Akata Witch is Nnedi Okorafor’s stab at the ‘magic school’ subgenre, and unfortunately it’s kind of a mess. Like her other two books, it really shines in just how unique and exciting its ideas are, but the worldbuilding is nonexistent and I thought its messages ranged from muddled to bad.
Sunny is an outsider in her Nigerian town several times over — she was born in America (‘akata’ is the Nigerian equivalent of ‘gringo’), is a teacher’s pet, and is albino. She can’t make friends and doesn’t know how to deal with being an outsider. Predictably, this all changes when she finds out urban fantasy is real and also she has magic and also she has to save the world.
Despite its rote premise, the details are where this book really shines. Magic (juju) users are known as ‘Leopard People,’ and Sunny finds herself accidentally pulled into their world. She’s unique because being a magus is usually hereditary, but no one in her family seems to have been a magi, so she’s what’s known as a ‘free agent.’ The ultimate goal of Leopard People is knowledge, to the point that the universe awards Magic Money for learning — when you learn anything about being a magic user, money literally appears in front of you. The hidden Leopard city revolves around books and the library, and in tried and true Chosen One fashion, Sunny gets the important librarian for her mentor. Leopard powers revolve around what makes a person unique, so Sunny’s predictably relate to her albinism (her friend, Orlu, has powers based around his dyslexia), allowing her to phase in and our of the mortal world and have easy access to her ‘spirit face,’ her soul’s true form.
The writing itself was good, but Okorafor does dumb down her writing a bit because it’s a kid’s book, which I’m not really a fan of. I object to the idea of writing like a baby for children in general, but more importantly, you can tell she’s purposefully holding back, which makes things feel a bit weird sometimes. The writing isn’t bad — it’s simplistic but quite readable — it just feels far too much like it’s purposefully simplistic instead of naturally so (even Amazon reviewers picked up on this, though not the Goodreads ones, predictably).
Most of the book is plot-lite, but it works for quite a while because the setting is so foreign, from the ‘funky bus’ that serves as magi transport to the elaborate mud buildings held up entirely by magic. Okorafor has such an amazing way of presenting these ideas that are so unlike anything else. It’s hard to underestimate, in a genre where everything has been done a billion times, how much it means to have someone come in with fresh air.
However, in general, despite all the really cool elements, I thought the actual worldbuilding here was really shaky. The genre-mandated hypersecrecy is going on Just Because, with literally no attempt at explanation. We don’t really get any eye into how the two societies affect each other, or have effected the world. Do any normies know? Are Leopards allowed to function in normie society, or are they barred? How do they handle outsiders? We don’t really get to know. (And that’s not even getting into that the punishment for breaking the masquerade is physical beatings. There is a weird amount of child-beating in this book and I have no idea what to make of it.) We don’t actually see any of Sunny’s training, and we don’t actually get to know how she defeats the bad guy. She just kind of… does something? And then everyone is like, “Well, I guess you could do that.”
The book really struggles with how to balance Sunny’s feelings of being overwhelmed and confused with not confusing the reader. Sunny spends a lot of time frustrated at the non-negotiable restrictions placed on her and everyone’s refusal to explain everything, and as a result, so did I. Honestly, if they wanted to create a supervillain, they could not have come up with a better method. Free Agents are looked down on by a lot of people, and on top of that, it means her friends have been doing this their whole lives, while she hasn’t, so they’re never on the same page. She’s talked to down, made to risk her life, and told free agents are inferior for the bulk of the book, and frankly I would have completely snapped by about halfway through. Everyone she meets is super cavalier about her life, to the point that I found it really creepy and disturbing. She begs for explanations so they don’t die and then the adults are just like, ‘Well, everyone dies eventually,’ as though that makes it okay to send four children to their likely deaths repeatedly. I was routing for someone to get punched, or at least someone to get punished for refusing to give her information. But the book seems to see this as a sign of the culture’s superiority as opposed to a serious flaw, which was really annoying.
This brings us into another one of the things that bothered me. First of all, normies are literally called ‘Lambs’ which means the book has characters who quite seriously and straight-facedly shout about the stupid sheeple constantly. I also generally really don’t like the ‘normies are inferior’ thing (which is one of the things I much prefer about Japanese media). This was one of the major issues with HP, too, this idea that Our Heroes are innately better than regular people and it’s only by their magnanimity that they don’t destroy us all. First of all, I am a normal person, and I liked being a normal person, and I don’t enjoy reading experiences that tell me I’m a piece of shit. But secondly, it doesn’t really speak well, morally, of a group who has such complete and utter disdain for another group of people, to the point that they’re considered almost subsapient. This is such a common trope that I think authors often don’t consider its implications, but it does makes characters look really really bad to be constantly talking down to everyone around them because they have the wrong parentage.
I also found myself bothered by the presentation of one of the themes. Leopard society makes a big deal about their highest goal being knowledge, to the point that they consider material gain uncouth, but I thought the book flew past ‘money isn’t the end-all, be-all, and greed is bad’ into ‘wanting anything ever is wrong,’ which is a really shitty message to be selling to kids. It’s okay for Sunny to enjoy the first time she’s ever gotten to stay at a fancy hotel. It’s okay to want to buy something nice to treat yourself. It’s okay to have non-intellectual pursuits, or to love art for art’s sake. The problem with wealth isn’t that money is bad, or that being rich is bad, it’s that pursuing success in a way that hurts others is wrong. Greedy people are willing to hurt others to get money, and that’s why being greedy is wrong, not because buying a $75 shirt you don’t truly need is innately morally wrong. The extremely wealthy are bad when their wealth is at the expense of others and because often their fortunes are come by in dishonest ways. Inventing something important and making lots of money because of it doesn’t make you bad. And this is totally separate from how governments spend their money, which should be going to the best interests of the people as a whole. A government official staying at a 5-star resort while people beg outside its doors is wrong because the money of a society should go toward the society as a whole, not an individual. It’s not bad because nice hotels are evil.
Also, did you know fat people are evil gluttons and only lazy people who ‘eat too much and play too many video games’ are fat? It’s a sign of how terrible you are! Fat people: failed human beings exemplifying a failed society. Also fat people literally murder children. Jesus fuck am I sick of this bullshit.
… Farla talked about this quite a bit back in the Hunger Games, which had a similar issue, where wealth was wrong because Katniss didn’t have it and wealthy people were Bad just because. Farla spoke a bit about how the historic rural = good, urban = evil has evolved in modern times to poor = moral, rich = evil, and this is a very ungood thing. It’s a fetishzation of poverty, a damaging hyper-simplification that inverts the idea that the poor are that way because they’re bad into the rich being that way because they’re bad. But no one group of being is innately bad or good; this is not a realistic way of looking at the world, and ‘the ones Not Like Us are inherently evil’ is a really dangerous lesson to teach. Even when you apply it to rich people. What we should be teaching people is that it’s behavior that matters, not shorthands like wealth (or skin color or sex or looks etc etc).
All of this circles back to my first point, which: I wonder if these messages didn’t get a bit distorted because Okorafor was dumbing down the writing. I just can’t get over how nuanced Who Fears Death was, and after how ham-handed Book of Phoenix and now this are I’m wondering if WFD was the anomaly. But: it’s hard to judge that based on a book where she’s so clearly writing down, and we know that morals tend to go through a gray-removal process in Children’s and YA a lot, so we probably need a bigger sample size.
…which is good, because Okorafor’s writing, even simplified, is lovely, and her world are so rich and full of life, full of new ideas, full of things to love. I really liked Sunny. I liked her struggle. I liked her attitude. I liked watching her earn smart-money and explore the world. (Also, this setting would make for an AMAZING rpg). I just wanted so badly for it to hold itself together and it couldn’t.
I think this is a book only for a certain kind of person — you have to be able to appreciate the cool elements without being bothered by the lack of followup on any of them, and you have to be kind of inured to the kiddie oversimplification of prose and over-the-top presentation of themes. You do have to appreciate it more for what it promises than what it actually is, and that’ not really a ringing endorsement.