Review: Akata Witch
Do you know what the biggest problem is for an author trying to write a novel about kids that are caught in the middle of very dangerous events? Parents. Well, adults in general. How do you keep the grown-ups from coming in and hijacking the story completely while still making it all believable. I have a difficult time believing that any story that is told expressly about kids has a more important question to answer. This was a very interesting novel to read, given that perspective. Because on the one hand, this story totally has adults “dealing with the important stuff”, but on the other hand, there are also several adults that are more than willing to throw children into deadly situations, shrug their shoulders, and say, “If they live, they live. If they don’t, they don’t.” Was an interesting dichotomy to try and swallow, and not the only one I found in this read.
AKATA WITCH (Amazon) is the first of the Akata Witch series of books by author Nnedi Okorafor. It’s a relatively old book for us to be reviewing (2011), but when I went looking for “the best” books that included diverse backgrounds, this was one that I found listed near the top of nearly all sources I came across.
Sunny Nwazue is a twelve year-old black albino girl that was born in America but moved to Nigeria when she was nine. As an American and an albino, she very literally sticks out like a sore thumb in every aspect of her life there. If you don’t remember much about middle school… it can be tough. And that’s if you actually fit in, it’s tough. Sunny doesn’t fit in. She’s bullied, and mocked, and even beaten on by some her classmates, one in particular, and it isn’t until one of the other onlookers in her class steps up to defend Sunny during a fight that she has what might even meagerly be called a friend.
It doesn’t take long to by sympathetically drawn to this young girl and her plight. Okorafor’s writing is well wrought and yet still simple. Feels almost scarce in some ways. And yet, it is what I would expect the target audience of this book (twelve year-olds) to soak up immediately. The world Sunny lives in is simple. Straight-forward. They live in huts. Have a communal school. She can’t spend very much time in the sun because of her sensitive skin, but loves to play soccer. She has brothers that tease her and yet stand up for her when put to the test. Her parents are distracted, but both strict and loving when the time comes for it.
And then the boy from school, Orlu, and his two friends introduce her to a world of magic, and suddenly nothing is ever the same again.
She finds that she is one of the Leopard people and can do magic where other mundane people (Lambs) can’t. It is the introduction of this magical world that exists behind and amongst the real world that the large majority of this book spends its time. That evolution is beautiful and imaginative and threaded throughout the life of this unique little girl. It is also just about all there is to this book.
The actual story at large — the one that the “adults” are dealing with — is that there is another adult Leopard Person that has chosen the path of darkness. In order to perpetuate his abilities, it requires that he capture and kill children. There are a handful of references to this murderer throughout the book, but the kids in Sunny’s group of friends are never really a part of that story. In the opening of the book, Sunny peers into the depths of a candle flame and sees an apocalyptic end to the world that she knows. This is the idea that makes it obvious from the get-go that this will be a “fantasy” story. I mean, she’s obviously not tripping on any kind of psychedelics when she sees this stuff, so as an adult, I’m immediately assuming that this is magic. Still, this little piece of information is pretty much ignored until near the end of the book when the adults come into play… and decide to throw Sunny and her friends at the kid-murderer to see if they can stop him. See what the story did right there? The whole time you’re thinking, “Kid murder running around slaughtering children. Obviously the adults are taking care of that issue.” Oh, ho ho, no! That wouldn’t be the way to do things.
A simple story about a bullied twelve year-old black girl that spends it's time developing the world and nearly forgets the actual conflict in the process.
That part of the story, which is where the actual conflict resided, was pretty weak. Like really weak. And the fact that it was essentially ignored for the entirety of the story, bothered me more than just a bit. Because that whole mess is avoided, the large bulk of the story that we get is instead Sunny finding out about her magic, and going to talk to different magical adults, and playing soccer with a bunch of boys that don’t believe that she’ll be any good, and avoiding being slaughtered by this random bit of old magic that her friends get into… It’s very slow and meandering and ultimately pointless (to this story) because there’s nothing else driving the story. Yes, as I said earlier, it’s also beautiful and imaginative. But for me, this story was only half– well, maybe just less than half of a story. It’s the background. It’s the set pieces for what should be the story. At least that’s my two cents. I’m sure there’ll be loads of people that will love it because of the beauty and the imagination and the newness of it. I just expect a bit more from my fiction. At least from the stuff that I like, I do.
By-and-large this read was disappointing because of the overwhelming emphasis on the world-building and the lack of a consistent plot. Put a solid story into this world and with these characters though, and you’ve got yourself a winner-winner chicken dinner. Written well enough that this… um, let’s say non-twelve year-old, sufficiently enjoyed the reading experience, even though I wasn’t overly enamored with where the story went. I’ll likely pick something up by her again, if I see it. Maybe I’ll have to get the next one in the series. That could be the deciding factor as to whether I’ll read anything else by her without serious consideration. Now that she has a world, I hope she understands that it behooves her to actually do something with that world, rather than just let it lie fallow. Guess we’ll see.
- Recommended Age: 12+
- Language: Very infrequent and mild
- Violence: Some bullying, reported (fairly gruesome) deaths of children, and the threat of death
- Sex: Some kissing