Twelve-year-old Sunny lives in Nigeria, but she was born American. Her features are 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. And then she discovers something amazing – she is a “free agent,” with latent magical power. Soon she’s part of a quartet of magic students, studying the visible and invisible, learning to change reality. But will it be enough to help them when they are asked to catch a career criminal who knows magic too?
Since reading Who Fears Death and some of her short stories, Nnedi Okorafor has slowly crept up to become one of the authors whose work I most anticipate reading (I still think Who Fears Death should have won the Nebula, grumble grumble). I love how she drops vague, teensy references in each book as to how they’re all connected to each other through the existence of Ginen and that they all take place along the same timeline. In her candle vision, Sunny sees the destruction of the world – this could be related to the Great Book in which one of her short stories takes place, or it could be the world of Who Fears Death (I’m unsure whether that book and The Shadow Speaker are supposed to take place in the same time).
I loved Sunny as a protagonist. Her irritations at everyone’s treatment of her because she’s albino and grew up in the U.S. and her floundering in her attempts to master juju and being a free agent were written really well. She could have easily come off as whiny and tiresome, but instead, her aggrieved feelings feel genuinely provoked and rational. Also, I really like how Nnedi Okorafor writes female characters that aren’t afraid to get into physical fights when they lose their temper. Not saying that physical fights are good, but I appreciate it because it’s a change from the usual use of passive aggression. In addition, Nnedi Okorafor did a good job inserting feminist ideas without making it ridiculously heavy-handed, nor was it shown that things will necessarily be fair and easy. I particularly liked the passage where a girl congratulates Sunny on her soccer playing and said more girls would play now that they knew they could, but the boy standing next to her said only if the girls were as good as Sunny, should they bother to try, otherwise they’d never be allowed to play.
About the magic (or juju) and world building, at least a part of my fascination can be chalked up to the fact that I’m pretty clueless about African spiritual/magical systems and supernatural creatures. Still, the magical society she created was fantastic and I loved how they lived right under the noses of the Lambs (ordinary people) and the way they kept it so. Also, I liked how a person’s special abilities were individualized to what seems like that person’s weakness. Sunny’s albinism, normally a hindrance, becomes her strength when it comes to her performing juju. Also, the concept of chittim was awesome. Knowledge is directly related to how you earn a form of currency? Sign me up!
Aside from the speculative elements, I really liked how unique Sunny’s background was. An Nigerian girl who’s albino, born in the U.S. to Nigerian parents, who nine years later moved the family back to Nigeria? I don’t think I’ve read of a situation like that in any book, regardless of genre. She’s simultaneously an insider and an outsider, the latter doubly so. Similarly, I’d never heard of the epithet “akata” before. According to Wikipedia, it’s derived from the Yoruban language and originated in the Nigerian area, but I wonder whether it’s used in other parts of Africa, or there are other similar words.
There were some problems in that the pacing could be a bit funky at times. The connection established between the oha coven Sunny belongs to and the Black Hat developed way too quickly, as did the final showdown and the reasons why Sunny’s family history was kept so secret. It almost felt like this book was written in preparation for the next chapter of the history of this world. The majority of it builds well, but then the climax and the ending just randomly happen. I think the people who’ve read Nnedi Okorafor’s other books and can spot the connections between them will be the least frustrated with how open-ended the ending is, because otherwise it looks like lazy writing.
On the whole, a wonderful read. This was definitely my favorite of Nnedi Okorafor’s YA books. Sunny is awesome. And now I have no more books by her to read, and I have no idea when her next one will be out or what it’s going to be!
Disclosure – library