Edit (June 2020): This review used to have a different title which compares this series to a very famous YA fantasy series. I follow Nnedi Okorafor on Twitter and she has mentioned several times that this comparison – even if meant nicely – is unwanted and unflattering. I apologize for not being more thoughtful about this and I want to do better in the future! I adore this book and its sequel and the last thing I want is to hurt Nnedi Okorafor’s feelings or make other people think her books are simply “Nigerian[insert famous work here]”. For that reason, I have taken out these comparisons and done my best to express my feelings about this novel in my own words.
by Nnedi Okorafor
Published by: Viking Children’s, 2011
Paperback: 349 pages
Series: Akata Witch #1
My rating: 8/10
First sentence: The moment Sunny walked into the schoolyard, people started
Sunny Nwazue lives in Nigeria, but she was born in New York City. Her features are West African, but she’s albino. She’s a terrific athlete, but can’t go out into the sun to play soccer. There seems to be no place where she fits in. And then she discovers something amazing—she is a “free agent” with latent magical power. And she has a lot of catching up to do.
Soon she’s part of a quartet of magic students, studying the visible and invisible, learning to change reality. But just as she’s finding her footing, Sunny and her friends are asked by the magical authorities to help track down a career criminal who knows magic, too. Will their training be enough to help them against a threat whose powers greatly outnumber theirs?
In many ways, Akata Witch is like all the best boarding school books I remember. A young girl finds out she belongs to a hidden, magical world. She makes friends, learns about her new powers, all while taking down an evil force. If that were all this story was then it would still be a great story – but it is so, so much more than that. The plot is just the surface layer. It keeps things moving, it keeps up the pace and makes the pages fly as you read. But it’s not why I fell so hard for this book.
Sunny Nwazue is an outsider wherever she goes. With her West African features, she looks like her Nigerian friends, But she’s albino, so her skin is white, her hair is blonde, and she can’t go in the sun because her skin burns too easily. Also, children are cruel, and because Sunny looks different from the others, she doesn’t quite fit in anywhere. Until she meets Orlu, Chichi, and Sasha – a delightfully diverse mix of friends who all happen to be Leopard People like herself. Leopard People is what magical folks are called in this story, while us non-magical folks are called lambs. However, even as a Leopard Person, Sunny is slightly special in that her magic jumped a generation and her parents are both non-magical. This makes her a “free agent” – basically someone with magic abilities who wasn’t taught from early childhood and now has to catch up on all the knowledge her friends already possess.
I could tell you all the little details of Okorafor’s magical world of Leopard People but I don’t want to take that experience away from anyone.
Reading this gave me that feeling of nostalgia, of coming home to a fantasy world, even when you see it for the first time. It’s the kind of book you desperately want to get back to whenever you have to put it aside for silly reasons, such as sleeping or eating…
The magic world is entirely different from anything I’ve read before, infused with West African mythology, with masquerades and a magical currency, with books written by and about Leopard People. It is simply delightful to discover all of this with Sunny.
My heart was especially taken with the book Sunny is given – “Fast Facts for Free Agents” – of which a part is quoted at the end of each chapter. The narration of that fictional book was pure joy to read. It is not written so much as a helpful guide (or at least not only as a helpful guide) but it has a sassy, snappy tone that made me giggle every time it came up. It also helped to flesh out the Leopard world through lore.
Another standout part were the characters. Sunny may feel like an outsider but she doesn’t wallow in self-pity, she simply takes things as they are and tries to make the best of them. When she discovers her magical abilities, she reacts very much as one would expect. She is bewildered and excited, eager to learn but scared to make mistakes. She is happy to finally have a place where she belongs and people who are true friends but the magical world is daunting and large and she knows almost nothing about it. In short, Sunny was easy to love.
Equally as wonderful were Sunny’s friends. Orlu, who is kind of the responsible father figure of the quartet, Chici, the excitable, talkative girl, and Sasha, who is American like Sunny. I read this book but I listened to the audiobook of the sequel, so let me tell you that the narrator does a phenomenal job of giving each character their own voice and personality. I highly recommend going for the audiobook with this duology. For the accents, for the wonderful narration of “Fast Facts for Free Agents” and for the different voices given to the characters.
Another thing I loved was the message of this book. Leopard People are often people who are considered to have “flaws” in the Lamb world. Sunny’s albinism may give her a disadvantage in our world, but in the Leopard world, it can be a strength. The same goes for people with ADHD or dyslexia, for example. Leopard society teaches you to embrace those perceived flaws because they are what makes you, you. Even if the young people who read this book don’t find themselves as part of a hidden magical society, the book sends a beautiful message. Love yourself, love your flaws, don’t let the bullies drag you down!
As for the plot, most of it is obivously Sunny learning about Leopard People and finding her place in this new world. But because there has to be something evil to defeat – and it wouldn’t be such a great story if there wasn’t – there is Black Hat Otokoto, a serial killer who has been roaming the area. I don’t think it’s a spoiler if I tell you that Sunny and her friends will have to use everything they have learned to defeat him.
Nnedi Okorafor is a wildly talented author, as she keeps proving over and over again. Whether it’s adult fantasy, hopeful science fiction novellas, or YA, there’s nothing so far that she can’t do. This book was such a delight and I’m itching to re-read these books already. They have so much to say, and they’re a wonderful exploration of an underrepresented kind of fantasy. Set in Nigeria, based on African mythology, this book feels like a fresh wind in the mass of YA fantasies.
MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!