May 2, 2018
Hugo Reading 2018: Akata Warrior, by Nnedi Okorafor
This is the first year of the Not-A-Hugo Best SFF Young Adult Book (similar to the John Campbell Not-A-Hugo for Best New Writer, technically not part of the Hugo Awards but presented at the same ceremony. Yes, I know it's a bit wacky. Just go with it). I actually read a fair amount of YA, enough to nominate for this new category. None of my nominations made the shortlist, but this little gem of book did, and I'm happy I got the opportunity to read it.
I've read Nnedi Okorafor before; I own all three of her "Binti" novellas, and while they are okay, I haven't liked any of them as much as I did this book. Akata Warrior is the story of Sunny Nwazue, born in America but now living in Nigeria, newly discovered to be a "Leopard Person" (a wielder of juju, in touch with the spirit world), and learning how to control and use her magic. (In fact, one could view this as a distant relation of J.K. Rowling, with Sunny as the Hermione counterpoint and protagonist.)
This is a complex mythology and world, and Okorafor presents it masterfully, building the world in a natural, easy manner without infodumps. It's a delight to read something so outside the hokey, confining box of European and/or Celtic fantasy. There are spiders the size of houses, giant flying "grasscutters" (as near as I can figure, a huge winged caterpillar, a fun character by the name of Grashcoatah), a magical dimension existing side by side with the physical world, djinns, juju knives, and a snarky, meta little introduction/Dramatis Personae/"previously in Sunny Nwazue-land" called "Let the Reader Beware":
Okay, let's begin.
Let the reader beware that there is juju in this book.
"Juju" is what we West Africans like to loosely call magic, manipulative mysticism, or alluring allures. It is wild, alive, and enigmatic, and it is interested in you. Juju always defies definition. It certainly includes all uncomprehended tricksy forces wrung from the deepest reservoirs of nature and spirit. There is control, but never absolute control. Do not take juju lightly, unless you are looking for unexpected death.
Juju cartwheels between these pages like dust in a sandstorm. We don't care if you are afraid. We don't care if you think this book will bring you good luck. We don't care if you are an outsider. We just care that you read this warning and are thus warned. This way, you have no one to blame but yourself if you enjoy this story.
I don't think I've ever read an intro like that. It certainly made me sit up and take notice.
As befits the thirteen-year-old protagonist and the book's target audience, the prose is simple and straightforward, even discussing some pretty heavy themes, such as finding one's true place in life. Sunny is a well-drawn, flawed, relatable character, as are her friends. During the course of this book, Sunny saves her brother from some nasty characters belonging to a "confraternity" (apparently the Nigerian equivalent of a gang), and visits a spirit city called Osisi to halt an apocalypse. (This continues a storyline introduced in the first Sunny Nwazue book, Akata Witch. Thankfully, the author handles this backstory skillfully, providing just enough information to fill the reader in on what happened in the previous book without disrupting the flow of this one.) But after the bad people have been beaten and she's returned to her everyday life, the book ends with Sunny being more of a typical teenager: attending a book fair (albeit a magical book fair, where "people argued and sometimes fought over books, and some of the books argued with and fought people"--please, get me to a book fair like that), playing in a soccer game--and scoring a goal.
This is a delightful book all the way around, and I appreciated the deep dive into Nigerian culture. We need more books like this, and I'm happy that Akata Warrior exists in the world.