Akata Witch, the YA novel by Nnedi Okorafor is one of those books that isn’t just genre bending – it is genre redefining. And who better to narrate the audiobook than the enthralling Yetide Badaki?
A full disclaimer here, I struggle a lot with this genre. I’m not the target market and whilst I will gladly fork out money for anyone in the target age group to read a good book from the genre, I would honestly rather sit through repeated performances of that opera based on Kim Jong Un’s life than attempt one in this, my adult age. The usual tropes: love triangles, chosen teenagers etc. have been done and discussed ad nauseam and are so predictable I could see the ending in my sleep. Not to mention, teenagers aren’t actually very sympathetic or relatable characters when done authentically (stares directly at Harry Potter) and are ridiculously or dangerously unbelievable when made to act in ways that make no sense for a developing child.
But it’s a formula that rakes in billions yearly in what has fast become one of the most profitable genres in film, literature and anything else that can be tied in. Because whilst teenagers aren’t terribly sympathetic or relatable once you’re no longer one… they read. A lot.
It is refreshing then, to find an approach to the genre that doesn’t redefine it, but shows how it can be done in a fresh, riveting and authentic way.
The book was already a brilliant introduction to Afrofuturism for younger readers, but the audiobook, brilliantly read by Yetide Badaki (Bilquis on American Gods), amps the entertainment factor up to eleven. Through her wry and thoughtful voice we are introduced to Sunny, an American-born Nigerian girl recently returned to the homeland with her family. It’s bad enough that Sunny still speaks “American” and is the only girl to her boorish siblings, but she is also albino; greatly hampering her ability to show off her athletic prowess on the football pitch. What’s worse, her parents tend to treat her like a ticking time bomb, for reasons more than her albinism as is revealed much farther into the book.
Through her we see a common identity issue for black and/or African children in the modern age: Where do I fit? Sunny – an ironic name considering she can barely stand in the sun longer than five minutes – loves football in all its brute trickery and masculinity, but in her head she also revels in the delicate athleticism of ballet. She still thinks as an adolescent American but is hard pressed into the mold of a “good Nigerian girl.”
At 12 years old, Sunny is frustrated and confused, and feeling rather off-balance. She strikes up a friendship with the sombre and solemn Orlu, and through him she meets the irrepressible and saucy Chichi – my favourite voice by the talented Badaki. Chichi is the one that opens Sunny’s eyes to the fact that she is in fact, a Leopard child, a race of juju users whose sole aim is the pursuit of knowledge in the mystical. Along the way of their studies as Leopard children, they are joined by Sasha, who, whilst American like Sunny, is a reckless and brash boy, brought to Nigeria to be disciplined and trained by Sunny’s mentor.
The foursome proceed to have a colourful, fun filled and quite frankly, terrifyingly but fascinatingly dangerous adventure. To reveal more would be giving spoilers (well… more spoilers). The end of the book isn’t a cliffhanger per se, but after everything the group has encountered, you’re left eager for the next book in the series, just so you can once more be immersed in the world of the Leopard People.
Here lies the brilliance of the world Nnedi Okorafor lays out. The concepts are all traditional, set-in-stone beliefs and tales from the region, livened up and made fresh by taking modern children with worldly influences alongside African sensibilities and asking: how would they handle this? Okafor’s heavy hand with dark visuals is toned down in Akata Witch and made perfect for its target audience. This is definitely a series to shake up all the other formulaic, whitewashed YA fantasies out there, and a perfect one to grow and discover a new world with.
Mood Rating: Get in touch with your younger self and experience a world of wonder with one of the best writers of our time.
Delight, AKA Zizi Guru, is a fan of films that go bump in the night and of knowing things for no reason. Find her snarking on Twitter @Izeze