skygiants: Drosselmeyer's old pages from Princess Tutu, with text 'rocks fall, everyone dies, the end' (endings are heartless)
I recently reread Nnedi Okorafor's Who Fears Death. It remains an onslaught of a book, although being somewhat braced for the barrage of ANGER INJUSTICE GENOCIDE GONNA DESTROY A WHOLE CITY NOW does allow a little more time to, uh, stop and appreciate the occasional non-fraught thing that happens along the way? Onyesonwu makes friends with a camel at one point! That's nice!

(...for the record, my review from 2010 seems to indicate that at the time I understood and appreciated what happened at the end. Well, good job, past self, because my present self has no idea. Spoilers ))

Anyway! Rereading Who Fears Death got me thinking about the kind of books that are constructed around an ancient lore or a knowledge of the world that turns out to be fundamentally wrong, cultures constructed around poisoned lies. The Fifth Season is the other immediate example that springs to mind of a book like this -- not that there aren't other parallels between The Fifth Season and Who Fears Death. It seems to me that I ought to be able to think of more, but since I can't I'm sure you guys can.

When I mentioned this to [personal profile] genarti, she immediately said "YA dystopia! Fallout!" and that's true, a lot of dystopias are built around a Fundamentally Flawed Premise that has been imposed upon the innocent population by a dictatorial government. Those feel a little different to me, though, maybe just because that sort of dystopia very clearly grows out of our own world. We know from the beginning how to judge truth and lies, we're WAY AHEAD of our naive heroine who believes the color blue is evil because the government put an inexplicable ban on it. But Who Fears Death, while it may be set in our future, is in a future so distant from our own that there's no particular tracing back from it, and The Fifth Season is another world altogether, and we don't have any home court advantage over the protagonists as they figure out where the lies are except a belief that something that poisonous has to be wrong; maybe that's the difference.
skygiants: Betty from Ugly Betty on her cell phone in front of a cab (betty on the go)
So the basic plot of Nnedi Okorafor's latest is that a bunch of superpowered shapeshifting aliens show up and make first contact in Lagos, Nageria. (This is after hanging out for a while in the ocean, where they grant a bunch of non-human entities their heart's desires, including murderous sea creatures, adorable optimistic bats, and a MURDEROUS STRETCH OF ROAD WHO LIKES to EAT PEOPLE.)

Eventually an alien ambassador comes out of the ocean, mostly in the shape of a woman although this occasionally varies. Various citizens of Lagos rapidly become embroiled in first-contact drama to a greater or lesser extent, including primarily

- Adaora, a successful marine biologist whose increasingly religious husband just tipped over from 'disapproving' into 'abusive'
- Agu, a soldier who's in major trouble with his unit for trying to stop his superior officer from raping a civilian
- Anthony dey Craze, a successful Ghanaian rapper who ... actually pretty much seems to have it together, Anthony's doing OK

but also

- Adaora's kids, who think shape-shifting aliens are THE COOLEST THING
- an evil priest, who wants to convert the alien
- an asshole medical student, who wants to kidnap the alien
- the asshole medical student's cross-dressing buddy, who's torn between Project Kidnap the Alien For Cash and Project Pride Parade For Self-Respect
- the rest of the Lagos undercover LGBT student alliance, who are spearheading Project Pride Parade after taking the presence of an alien without the ability to shift sex and gender as a sign that it's time to come out of the closet once and for all
- a number of fans of Anthony dey Craze who have turned up for his surprise house concert and are sort of confused about why there's now an alien and a riot instead
- a number of military police, who REALLY DON'T HELP with the confusion
- the President of Nigeria, who is unfortunately out of the country and therefore has to spend a long time playing catch-up
- several Nigerian gods, who decide the rising chaos is a great opportunity for them to come out and play

Adaora, Agu and Anthony are definitely a little more protagonist-y than everyone else, but this is a book about a city first and foremost -- a city full of human beings who react to an amazing event in ways that are wonderful and ways that are horrible. There's a LOT of ways that are horrible. Many of the named characters who are not Adaora, Agu and Anthony don't come out of things so great, and the alien ambassador is Increasingly Disappointed In Us All, which leads to an ending that is certainly not grimdark and has a lot of hope in it but that I have some moderately conflicted feelings about.

Still, as a book that centers its miraculous happenings specifically in Lagos, in the strengths and problems and wonders of Lagos, I appreciate it a lot. There's nothing generic about this first contact.
skygiants: storybook page of a duck wearing a pendant, from Princess Tutu; text 'mukashi mukashi' (mukashi mukashi)
I CANNOT WAIT to get my hands on Nnedi Okorafor's Lagoon, but I can't do that until I'm moved into Boston and can get my Boston library card, so to tide myself over I read Kabu-Kabu, her collection of short stories from last year.

Actually 'from last year' is not really correct -- while the collection was published last year, many of the stories included were written towards the very beginning of Okorafor's career. And ... you can tell! A lot of it definitely reads like very early work. The writing's much more jagged, and many of the stories feel like initial explorations rather than complete works. It's super interesting, though, because you can get a chance to see the themes that show up in the novels developing, and Okorafor's favorite secondary worlds coming together and becoming more thematically solid in various short snapshots throughout.

My favorite thread is a bunch of stories about Windseekers -- people born with the gift of flight -- which it turns out are mostly part of an unpublished novel about a Windseeker named Arro-yo. What's cool about these stories is you get mythology being established and then questioning and problematizing itself; one story introduces the concept of DESTINED REINCARNATED SOULMATES for Windseekers, and in the next you get a pair of destined soulmates who ... pretty much immediately murder each other every time they recognize each other after reincarnating, because having a soulmate ties you down, man! Gotta get rid of that before it's too late!

(Nnedi Okorafor actually wrote in her afterword that she didn't like that story anymore and if rewriting it probably would not have had them actually murder each other. TOO BAD, I LOVED IT.)

A couple of my favorite stories from the collection are actually available online - I want to call out Spider the Artist, at Lightspeed Magazine, about a woman who befriends an oil pipeline guard robot, is one of my favorites in the collection, and The Palm Tree Bandit, at Strange Horizons, about the creation of a legend. But reading them in the context of Kabu-Kabu as a whole is different from reading them alone, I think. It adds context to a lot of Okorafor's other stuff -- even though many of the stories really aren't as strong, taken by themselves.

(Fair warning #1 is that the content rating is pretty much the usual for Okorafor's adult stuff, by which I mean PRETTY HIGH: lots of spousal abuse, gendered violence, rape racism, race-based violence, and imperialism in the collection as a whole. You don't have to brace yourself as much as you do for Okorafor's Who Fears Death, because with Who Fears Death it's just CONSTANT, and Kabu-Kabu will frequently give you a breather with, like, a whimsical story about a trickster spirit. But some bracing nonetheless required.)

(Fair warning #2 is that the one thing about Okorafor's stuff is that nobody is ever anything other than cis and straight, which stands out more when you have, like, 20 chances for somebody in a story not to be, and most of the characters are not twelve..)
skygiants: Princess Tutu, facing darkness with a green light in the distance (sokka schools you)
Things Nnedi Okorafor's Akata Witch has in common with Harry Potter:

1. The protagonist is a kid with a difficult home life who discovers she was secretly born with magic powers and a dramatic magical family backstory that has been hidden from her all this time! TIME FOR MAGICAL SCHOOL
2. Who is also mysteriously good at a sport she's never really gotten to play
3. People with magic really do not care at all about people who don't have it, but we have to keep it secret from them for their own good, poor things
4. Preteen protagonists are the only ones who can defeat great evil for reasons that are never really clear, but that's not really relevant until the last chapter anyway
5. Relatedly, magic school teacher attitudes about endangering the lives of the students in their care are pretty much 'ehhhhh, if it doesn't kill you, it'll make you stronger!'
6. Half the worldbuilding is endlessly creative and tons of fun! Half of it makes no sense.
7. If you go through the right magical portalmatwhatchit you get to the awesome magical SHOPPING DISTRICT where you can buy sort of pretentious and potentially evil magical books
8. MAGICAL SPORTING EVENTS are the MOST IMPORTANT THING in the WORLD

Things Nnedi Okorafor's Akata Witch does not have in common with Harry Potter:

1. It is set in magic Nigeria and most of the main characters are Nigerian!
2. Except for the ones who are African-American transplants, and these different cultural upbringings have an actual impact on plot and characterization!
3. People's families are relevant to their lives even if they don't have magic powers!
4. When the protagonist mysteriously triumphs at a magical sporting event, it's also a GIRL POWER STORY about how GIRLS CAN PLAY SOCCER AS GOOD AS THE BOYS CAN SO THERE
5. While the romance is no better developed than anything in the Harry Potter books, there is at least never a beast in the protagonist's chest

This should give you a good idea if you are likely to enjoy the book. I did! (But my favorite is still The Shadow Speaker.)
skygiants: Clopin from Notre-Dame de Paris; text 'sans misere, sans frontiere' (comment faire un monde)
Well, if you are used to Nnedi Okorafor's fantastical coming-of-age YA novels, her latest (and first adult novel) Who Fears Death is most emphatically Nnedi Okorafor Darker And Edgier. The book, set in a postapocalyptic Sudan, matter-of-factly presents you with a whole lot without flinching: the protagonist, Onyesonwu, is ostracized as the child of militarized rape; her three best friends are the girls she went through circumcision with; the main plot revolves around Onyesonwu's quest to realize her destiny and stop a genocidal war. I don't mean to say that it's pointlessly grim or gratuitously violent, because gratuitous is definitely not the word, but the point of the book is to talk about these things and all the smaller evils that grow out of them.

The main thing that struck me about this book is that Onyesonwu is one of the angriest Chosen One protagonists I've ever been inside the head of. She's angry at the sorcerer who won't teach her despite her obvious talent because she's female, and she's angry at her boyfriend for learning from him; she's angry at the townspeople who ostracise her because of her background, and she's angry at her friends for not understanding how hard it is for her; she's angry at the whole world for not caring enough about what goes on everywhere else, and she's angry at herself for being angry, and fulfilling the commonly-held belief that a child born of violence will inevitably be violent. Sometimes riding along with Onyesonwu when she unleashes her anger can be incredibly liberating, and sometimes it's exhausting. You're aware, from the beginning, that a happy ending for Onyesonwu herself is unlikely. Happy will be if she completes what she sets out to do, and ends the war that began her.

That being said, the book itself is very balanced in its portrayals of the situations and the characters. Nnedi Okorafor is not shy about her stance as a feminist and activist, and Onyesonwu is clearly angry about a lot of the same things as the author is, but the people who show prejudice aren't demonized; even the Big Bad, Onyesonwu's biological father, has hints of a complicated backstory (which does not in any way excuse his actions). The pacing of the story is much less balanced, and I'm not sure how I feel about the end, which comes in kind of an explosive rush after a long and meandering quest-journey and which I think would work better if it was not such a sudden slam-dunk. But I think it would be worth the read for the experience of Onyesonwu's voice alone.
skygiants: Azula from Avatar: the Last Airbender with her hands on Mai and Ty Lee's shoulders (team hardcore)
A little while back I read Nnedi Okorafur's Zahrah the Windseeker, and enjoyed a reasonable amount but did not love. Yesterday I read her follow-up, The Shadow Speaker, and, as I suspected I might, came much much closer to love! At any rate to extremely strong affection.

The Shadow Speaker's plot is similar to that of Zahrah the Windseeker, in that it centers on a girl with meta-human abilities who begins the book nervous and insecure, and goes on a journey of discovery that leads to her growing into both her powers and herself. This is a good plotline in and of itself, and in both books I really like the way it's emphasized that the girls have to stand up for themselves and make their own decisions instead of following others' leads; however, in Zahrah, Zahrah's growth happened a little too easily for me and a little too much in a vacuum. Ejii, on the other hand, the protagonist of Shadow Speaker, has a much more complex situation to deal with - her father spent quite a while as the despotic and oppressive ruler of her village before Jaa, the lady warrior-hero of the postapocalyptic Africa in which they live, came along and beheaded him. Now Jaa wants Ejii to come with her and train as her successor, and the shadows that Ejii talks to also inform her that her presence on the trip is important for world-saving purposes. Naturally Ejii has some conflicted feelings about this, even aside from the fact that if she leaves the village before she's trained enough there's a very good chance her powers might kill her.

I really liked the complicated mentor-antagonist relationship between Jaa and Ejii - how they disagree on fundamental things while both being heroic in their own ways, and also how Jaa is kind of certifiable and yet totally awesome. And has two husbands. Who are also totally awesome. I also really liked Dikeogu, the runaway slave Ejii meets in the desert, and the slow build of trust between the two - though I wish his parents had not been presented as so Evil. Through her relationships with Dikeogu and Jaa, you really get to see how Ejii is starting to grow into a heroine in her own right. There are also fascinating hints about the worlds besides Earth that make up this universe. Although there are links between the two books, I don't think it's necessary to read Zahrah first, and I would definitely recommend Shadow Speaker. I don't know whether Nnedi Okorafur is planning to write a sequel, but I hope she does - it's definitely open for one, and I would really like to read more about Ejii and her world and the inevitable Dikeogu makeouts.
skygiants: Hikaru from Ouran walking straight into Tamaki's hand (talk to the hand)
Today: relatively pleasant and peaceful.

Tomorrow: all hell breaks loose, as I try to do a.) my own work, as scheduled; b.) the work of my immediate supervisor, who is off for a week getting married (which, yay! I am very happy for her, though it means not so much fun for me) and c.) attempt to find occupation the new trainee who has been dubbed by the boss Not Experienced Enough to do anything helpful without immediate supervision that takes up time that I need to do my work and my spuervisor's work. Training, I add, from my vast experience of 1.5 months on the job. All on no food and, more distressingly, no caffeine from sundown tonight until sundown tomorrow.

So, uh, if you see any screaming, flailing or meltdowns from me in the middle of the day tomorrow, don't take me too seriously, is all I'm saying.

Anyways, while I'm here: brief booklogging, since I have gotten behind again. Nnedi Okoborafur-Mbachu's Zahrah the Windseeker is fairly standard YA in plot - girl is Different from peers, nervous and insecure, goes on a successful quest, encounters Strange Things, gains confidence and returns a self-actualized hero - but stands out due to the extremely cool Africa-based AU civilization, which is definitely not something you see enough of in any kind of fantasy lit. It was a fun read but I didn't adore it, I think in large part because it was very much a journey of Self-Discovery and there really wasn't much behind the interpersonal interactions. (Also possibly because I read it shortly after The Sunbird, which despite being similar in the way that it spends much of its time following a young character on a solitary journey of self-discovery manages to put a whole lot of feeling and depth into the relationships that that character has with other people.) However, I will still definitely be reading Okorafor's other published book, partly because I think this one read like a first novel, and, uh, partly because it is recced on the back by Diana Wynne Jones.

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