A gorgeous story of magical realism in modern-day Nigeria that captivated me.
What Sunny Saw in the Flames transports the reader to a magical place where nothing is quite as it seems. Born in New York, but living in Aba, Nigeria, twelve-year old Sunny is understandably a little lost. She is albino and thus, incredibly sensitive to the sun. All Sunny wants to do is be able to play football and get through another day of school without being bullied. But once she befriends Orlu and Chichi, Sunny is plunged in to the world of the Leopard People, where your worst defect becomes your greatest asset. Together, Sunny, Orlu, Chichi and Sasha form the youngest ever Oha Coven. Their mission is to track down Black Hat Otokoto, the man responsible for kidnapping and maiming children. Will Sunny be able to overcome the killer with powers stronger than her own, or will the future she saw in the flames become reality?
I picked up this book wanting something different, wanting to break out of the bubble of what I usually read. Akata Witch was exactly what I needed.
The first thing that drew me into this book was Sunny, our protagonist. She had a clear voice that made me connect with her from page one. Sunny, an albino who lived in New York until she was nine and then moved back to Nigeria, is a constant outsider. She struggled to know how she fit into her new country, Nigerian ethnically but raised as an American. Her confusion and frustration was only amplified when she gets dragged into the magical world of Leopard People, where she continues to be an outsider and an anomaly. Though I have no personal connection to her struggles, her character was written in such an honest and open way that I felt deeply empathetic to her pain.
It is worth noting that “akata” is a nasty slur for African Americans in Nigeria. Using it in the title was a bold choice by the author, but one that captures the outsider nature of the main character perfectly.
Through Sunny’s character and the story as a whole, Akata Witch gives a vivid window into the complexities of Nigeria’s cultures. Now, I’m about as white as possible, so I came into this novel with my only real knowledge about Nigeria’s cultures coming from my art history class’s African art unit. Still, this book helped me understand more than just the broad strokes of life in Nigeria, discussing the nuances of the region, like the way different ethnic groups interact. Akata Witch immersed me in Sunny’s culture, making it accessible and familiar.
Though it is written for a middle grade audience, it does not shy away from discussing the complexities of Sunny’s life, including the sexism and prejudice she faces as an American albino girl in Nigeria. With other African American characters, the story even touches on issues of racism in America.
But Akata Witch’s setting goes beyond than modern day Nigeria with the story’s magical realism elements. I’ve seen a lot of reviewers saying that this book’s fantasy world building is nothing more than Harry Potter set in Nigeria, but I think that criticism is superficial and unfair.
Yes, Sunny is an outsider Chosen One suddenly drawn into a complex magical world, but the world that she becomes a part of is drastically different from HP. To refuse to see the complexities of the author’s world-building, combining multiple Nigerian ethnic beliefs with her own twists, to paint it as simply HP all over is naive and frankly disheartening.
I loved the magical elements of this book. They were quirky and compelling, combining Nigerian cultural traditions with a playful magic system that stretched across the globe. I loved that the author chose to have the magical system based entirely around the acquisition of knowledge. Some of the world building felt almost like a video game (in a good way), and I would say it is more fair to compare this book’s world to Ready Player One than HP (but that might just be me).
I also loved the positivity of the magical system, which is rooted in the idea that flaws in the “real” world are the roots of one’s power in the Leopard world. Sunny’s albinism, which people sneer at for making her a “ghost,” allows her to turn invisible, and her friend’s dyslexia allows him to reverse the effects of magic. I felt like this was a nice twist to work into a middle grade book, although to older readers it may feel somewhat obvious.
The side characters were really successful for me. I loved the group that Sunny befriends, because they were not perfect for each other. They bugged each other and pushed each other, adding a realistic dynamic to the story that would have been lacking if they had gotten along immediately. Each character, even the more minor ones, had a clear personality and presence.
I found the author’s writing style to be welcoming and smooth. Her imagery and characterization were impressive, bringing the story to life. Still, I had trouble with the pacing of this novel, which stems mostly from the fact that this book is middle grade.
I don’t read a lot of middle grade. I did not realize that this book was MG until I had started it, and while I still loved the story, I think I would have liked it more if I were not so committed to the YA genre’s style.
The exposition of this book was careful and thorough, taking up most of the first half. I loved that I got a clear understanding of the world and its magic, but after a while, the constant exposition started to hinder the pacing of the story for me. The story structure just felt like it was written for a younger audience, sacrificing swift pacing to make everything abundantly understandable.
This is nothing against the author or the story. Once I realized that it was a MG story and adjusted my expectations, I had fun with all of the world-building that dominated the story.
Would I have enjoyed the story more if it was faster, grittier, and darker? Maybe, but probably not. It would have been more like what I usually read, but it would have lost the playful charm that made me love this book in the first place.
The ending of this book saved it for me. The pacing sped up and the story started to tug at my heart-strings. The main subplot, which had felt underdeveloped throughout, came to the forefront and gave the book the drama it needed for a powerful ending.
Still, I wanted more from the ending. I felt like Sunny never really transformed or mastered being a Leopard Person. While that worked well with her outsider status and her constant self-doubt, it held the story back from having that cathartic, triumphant ending that I felt Sunny deserved.
Overall, I would recommend this book to anyone that is looking to broaden their reading horizons this year. Keep in mind that this is a middle grade book and appreciate it for its creativity and playfulness—and for its deft handling of sensitive cultural and societal conflicts—and you will love this story.
As I cannot possibly do this book justice, here is a review written by a Nigerian reviewer that comments thoroughly on the African cultural influences in this book. (Warning: it has minor spoilers) Also, here is a review written by an Ibgo (Sunny’s ethnicity) blogger.
Have you read this book? What did you think? Do you think you will read this book in the future?
Problematic Moments and Trigger Warnings: (A new section where I call out books for problematic moments and alert readers to possible triggers. Please note I am by no means an expert on either, but I will do my best to research the books I review as I write this section. I added this to help readers, but I cannot promise it will be perfect. I am still learning, and any critiques you have will be greatly appreciated. If I missed something in either category, tell me and I’ll edit the review to include it.)
Problematic Moments: Honestly, this book does not have anything blatantly problematic. There is a strong theme of physical punishment throughout that made me really uncomfortable, but I know that different cultures have different attitudes toward it, so this is more of a heads-up than a criticism.
Edit: Also, the handling of disabilities in this book is ableist. I am able-bodied, but reading posts by disabled bloggers discussing magic’s relationship with disabilities made me realize that the connection between disabilities and magical powers in this book is somewhat ableist. Also, Sunny’s disability goes away halfway through the story, which is definitely ableist in the sense of a “magical cure.”
Trigger warnings: This book is pretty tame, but TWs for physical punishment, (a little bit of) mental health stigma, and sexism (though most of the sexism is called out on page).