I’m always on the lookout for creative fantasy stories, given that so many of them feel like loose replicas of The Lord of the Rings. I feel I do a bad job of finding them much of the time. Thankfully, this YA novel by Nnedi Okorafor provides a perspective I didn’t even know I wanted, and I’m all the happier for it. It takes a conventional framework— a hidden fantasy world and a girl who discovers she belongs to it — and unwraps the social implications therein, all within the vibrant culture of a Nigerian-set and -inspired environment. It’s not long, so if you love fantasy and can find a copy, it’s worth a read.
3P Reviews: Akata Witch
Audience Assumptions: None
Part One: Shine
First, a disclaimer, because while this book has another name in its Nigerian and UK editions, the American one reclaims the word “akata,” which to my understanding is a derogatory term in Igbo for an African American person. Obviously, I have no standing to comment on this choice, and as a white person, it’s not a term I feel I should use. However, I will be calling the book “Akata Witch” because that’s the title originally selected, and Okorafor using a slur in the title is thematically linked to the position of both the author as a Nigerian-American and the social standing of her protagonist.
Sunny Nwazue is a young African American student whose parents are Nigerian and have been living with her and her brothers in Nigeria for the past few years. Despite being fluent in Igbo and doing reasonably well in school, Sunny is ostracized both because she is American and albino. Her father is often abusive and her mother coddles her, preventing her from playing soccer with her brothers for fear she’ll be burned by the sun.
Sunny strikes up a friendship with a boy from her school called Orlu, and she notices Orlu always sneaks away after school. She follows him on his way home one day and discovers that he knows the daughter of a reclusive woman widely regarded in the village to be a witch. The witch’s daughter is named Chichi, and she takes a quick liking to Sunny, saying cryptic things to Orlu and eventually showing Sunny a spell.
Chichi and Orlu, it turns out, are magic-users, known as Leopard People, and Sunny is one of them too. Sunny is initiated into the Leopard people after seeing a vision of the end of the world in a candle, and from there, she, Chichi, Orlu, and another American named Sasha, take lessons from an experienced Leopard mentor.
Sunny excels at and loves the freedom presented by this new magical world, earning a mask-like spirit face and a knife for practicing juju. She discovers that she has many unique talents like reading a spirit language and turning invisible, which makes up for her slow start to understanding Leopard culture. However, not all is sunshine and roses; Sunny still has to live with her parents and go to school with non-magical folk, called Lambs, who are not allowed to know anything about the magical world. Sunny is what’s known as a free agent, a Leopard born to Lamb parents, so she constantly has to navigate both worlds without much guidance. Her parents are angry with her for constantly running off, and her friends often make requests of her without realizing how much more difficult it is for her to meet them.
Sunny also quickly realizes that the Leopards’ world is even more dangerous than the one she was born into. It has many of the same prejudices and violence, but with the added danger of malicious spirits, creatures, and spells ready to come forth at any moment. About halfway through the story, Sunny and her friends, collectively called an oha coven, learn that they are being trained to defeat a serial killer. A man called Black Hat has been going around murdering and mutilating children to summon a sort of world-destroying demon, and like many oha covens before theirs, they must try to stop him. None of the others have succeeded, and the elders sending them on this mission expect they won’t either.
Of course, this being a trilogy, Sunny and her friends have various adventures and eventually face Black Hat, stopping him but learning he is just one of many workers for this demon and that she will find a way to surface one way or another.
Part Two: Everyday Monsters
The pacing of this book is unmatched — some of the time. Most narratives have multiple tiers of pacing much like they have multiple tiers of plotting and detailing, but the pacing of the story as a whole usually doesn’t differ much from the pacing of a chapter or a scene. Akata Witch is told as a series of episodic adventures in which Sunny and her coven learn about the magical world or encounter a new obstacle. On a small scale, the book is efficient in its writing without being bland. The descriptions illustrate the world with far fewer lines than in longer fantasy epics, and as far as I’m concerned, this is only a good thing.
Part of what makes this fantasy series stand out where so many like it read as derivative is its setting. Admittedly, my lack of familiarity with the West African landscape probably skews my perspective, but I think the book does a good job of distinguishing its fantasy world from its real one. Even aside from the obvious magical phenomena, the descriptions of the magical world are often more colorful, following Sunny’s fascination with everything around her. Her non-magical world still has its own place and culture, but it also has a familiarity to it, even to someone with little knowledge of Nigeria. Everyday life for Sunny’s family more or less resembles everyday life for most families like it anywhere in the world. This mundanity lies in direct contrast to the peril and peculiarity of the new world Sunny has become a part of.
The magical world is inspired by Igbo folklore and religion, though I’m not sure how closely. A lot of it applies a West African aesthetic to common fantasy conventions; instead of wands, the characters use knives to perform magic, and to get to the hidden city of Leopard Knocks, the characters have to cross a river wearing their spirit faces. At a later point in the book, characters get in trouble for casting a taboo spell and summon a masquerade. I’m not sure how the fantasy elements come across to someone more familiar with their origins, but this book certainly comes across as more cohesive than many other fantasy series set in non-European locations. Even well-researched fantasy themed after a culture the author doesn’t belong to often comes across as disingenuous, using the visuals of another culture to communicate a very basic idea like dessert=dry (yes, I’m looking at you, Dune). Whether it’s because Okorafor is drawing from a non-Western canon or feels more comfortable bending her world, the most poignant details of the book’s lore come from concepts more than actual magical entities. For instance, among the Leopard People, knowledge is simultaneously a status symbol and a currency, as characters gain money by performing new magical feats. On a similar note, Sunny ends up with magical insects all over her house, and eventually just accepts that she has a bunch of lovely insects now.
All of this praise isn’t to say the book doesn’t have problems. That’s where the gap between the pacing of individual chapters and the pacing of the story as a whole becomes too wide to ignore.
The plot of the story is arguably its weakest element, as it often jumps along at a too-rapid rate just to get to rote plot points. My issues with the narrative’s structure are twofold: 1) the episodes are largely independent of one another, not building in any particular way, and 2) the climax comes across as artificial.
These are not unique problems to Akata Witch by any means. Many fantasy authors get tied up in their worlds and fail to craft their story in a way that gives the characters purpose. It’s easy to create a fantasy world, but much harder to create a fantasy novel. Akata Witch actually has a better grasp than most other YA fantasy for how to tie the arc of its characters to its worldbuilding, it just looks like it does that over the course of the series instead of the first book. I’m fine with this to a degree, but there are a lot of small moments with setup in this book that lack payoff. For instance, in different chapters, Sunny learns that she can become invisible and has a connection to the spirit world. Her juju knife is also made of an exceptionally rare substance. Chichi’s mysterious age comes up a few times, as does her and Sasha’s recklessness; they’re the ones who summon the masquerade around the end of Act Two. Orlu turns out to be gifted in healing.
It wouldn’t be difficult to incorporate these minor plot points into the finale, even if the book wanted to leave anticipation for the next installment. Sunny’s connection to the spirit world does kind of come up in the climactic battle, but the second problem compounds with the first because the climax is largely uninteresting. Even the book seems to think this, because the end battle lasts about ten pages and the characters have to be told by someone else it’s time to go fight.
The characters’ investment in the villain is low, which means they have little emotional investment in the fight. When the council of elders tells the oha coven to go retrieve two children Black Hat has stolen, they also tell the coven where to find him. They find the children are dead already, they all cast spells at Black Hat, he defeats them and summons the demon anyway, then Sunny discovers a new way to use her powers and casts the demon back and resurrects the children. Black Hat dies, and the Big Bad is vanquished for the time being, sure to return later, but the kids can all go home now.
Sunny developing convenient new powers is lazy, but honestly, they don’t really matter to the plot at all because the end battle is such an afterthought. Things escalate and then de-escalate in nearly the same breath. I don’t even really want the struggle to be longer or Black Hat to play a more prominent role; if anything, the story works better if the finale is cut entirely.
The epilogue is far longer than the climax, and it has more emotional weight in the story. It pertains to Sunny’s arc and how she relates to being a part of two worlds, and this, more than any magical elements, is how the book is structured. Sunny feels isolated at school, then she becomes friends with Orlu, then she feels left out of the loop by him and Chichi, then she learns she’s a Leopard Person, then she learns the Leopard world is just as vicious as the real one, and so on. She oscillates between finding joy in new experiences and missing the comfort of her family, and the rather important plot point that she can’t share anything with her family comes to a head in the epilogue. I honestly kind of get the sense that the story only threw in a bare-bones antagonist so it could illustrate the significance of Sunny’s emotional arc over the magical hijinks. This is a consistent feel throughout the series. I just don’t think this book needed a villain at all, or at least not a Big Bad.
Perhaps this is for the best, though, in the end; by spending less time crafting a vast magical conspiracy for the characters to solve, the author spends more time building up the things she deems important. More than a few fantasy series opt to polish their end battle to the detriment of all else, and that’s why I end up resenting so many of them despite hypothetically loving the genre. Even at its worst, Akata Witch has more going on under the surface.
Part Three: The House Elf in the Room
Any young adult fantasy novel about modern kids who discover they’re magical will inevitably be compared to Harry Potter sooner or later. You get it with the Percy Jackson series, The Magicians, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, but Akata Witch draws an unusual number of parallels. The phrase I often see tossed around is “it’s the Nigerian Harry Potter,” which is a bit reductive if you ask me. I think it’s more useful to define a series on its own grounds before comparing it to something similar, especially since that description makes the book sound like a regional copy. It’s very much its own story.
That said, I wouldn’t be surprised if this book was written at least partly in conversation with the conventions of the Harry Potter franchise. Scenes like Sunny getting her juju knife and Sunny’s family being completely apart from the magical world have the same fairytale nature as comparable scenes in the first Harry Potter book. Sunny comes into her magical world at a similar angle to Harry, being naturally talented and ambiguously special, but entirely foreign to it as well. The book seems aimed at a slightly older audience, but not by much. Those who like the Harry Potter series would probably enjoy this one quite a bit.
Akata Witch differs crucially in these comparisons, though. Where Harry Potter creates a loving fantasy world primed to sow the seeds of nostalgia, Akata Witch wastes no time taking a political stance. It’s in the name, and the opening of the story. Like Harry, Sunny lives in an unjust world where people prey on the weak, and like Harry, she becomes a part of a fantasy world that, while dangerous, is far more accepting of her than her old world. However, Sunny doesn’t get to run away to boarding school, and the dangers of her magical world have a habit of bleeding into the real one. She loves her family in concepts, but her connection to them is tenuous. She constantly has to navigate her temperamental father’s abuses, and the moments she faces his wrath are far more tense than any magical assailant she comes across. Her mother seems to have some idea of what Sunny is up to, but neither of them knows how to talk about it. Sunny still doesn’t get along with the other kids at school, and on top of that, none of her magical friends have to navigate the difficulty of living in a non-magical family. Everything is harder for her, and she resents it. It makes Harry beings sent back to the Dursleys every summer sound like a piece of cake.
The magical world in this book is delightful at times, but it trends far grimmer than anything in Harry Potter. Leopard society is unfair to people like Sunny who come from a non-magical background, but it seems to have little respect for its own people much of the time as well. Academia is the only way to gain wealth and acclaim in Leopard society, but the weed-out process is downright lethal. Sunny is nearly killed the first time she enters Leopard Knocks, and many other times during her training. Her oha coven isn’t the first and very well might not be the last to face Black Hat, as children have died both at his hands and trying to fight him. One of the most solemn moments in the story comes when Sunny and her friends are at a magical duel. Sunny met one of the contestants before the match without realizing it, and during the fight, he is horribly injured and then killed. No one bats an eye, and Sunny is horrified. Victory means everything to the Leopard People, but death means nothing, and now Sunny is a part of this society whether she likes it or not.
Akata Witch is the story of a magical child in a magical world, but it is also a story of prejudice and cruelty, and how sometimes those two things can be overwhelming. Something good doesn’t always cancel out something bad, and the books doesn’t distract this idea with the internal logic of its magic system. If your kid asks to read Harry Potter, go ahead and let them, but tell them about this book, too, because I think it has a lot more to say about morality and culture than anything J. K. Rowling could ever hope to write.