Heather's Book Review: Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor
Sometimes there are books that you like. And sometimes there are books that you love so much, you want to run around the library screaming their praises and wondering why they’ve only been checked out twice because OMG THEY ARE AWESOME and why wouldn’t anyone want to pick them up because OMGTHEYAREJUSTTHATAWESOME,YOUGUYSdssfhsjfjkseyrkjhs !!1!!1@
This was my reaction to Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor.
In Akata Witch, Sunny is a girl who just doesn’t fit in. She’s composed of dramatically conflicting opposites. She was born in bustling New York City, but now lives in quiet Nigeria. Though she looks West African, she differs in one big way—She’s albino. Because of this, she stands out everywhere she goes. She’s also super-sensitive to the sun, so much so that she can’t play soccer during daylight—which is even more frustrating because it’s her favorite sport, and she’s a fantastic athlete. She’s a fantastic student, too, but her teacher seems determined to punish her for it by having her strike the hands of students who don’t score as well on their work. The other students hate her. They call her “akata witch,” “akata” being a word meaning “bush animal” (and being equivalent in insult to a racially-charged term familiar in the US). She hates being different. But one day, she has a vision of the end of the world, and she learns that she may be different for a reason: She is a Leopard Person, and a special one at that.
Leopard People go by many names throughout the world, but all are people with magical abilities. Sunny is a special sort of Leopard Person known as a free agent—a Leopard Person without Leopard relatives, who, thus being a seemingly random creation, possesses magic of unpredictable strength. She must learn to use her magic well and fast, for the area has been riddled with a series of mysterious and gruesome child murders, and she may have a closer connection to them than she realizes…
Much of my love for this book, I actually attribute to Pottermore.com. I read chapters of Akata Witch between messing around on chapters of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone on said site because—let’s face it—as exciting as J.K. Rowling’s Big Announcement was a few years ago, Pottermore is all kinds of boring unless you’re, like, ten. Or a Fanatical Harry Potter Nerd. But I am only a Moderately Fanatical Harry Potter Nerd, and in my 20s, so Pottermore is boring. (Now can we please have the Harry Potter MMO that everyone wanted Pottermore to be? Thanks.) Anyway, breezing between chapters of Pottermore and Akata Witch led me to the following series of realizations: “OMG Leopard Knocks is totally Diagon Alley! OMG These textbooks are like mini-monsters, too! OMG The juju knives are totally wands! They’re even divas about who gets to use them! OMG the Leopard People love brainy people like Hermione! OMG The Zuma International Wrestling Finals are totally Leopard Quiddich! OMG The Funky Train is totally the Knight Bus!” (You laugh, but admit it—you’d ride the Funky Train if you had the chance, solely because of its name.)
With these similarities, one would think “Oh, this book is just a ripoff of Harry Potter!” But the truly magical thing about it is this—it’s not. The similarities between Akata Witch and Harry Potter, ironically, evolve into distinct differences because of the way Okorafor treats them. In fact, in addition to borrowing many of the things that I love about Harry Potter, it takes a lot of things that I hate about Harry Potter, and then turns them on their ear and does them better. It even takes the things Harry Potter does well and does them better. “How?” you may ask. And then you may add, “WHAT IS THIS BLASPHEMY?” But read on…
Let’s start with one of its subtler similarities, which is the series’ integral and vivid sense of setting. Harry Potter crossed hundreds of cultural boundaries to gain its popularity, but ultimately it remained a very British series. Take away the scarves; heavy, snowy winters; and dark, castle-like boarding school and you simply do not have the same reading experience. That said, just as Harry Potter could not take place in a non-British-inspired setting and still render the same story, Akata Witch could not be set anywhere but Nigeria and work. It is the African elements, combined with the sheer imagination surrounding them, that make this novel a great read.
As for the similarities that Akata Witch improves upon, the biggest is this: Both series clearly value the pursuit of knowledge. Harry Potter would have died in book one if Hermione Granger’s brain hadn’t been there to save him, and Sunny’s friend Orlu perfectly expresses the Leopard People’s opinion when he says, “Knowledge is the center of all things.” This is why the Obi Library is a respected place and why its Head Librarian, Sugar Cream (Yes, really), is the most revered and powerful Leopard Person in Nigeria. That’s about where Harry Potter’s appreciation of knowledge ends—“Libraries are awesome and can teach us things that help us when we’re getting into wizard trouble!” Akata Witch values its library, but also takes its love of knowledge further than that. It’s reflected even in the Leopard People’s system of currency. When a Leopard Person learns something new, chittim—that is, the money used by Leopard People—magically materializes in front of them. The more a Leopard Person learns about magic, the more chittim they earn, and the only way to earn chittim is to continue to learn. But it’s not the chittim, or the awesome result of an all-nighter that Leopard People value. It’s the very process of learning itself, and the practical, and sometimes even moral value of the magical discovery that was made. All of the characters are expected to study, too, for reasons further explored below. They can’t be hapless heroes leaning on a Hermione crutch. And the mini-monster textbook mentioned earlier? It doesn’t move and growl because it wants to look cool and wizardly and foreboding. It moves because it wants to be read.
As for an element that I (and many critics) dislike about Harry Potter—One common complaint about the series is that Harry tends to break the rules and benefit from it, or either have the rules bent so they don’t apply to him. First year students aren’t allowed to fly on broomsticks? Pssh! Harry does it and gets a place as the youngest person ever on the quiddich team! Akata Witch doesn’t pull that. When Sunny uses her Leopard abilities in front of a lamb—a huge no-no, just like it is for wizards and magic—she doesn’t get a threatened punishment that is then revoked for Plot Reasons. She gets flogged, and then she loses her highly sought-after chance at becoming Sugar Cream’s mentee. Some of her companions suffer similar punishments for similar foolishness. Of course, while it hurts to see pain befall our heroes, I liked that there were actual consequences for infractions, rather than fortunately-placed plot twists. It adds a realistic sort of tension, in contrast to the tensions present because of the fantasy elements.
There’s also the whole Boy Who Lived-slash-Chosen One thing—a common element in many fantasy novels— where a particular character is, for whatever reason, destined to defeat a particular baddie. I hate Chosen One storylines no matter where they show up because in real life, I’ve only met, like, two people to whom I would confidently entrust the fate of civilization. Even that’s reaching a bit (‘cause, you know, saving all of humanity is a HUGE task for one person). Also, neither of these people were angsty, hormonal, pubescent teens, despite what YA fantasy novels would lead me to expect. (Granted, this is where suspension of disbelief comes in handy when reading YA fantasy.) Expectations of realism aside, there’s also the lack of suspense inherent in the typical Chosen One storyline. We know who’s going to live and defeat the baddie because the story type has already told us. Sure, Harry Potter had the whole and Neville-Longbottom-having-a-similar-backstory-and-therefore-being-a-candidate-to-defeat-Voldemort thing to keep us on our toes-slash-distract us to the end. But come on. Harry Potter’s name is in the title of the series. Of course he’d be the Chosen One. Of course he’d live and beat the bad guy. That’s how Chosen One stories work. (But maybe I’m just spiteful because I was Team Neville.)
Akata Witch doesn’t pull this either. While it’s said that Sunny and her companions’ abilities complement each other in a fortuitous, Chosen One-like way, they are frequently reminded of their absolute mortality: “There will be danger,” says their mentor, Anatov, “Some of you may not live to complete your lessons. It is a risk you take. The world is bigger than you and it will go on, regardless.” And as for that subliminal reader assurance that this rule won’t apply to our protagonists, that surely some mentor or deus ex machina will come to their aid? That hope is shot down by something as innocent as the Leopard People’s favorite sport, about which Sunny asks: “Why didn’t they stop [the match]?” And her mentor replies, “Because life doesn’t work that way. When things get bad, they don’t stop until you stop the badness—or die [italics mine].” Leopard People don’t get rescued, even if they are the protagonists. They take care of themselves, and if they get themselves into bigger messes than they can handle, they’re dead (which makes the act of studying magic a whole lot more appealing). Because the novel doesn’t play the protagonists up as prophesied victors, too, readers fully believe that death is a possibility for Sunny and friends, which makes reading about the danger that they put themselves in all the more suspenseful.
Now, I’ve placed a lot of emphasis on the book’s Harry Potter-like successes, but the novel does possess several great points on its own. For example, though the Leopard People have almost constant access to money (as long as they’re learning), they do not place great value in money, viewing it more as a tool to achieve goals than a goal to be reached in itself. (Granted, this is a theme that has been seen before, but it’s still refreshing to see it approached in a way that isn’t flagrant anti-consumerism). Leopard People also take traits that “lambs”—that is, non-magical people—view as imperfections and view them as strengths. Sunny is albino, Orlu is dyslexic, and other friends Chichi and Sasha were both notorious for being hopeless troublemakers in lamb school, before it was realized that they were actually gifted students bored with the unchallenging world around them (like teens falsely diagnosed with ADHD). All of these traits, regarded as flaws in the lamb world, contribute to their strengths as Leopard People, and it was cool to see characters with “disabilities” benefit from them in a semi-realistic way. (Kudos to Rick Riordan for giving Percy Jackson dyslexia, but to this day I haven’t met a dyslexic teen whose brain can understand the writing of their first language without effort, much less Ancient Greek.)
Of course, the book has flaws as well. The main conflict in the book revolves around the child murders mentioned earlier, and though child murder is awful, and though the crimes become a special concern for Leopard People late in the novel, Okorafor doesn’t spend much story time making us fear the ritual serial murderer Black Hat Otokoto. She’s more interested in showing us Sunny’s entry into the Leopard People world—which, in its defense, is hugely interesting—but I do wish that more time had been spent on the larger threat hanging over the characters’ heads. Ultimately, though, that flaw is overshadowed by the novel’s wonderfully imaginative world-building, and it’s not going to stop Akata Witch from being one of my favorite YA novels of the past several years.