of the opening chapter weathers a little. Phoenix – true to her name – burns bright throughout the novel. She is a fascinating character to follow, not only because she is so distinctly not human, but because she has to find a place for herself in a world that doesn’t want her. Finding her own identity is the one constant of the novel – as futile as her search seems. She looks African but she is the result of experiments, of genetic manipulation, she is made for one purpose alone – and she refuses to be used that way. Wherever she goes, she is made to feel different.
I had several problems with the story, mainly that it felt so haphazardly put together, especially the middle part. The beginning is fantastic, it sets up a world that intrigued me, that I wanted to learn more about. But we abandon that world quickly and don’t explore the purpose of the Towers, the experiments, and their effects on society any further. Instead, we follow Phoenix to Ghana – a part of the book that did offer good, quieter chapters, but it also felt very disconnected from the larger story arc. In fact, I have a hard time defining the larger story arc… Is it a revenge story? An exploration of identity? A science fiction, X-Men type of story? All of these questions can be answered with a “yes” but I was still missing the red thread.
The most interesting aspects for me were Phoenix’ struggle for identity, her balancing act between heroine and villainess, and the way she dealt with her heritage (or what she chooses to define as her heritage). For example, she refuses to ever set foot on a ship, especially not on one travelling from Africa to America. Although she isn’t sure of who she is, where (biologically speaking) she comes from, she feels kinship to the people she meets in Africa as well as to the other specimens from Tower 7. But Phoenix still knows that she doesn’t truly belong anywhere.
The world building could have been great if more time had been invested in it. For example, I positively squeed when the robotic spiders who protect pipelines were mentioned. I know those spiders. In fact, I had read a story about a woman making a strange connection to the artificial intelligence in Kabu Kabu. Here, the story gets nothing but a fleeting mention (which is fine), but I would have enjoyed even more of these little snippets of news. We know about Phoenix and her friends, but we know very little about the state of the rest of the world. Hints are dropped every once in a while, and every time I caught myself super interested in them, but then we never get to see more. It was frustrating but it kept drawing me in.
This is a very angry book, dealing with exploitation, identity, revenge, and sacrifice. If the plot had been more focused I would have adored it. The language managed to pull me back whenever I got bored with the plot, or found myself looking for a way to fit the current chapter into the bigger story. During these boring bits, I kept reading for specific aspects only to end up disappointed that they were dropped. Phoenix has unique abilities cool enough to fill a whole different book. I wanted to see more of the winged man she frees in the beginning, I wanted more background and scenes with Phoenix’ friends. We do get information on where and when Phoenix’ story is set in relation to Who Fears Death but this, too, would have been an aspect that could have been explore even more.
So I have gripes. That’s fine. Nnedi Okorafor is a great writer, but The Book of Phoenix, much like her first contact novel Lagoon, was too meandering for my taste. The pacing was off, the things I liked best were left aside in favor of others. The beginning and the end were by far the strongest parts of the book, with a confusing unstructured middle part. But then, Okorafor throws in sentences here or there that are so perfect, that hit you right in the guts, that I can’t really be too angry about this. A bit of editing, streamlining the plot, and more in-depth treatment of world building and side characters would have made this the perfect book. To me, it really shows that this used to be a shorter story that got turned into a novel. Much of the middle feels like stuffing, rather than necessary plot. So it wasn’t a great book for me, it’s only good (what a thing to complain about, huh?). And now I’m eagerly waiting for Binti, Okorafor’s first foray into space opera.
MY RATING: 7/10 – Very Good