Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor
Viking/Penguin Books ISBN: 978-0670011964Sunny Nwazue is a twelve year old Nigeria girl who (as she puts it) "tends to confuse people" due to being born in America, incredibly good at soccer, and albino (which interferes with the soccer). After glimpsing a terrifying vision in a candle flame, Sunny is thrust into a hidden world of sorcery and witchcraft. With some new friends, she learns about her leopard-person heritage and what it means to be a "free agent", receiving training from many colorful characters in order to defeat a serial killer.
Akata Witch is an entertaining book aimed at the young teens, where the protagonist learns that they are special, gets mentored and rises to face a great challenge with their friends. To call it an African Harry Potter would be accurate but something of a disservice, since Harry Potter was nothing original in this regard. Akata Witch hews from a long line of special-child novels, with a too-perfect wish-fulfillment main character who is good at everything, even compared to the other amazing people that she meets. This is not a criticism, I devoured dozens of similar books during my childhood.
The main point of difference with Akata Witch is instead of following the European tradition of magic (dragons, wands, castles), the secret world that Sunny is inducted into consists of Juju, magic knives, and jungle citiesand soccer, lots of soccer. It is quite a trip and never less than entertaining.
The world is vividly rendered, from the dusty streets of Nigeria to the colorful secret city just through the forest (if you know the way). But I found the 4 main child characters pretty unmemorable apart from Sunny herself. Okorafor tries to give them character through dialog and description but they all tended to blur into either Sunny or not-Sunny in my head, even when they were bickering with each other.
Of course the bad guy is constantly lurking in the background and is pretty terrifying for a children's book. There are possibly three or four too many mutilations for the book's target audience and some adult concepts. Nothing a ten year old couldn't handle but I would think twice before giving it to someone younger.
Akata Witch never really transcends it's children's book audience. The plot is very simple and the secondary characters are merely serviceable. But Sunny herself is endearing and the setting is great.
Binti by Nnedi Okorafor
Tor Books ISBN: 978-0765385253A young woman named Binti leaves her family and her isolationist family behind after winning a scholarship to a fantastic off-world university. On the lengthy space journey to the school, the transport is attacked by hostile aliens. Everyone except Binti is killed, can she figure out why she was spared and what the aliens really want?
Binti won a bunch of awards2015 Nebula Award, 2016 Hugo for best Novella, and it is easy to see why. I really enjoyed its breezy scifi stylings and the general out of the frying pan into the fire plotting. The world is very well described and the abrupt swerve the plot takes when the aliens turn up is actually shocking - um spoiler alert I guess.
It is not a perfect story. I liked the ultimate resolution where everyone involved has a nice chat to work out their differences, but it did seem weird coming 30 pages after one side had massacred a bunch of innocents who weren't even involved in the dispute. It seemed to me that there were some unresolved issues that didn't get covered in the agreement.
Also, I thought that too much of the plot hinged on the uniqueness of the main character, her cultural background, and the weird device she just happened to have with her. Binti is too short to comfortably contain that many coincidences. On the other hand, Binti is brief enough that any contrivances don't stick around long enough to grate.
Nothing life-changing but a quick and enjoyable read.
Nnedi Okorafor has a website with links to some of her other fiction and essays.