Review: Akata Witch, by Nnedi Okorafor

7507944>>Published: April 2011

>>Finally got around to it: March 2015

“We Leopard folk need to be extra vigilant these days, but sometimes we need to act. Sunny, an Oha coven bears the responsibility of the world on its shoulders at a specific point in time. Coven members are people of action and authority, but they are also people of selflessness. I trust you all have heard of Black Hat.”

They all nodded. Then Chichi gasped. Sasha grabbed her shoulder and they both just stared at each other.

That’s why!” Chichi said to Sasha.

“Goddamn!” Sasha said. Then they both looked at Taiwo, who was laughing.

“Both of you, so quick,” Taiwo said. She looked at Orlu and Sunny. “They’ve both just realized that Black Hat is a Leopard Person.”

Orlu nodded. “I considered it but wasn’t sure. Didn’t want to say anything.”

“How do you know?” Sunny asked. “Just because he’s a ritual killer? All ritual killers can’t be Leopard People, can they?”

“No, most ritual killers are misguided or crazy Lamb folk. But we know about Black Hat. He was a scholar. Years before you all were born, Otokoto Ginny passed the last level. He was thirty-four years old, a year older than I was. He shouldn’t have been allowed to even take the test.” Taiwo sucked her teeth in annoyance. “He passed, but he was never fit to be a scholar. His hunger for wealth and power were as strong as his hunger for chittim. Otokoto had the biggest appetite for those things. I don’t know what was wrong with him. He has to be stopped, not just for the sake of the children he is drawing from but for the world. This is the job we are giving to you four.”

***

Sunny is a unique mix of identities: “Nigerian by blood, American by birth, and Nigerian again because I live here.” She is also the one and only member of her family born an albino, needing to take extra care when out in the sun unprotected. In her daily life she’s forced to endure the taunts and insults of other school children who see her as inferior, as well as the disrespectful attitudes of her brothers and father, all of who have specific, archaic ideas as to what women can and cannot (or should not) do.

It isn’t long after befriending a classmate named Orlu, and Orlu’s friend Chichi, that it is revealed to Sunny that the world she knows is only a thin layer of surface texture. What lies beneath is a life for which she never knew she was destined.

Like Orlu and Chichi, Sunny is a Leopard Person—an individual possessing strength and abilities far beyond that of mere mortals. The trio is soon joined by Sasha, an American Leopard Person sent to Nigeria by his family as a reality check—to keep him from getting into any more trouble with the Mug—I mean the Lambs (ie: the rank and file population). Together the four of them learn from Anatov, who teaches them in the ways of the world to which they have been inducted.

But there is danger in their lives, danger that crosses the gulf between the surface world and the world of the Leopard People: Black Hat Otokoto. Black Hat is a ritual killer targeting young children. With more than a dozen victims to his name, all under the age of sixteen, he is a virus infecting the lives of everyone in the area, especially parents fearful for the lives of their young. And as Sunny, Orlu, Chichi, and Sasha learn to harness their abilities, they also come to learn they will at some point have to confront that which threatens them all.

Along the way, as the foursome come to understand their positions in the world now opened to them, author Nnedi Okorafor uses Sunny’s newcomer status to reveal the finer details of Leopard People culture: their individual powers (Sasha and Chichi have photographic memories; Orlu can undo all types of things, from juju to even death; and Sunny can make herself invisible and has premonitions); their currency (chittim, acquired through learning); and other elements critical to understanding their nature, such as how being a Leopard person is a spiritual occurrence, and not a genetic one.

When you get right down to it, Akata Witch is a spectacularly vibrant YA fantasy that feels as if it should be the first entry into a much larger world or series. Okorafor doesn’t hold back with the details—from the aforementioned odds and ends about life as a Leopard Person to the events and happenings within Leopard Knocks, the West African headquarters of the Leopard People. Additionally, Sunny must keep her new status to herself, as her family would be unable—or unwilling—to accept whom she really is, adding even more layers to the already thick, confident narrative.

Granted there are a number of similarities with other YA properties—namely with the Harry Potter series (the world-within-the-world, the ways in which they are taught, being reprimanded by an authoritative ministry of sorts for using juju (magic) in view of the Lambs (Muggles), the protagonist literally marked for destiny—through albinism instead of a lightning bolt scar, but still). However, none of those similarities in any way detract from the simple joy inherent to this world and these characters.

In fact, my only real issues with the book are toward the relationships at the heart of things, and to the overarching threat—or lack thereof. While the group dynamic between the core four is strong, the sort-of romantic relationships that develop feel rushed into place and could have used quite a bit more time and space to breathe—to fumble around and figure out each other.

More frustrating, though, is Black Hat’s apparent toothlessness. With respect to the villain, I found myself thinking strangely of Robert Sawyer’s The Terminal Experiment. In that book, scientists discover the existence of the human soul. Now, this is a world-altering discovery with far-reaching ramifications, as one would expect should science, of all things, prove the existence of one of the core concepts in all of religion/spirituality. And, as would be the case, the protagonist’s life is changed as a result. Or, at least we’re told it is—just like we’re told his discovery causes ripples felt throughout the world. Such is the problem with The Terminal Experiment (and really everything I’ve read of Sawyer’s): that we’re told of the far-reaching ramifications of such things, and not shown them. The world isn’t changed, not really, not for the characters in question. They exist in a bubble where they learn of the outside world through antiseptic means. I ran into this same problem with the character of Black Hat—we’re told of his horrific actions, but for the most part he exists as a newspaper headline and thus off the page (out of sight, out of fright). It’s only at the very end, when the fab foursome go off to confront him, that the threat finally seems real. Sadly, it’s a too-little-too-late scenario, and Black Hat’s inevitable defeat doesn’t feel as hard won as it might have had he been a more credible threat throughout. The urgency just isn’t there.

All that being said, I still adored Akata Witch. My complaints more or less come down to me wishing there was simply more to this—hardly a bad thing in the end. I think I would still recommend Okorafor’s Who Fears Death for those coming to her work for the first time, but this novel is a wonderfully imaginative, and quite lovingly crafted work all the same.

Review: Nothing Looks Familiar, by Shawn Syms

NLF-Cover>>Published: September 2014

>>Finally got around to it: February 2015

He heard footsteps and recognized a pair of unwelcome voices. One of them was high and sounded like a whiny girl.

“Ya think he’s gonna do it?” said Eddie.

Roddy heard the sound of flies unzipping, followed by noisy streams of urine. He quietly shifted his feet so his shoes wouldn’t be visible in the gap under the stall door.

“He better.” Mike’s reply was low and gruff. He added, “If I don’t bring them home tonight, my dad’s gonna give me a lot more than a fat lip.”

Roddy held his breath.

“We’ll scare him. Then he’ll do whatever we say. If he was here right now, I’d flush his head down the toilet.” One of the boys let out an ugly hyena laugh.

“Why bother? We’ll just tell him that’s what we’re going to do. That should be enough. Besides, he could just hold his breath while the toilet flushed. Getting your head flushed really isn’t that scary.”

Neither boy washed his hands. Roddy listened to the slow squeak of the door closing.

***

As opined by the narrator in “Family Circus,” “If you live here, you’re either a struggling student, a whacked-out head case, a deadbeat on welfare, or some kind of crook.” Such is the case for most of the residents of Shawn Syms’s debut short fiction collection Nothing Looks Familiar. In the eleven stories contained within, Syms takes readers on a bit of a cross-country tour of seedy environments and equally seedy minds, some whittled down by their surroundings, while others seek to explore what change is available to them, either discovered organically or taken by force.

The first three tales in the collection are a tonal opening salvo. In “On the Line,” a young woman named Wanda is working at a meat processing plant in Alberta. In her spare time she drinks to forget and sleeps around to the same end. The plant where she works is full of abusive, brutal men and employers who care more about not slowing down the line than they do one’s health and well-being. It’s a place of death by a thousand cuts, where if one doesn’t escape early enough, they will wake up one day to find thirty years have passed. “Four Pills” introduces us to Adam, who recently lost his warehouse job, lives off welfare, and enjoys smoking crack while out with his even more deplorable friend Shaggy. And “Family Circus” is told from the point of view of a meth-addicted, cheque-washing mother in Winnipeg desperate to get her children to a safer existence.

A few of the stories offer strange twists on established themes, such as in “Man, Woman, and Child,” in which the wife in a deteriorating marriage finds purpose in giving herself over to a child—not an actual child, mind you, but an adult baby named Les. In “Get Brenda Foxworthy,” what begins as a seemingly sinister plot by a group of idiot high schoolers to take murderous revenge on a mutually despised classmate a la the Larry Clark film Bully is quickly revealed as an immature and poorly planned attempt at juvenile humiliation.

While a couple of the stories were revealed as having unique or unexpected twists to their narratives (the ending of “Four Pills” is especially dark), only “The Exchange” stood out to me as being especially sympathetic to its protagonist. The story perfectly captures the terror inherent to the grade-schooler protagonist’s problem—knowing how wrong it is to ask young Bettina for her underwear, but also being fully aware that if he does not follow through with the mission, the bully Mike will beat the ever-loving crap out of him. The strongest aspect of this story, however, is not the interaction between the children, but in the subtle way Syms hints at Mike’s father’s violent, paedophilic nature. It’s disturbing and well executed.

That “The Exchange” is the only story in the collection to jump out at me as being even remotely sympathetic points to the underlying problem I had with this entire collection: that in how these characters are written, one gets the sense that the author himself was unable to find things about them to care about, or to want to draw to the surface in order to elicit compassion from the reader.

So many character decisions and actions throughout seem perfunctory to the detriment of the stories being told: Jake’s wife leaving him at the end of “Snap”; Shaggy’s decision to drug and rape Adam in “Four Pills”; the mother in “East on 132” choosing to cheat on her husband with a biker met at a rest-stop resort. None of these decisions felt grounded in what little we’d learned about the characters in question. More to the point, they, and other similar decisions throughout, felt arbitrary, existing for the purpose of moving a narrative in a specific planned direction, but not because they were true to the characters or what had been previously established.

I was disappointed in many ways by the stories contained in Nothing Looks Familiar. Syms’s characters are like skins stretched over air, wearing the marks of their histories without being crafted by them. The writing is similarly problematic—the gritty details are present, but what’s absent is any sense of personality or emotional grounding. Overall, I found this to be a mediocre collection—interesting ideas all dressed up with nowhere to go.