Book Review: Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor

A gorgeous story of magical realism in modern-day Nigeria that captivated me.

3.5/5 stars


synopsis for reviews 2

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?

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my thoughts for reviews 1

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).

Book Review: The Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicket (A Series of Unfortunate Events #1)

I read these books when I was first grade and loved them. Rereading the first book was a very weird experience, good and strange at the same time.

3/5 stars

cover bad beginning

 Goodreads description:

Dear Reader,

I’m sorry to say that the book you are holding in your hands is extremely unpleasant. It tells an unhappy tale about three very unlucky children. Even though they are charming and clever, the Baudelaire siblings lead lives filled with misery and woe. From the very first page of this book when the children are at the beach and receive terrible news, continuing on through the entire story, disaster lurks at their heels. One might say they are magnets for misfortune.

In this short book alone, the three youngsters encounter a greedy and repulsive villain, itchy clothing, a disastrous fire, a plot to steal their fortune, and cold porridge for breakfast.

It is my sad duty to write down these unpleasant tales, but there is nothing stopping you from putting this book down at once and reading something happy, if you prefer that sort of thing.

With all due respect,

Lemony Snicket

My review

I enjoyed this book. It’s definitely quirky in a way that probably appealed more to a younger me. It’s clearly the start of a long series in that it feels more like an exposition than a book–which it is, and which is not necessarily a bad thing.

The characters are likable if not terribly complex. The book is told in third person (for the most part), which ends up keeping the reader somewhat distant from the characters. I still felt an emotional connection with the Baudelaire orphans, especially the baby, Sunny, who I just wanted to hug through the entire story.

The voice Lemony Snicket brings to the tale is interesting: the story is technically told as if Snicket is telling the account himself, and it occasionally flashes into first person. The voice is melancholy and sassy at the same time–a combination that is hard to describe but entertaining to read at any age. I love the fact that Snicket uses “big” words and then describes the meaning; I remember that it made the books very approachable as a young reader, and it adds to the strong sense of character the narrator possesses.

The main difference between my memory of these books and my impression reading them as a sixteen year old is how much the plot emotionally affected me. I have a clear memory of trying to get my grandmother to read the books when I was young and having her say that they were too sad. I remember being seriously confused, because the books struck me as funny and eccentric, not sad. This time, I almost couldn’t get through the book. Count Olaf is abusive–and not in a quirky way–and it freaked me out that I found these books fun as an elementary schooler. I think the difference comes from the fact that I now have context to understand the real life implications of the Baudelaires’ plight–and it is fairly horrific.

Still, I don’t think these books are necessarily inappropriate for younger kids. I remember loving reading them, and I can understand how Count Olaf would be an entertaining villain (in a “gross and weird” villain sort of way) for younger readers. Nothing in the plot is scarring or would deserve a “trigger alert.” This series strikes me as good books to keep in mind for young children who want to read books with more complicated diction and plot without serious MG or YA themes. (That was what they were for me, at least.)

I can’t decide if I am going to continue reading the series. I remember the later books were more enjoyable and I want to revist them, but the series has 13 books, and I don’t know if I’m ready for that kind of commitment. I’m in an awful reading slump right now, so I might need more Lemony Snicket before YA sounds good again. We’ll see. 🙂

Top Ten Books From My Childhood That I’d Like to Revisit

top ten tuesday

 Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and The Bookish. Every week, they post a new Top Ten topic and other bloggers respond with their own lists. I take part in this meme when I have something to say for the topic and I remember what day it is.

I like this week’s topic. I started reading YA books basically in elementary school, but there are a few middle grade series that I remember loving. I still have a lot of these books because I couldn’t get rid of them (I’m sentimental)–and I want my little sisters to read them and enjoy them. I don’t know that I’d reread these books right now, but I know I’d read them with my little sisters, or when I get older (if I want a break from the YA world).

1. Pandora Gets… series by Carolyn Hennesy

cover pandora gets jealous

These books are perfect for fans of Greek mythology. The plot is a simple retelling of the Pandora legend: a preteen Pandora releases the seven sins and has to get them back with the help of her friends. They’re cute and quirky and I remember loving them (though I never finished the series because not all of the books were out yet).

2. The Roman Mysteries series by Caroline Lawrence

cover roman mysteries

These books had really interesting character and mysteries. They managed to used adult concepts, plots, and characteristics without straying from their middle grade audience.

3. The Sisters Grimm (Fairytale Detectives) series by Michael Buckley

cover sisters grimm

I LOVED these. So much fun to read–just dark enough to be interesting without giving me nightmares. I loved the concept of fairytale detectives (especially since they were descended the brothers Grimm) and a world where all the fairytales happen together.

4. A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket

cover bad beginning

Wow, I read these forever ago (first grade). I don’t remember much, besides that they were perfectly ridiculous and dramatic, and that I never found them to be that sad. I still remember that the writing style really affected me; it was probably some of my first exposure to stylistic writing with an interesting voice. (The seventh book was my favorite.)

5. Harry Potter by JK Rowling

cover HP 1

Duh. This goes without saying. I did “revisit” these books over summer–and I doubt I will ever stop rereading them.

6. The Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia C. Wrede

cover dealing with dragons

These books are so adorable! Girl power meets princesses and dragons and perfectly middle grade romance. Literally perfect.

A shorter Top Ten Tuesday than usual (Top Six, I guess), but these are the books I really recommend. 🙂