Leopards & Lambs & the In Between
Akata Witch (2017 edition) & Akata Warrior (2017)
by Nnedi Okorafor
Viking Books for Young Readers
A magical series that reinvigorated my love of YA fantasy
“There are more valuable things in life than safety and comfort. Learn. You owe it to yourself.”
― Nnedi Okorafor, Akata Witch
“We embrace those things that make us unique or odd. For only in these things can we locate and then develop our most individual abilities.”
― Nnedi Okorafor, Akata Witch
Recently, I read both Akata Witch and Akata Warrior by Nnedi Okorafor after looking through Goodreads for fantasy books my women of color. The first book, Akata Witch, sounded right up my alley and I couldn't resist buying the new 2017 edition with the the eye-catching cover.
On #bookstagram I've connected more with the lovely Jennifer F. Santucci, I highly recommend following her Instagram account and blog, and we decided to "buddy read" the first book together. We thoroughly enjoyed it and continued on with the series after the October 2017 of Akata Warrior. I loved reading this with a fellow bookworm because we've been able to share our excitement over the plot and characters as well as appreciate the books for the complex issues that Okorafor deftly weaves into the stories.
I may have mentioned this elsewhere, but in 2017 I had been a bit burnt out on YA. I think a lot of books are hyped up and I haven't been excited for any new releases. Or perhaps it's the squealing fangirl stereotype that gives me pause. I've never gotten that excited or obsessed about anything even during my tweens and teens. That being said, in the past I've read a lot of YA and greatly enjoyed the escape from reality even if the plot or characters aren't that compelling.
Thank goodness for Nnedi Okorafor. She's recently received well-deserved buzz for her Binti science fiction novellas as well as her HBO contract to adapt Who Fears Death, and I'm so glad I've delved into her writing. I'm planning on reading more of her work soon! (sshhh don't tell my enormous TBR).
Here's a brief overview, in case you aren't aware of the premise: Akata Witch centers on our protagonist Sunny Nwazue; "Sunny lives in Nigeria, but she was born in New York City. She looks West African, but is so sensitive to the sun (due to her albinism) that she can’t play soccer during the day. She doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere. Then she learns why. Her classmate Orlu and his friend Chichi reveal that they have magical abilities- and so does she. Sunny is a 'free agent,' overflowing with latent power. And she has a lot of catching up to do." (synopsis from Okorafor's website) Meanwhile, as Sunny is thrust into this new magical world there is also a ritualistic killer victimizing children in Nigeria. Sunny and her friends learn that this murderer is actually a Leopard person (or person able to practice juju/magic) and they are the only people who can put an end to his actions.
Meanwhile, the second book Akata Warrior picks up a year later. Sunny is stronger and older. She's been studying juju with her mentor, Sugar Cream, while her friendships with Chichi, Orlu, and Orlu have grown. Without spoiling the first book, Sunny and her friends have another quest that will test their strength and resolve.
I LOVED both of these books!
The series pulls readers into Sunny's worlds: Nigeria and the Leopard Society. It was refreshing to see a fantasy book drawing on non-Western magical and cultural traditions. Besides the richly drawn world-building, Okorafor's characters and their relationships are equally wonderful.
Sunny is such an endearing character you can't help but cheer for her in her triumphs and weep with her in devastation. Between the two books I particularly enjoyed the growth in her relation ship with her two elder brothers as well as the changing dynamics between herself and her parents. Additionally, I love that Sunny's relationship with Chichi, the other main female character is one of solidarity rather than competition. Too often young adult fiction contains fraught female relationships based on fighting over boys *yawns" next please - I'd rather read about girl power.
Moreover, I am in awe of Okorafor's ability to move through complex issues while maintain her fantasy story line. Whether it's discussing Sunny's albinism in the context of Nigerian culture, or her identity as both African and American, or Sasha's experiences as a black male youth in America, there are important background conversations that Okorafor situates her characters in. These connections exist side-by-side with the fantastical. It's this element of Okorafor's writing that pushes these books to the next level.
They aren't merely escapism. The books address a middleness, or an in-between-ness, or shades of gray rather than neat black and white categorization. Sunny is of African decent but her skin color is different because of her albinism, she's African and African American, she's from a "Lamb" or non-magical family and she's a Leopard person. I am not African or African American, however my mixed-race background strongly identifies with feeling in the middle of identities that don't always fit neatly together.
The ending of book two leaves plenty of room for a third book.