Akata Witch

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.

11 Comments

  1. Roarke says:

    I find it a little amusing but mostly disturbing that you can put a word like “gringo” in the title of a children’s book just because it’s not in English. I guess it just goes with the whole issue of defining people by the fact that they’re outside your ethnic group or whatever rather than who they actually are. There’s also the issue where we’re so Eurocentric that the words that cultures use to refer to us are just these cute little nonsense words that you can use in the title of a kid’s story.




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    1. Act says:

      I actually read today that the title for the Nigerian release was “What Sunny Saw in the Candle,” so it looks like it wouldn’t fly in the actual culture, which makes it really weird. I’d initially read that isn’t wasn’t that bad a word, but the book makes it sound like a real slur… and probably not something you’d want kids adding to their lexicon.

      I’m pretty sure Okorafor was born and raised in the US, so she’s probably been called it herself and it’s likely a reclamation thing, but that would make more sense for an adult novel, I think.




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      1. Roarke says:

        Yeah, regardless of the adult author’s intention, it’s not something you should be exposing children to without a plan. The fact that the original culture completely changed the name really puts the nail in the Good Idea coffin. Theirs is the metric by which one should judge the word, not ours.

        Props to the Nigerian publisher/localization team for having more sense than the Akata Author did, though the fact that nobody piped up to her and said “should you really be titling a children’s book like this” is kind of tripping red flags. 




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    2. CrazyEd says:
      I can kinda see your point, but I think you’ve got it the other way around. It’s the location of where it’s being said, and the majority population that lives there, that’s important. I live in an area with a large but minority Hispanic population, and when my Hispanic friends in school would use the word gringo, it was just a cute little nonsense word that held no power. I couldn’t give less of a fuck about being called it, even though I knew precisely what it meant. We also have a large Indian and Vietnamese population, but despite that, I don’t actually know what they would’ve called me as a pejorative in the first place.

      But if I was on vacation in Juarez, Mexico and some locals told me to get out of town because I’m a gringo, that’d be a totally different situation. I might actually consider getting out of town (or, at least, away from the people telling me to get out of town). That’d probably actually be a pretty scary situation. Because down there, I am a gringo, no matter how eurocentric I happened to be in America.

       

      To use a non-racial example: If you asked Americans living in America who knew what the word meant what they felt about being called “gaijin”, an overwhelming majority of them probably wouldn’t give a fuck. It just means “foreigner”, and well… they are foreign to Japan. It’s just stating a fact, right? If I was talking with a British person in America in Japanese, and I realized they were actually British and not American, it would be accurate to use the word gaijin to describe them as a foreigner to America.

      And yet, the Japanese government trying to replace it with “gaikokujin”, which losely translates to “person from another country” (literally, it’s written with the kanji for outside-country-person, instead of gaijin’s outside-person). Because there, it’s considered offensive by the government (though the population itself in general seems to treat it far more similar to the American take on it- it’s just a way to state a fact that someone isn’t from Japan).

      I think an equivalent in America might be “undocumented person” versus “illegal immigrant” even though no one is arguing that undocumented people aren’t immigrants who came here in violation of the law. In fact, as of 2012, the card you’re issued by the Japanese government is no longer called an “alien registration card” (or “gaijin card” by the people who held them because “gaikokujin touroku shoumeisho” is a mouthful) but a “residence card”.

      Because in Japan, the Americans are the minority and the Japanese are the dominant majority. The pejorative doesn’t even make sense if you say it outside of Japan. It makes about as much sense as going to Japan and insulting a Japanese person by calling them a foreigner.

      I don’t think it’s a matter of not being in English. It’s that the word doesn’t have any power in America. Okorafor probably picked it up as a child when her parents took her on trips to Nigeria. In fact, it seems like the book was published under the same title in the UK as in Nigeria, presumably because the UK’s West African population is far more likely to be recent immigrants to the UK and familiar with the word. In the UK, the word does have power (or, at least, was perceived to have power by the publishers). Akata Witch was published under the Viking and Penguin Books imprints of Penguin Random House, so the same publisher that decided to call it Akata Witch in the US also decided to not call it that in Nigeria.

      From the wikipedia page, it seems like “akata” is used more like one African-American calling another an “oreo” (or some other thing that’s black on the outside or white on the inside) than a Hispanic person calling a white person a gringo (though its not clear if it’s directed at all African-Americans or just ones of Nigerian descent like Okorafor). The US might have more people who would be called akata in Nigeria (it’s also unclear if it could refer to African-British or just African-American) but the UK has more Nigerian-born people (according to a quick wiki check, the UK has more Nigerian-born people than the US has people who claim Nigerian heritage) who would actually recognize the word as offensive.




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      1. Heatth says:

        To use a non-racial example: If you asked Americans living in America who knew what the word meant what they felt about being called “gaijin”, an overwhelming majority of them probably wouldn’t give a fuck. It just means “foreigner”, and well… they are foreign to Japan.

        I’ve seem in multiple places “gaijin” being specifically about white people, so I am not sure if it is trully “non-racial”. Sure, it can be used for any foreigner, but its usage to describe white people is popular enough to feature in a dictionary.

        And, you know, I’ve actully seem people who dislike being called ‘gaijin’. Usually people who actually live in Japan, so I am not sure it is a good example all around.

        In the end, these issues are complex and affter people in different ways. Some words might not be a big deal for some, but are for others.




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        1. CrazyEd says:
          Oh, there are definitely people who use it as a pejorative. My friend had to find a new homestay after her host decided, one day, that she hated all American scum and went on a huge rant about white people being evil. But most of the reluctance of the average Japanese to use gaikokujin is just because it’s oddly formal. It really would be like saying “oh, I bought a car of of a make from another country” instead of “I bought a foreign car” (though, to my knowledge, you’re still allowed to use “gaisha” instead of “gaikokusha”).

          But there are people in America who use the word “foreigner” as an insult as well, and the people who do rarely mean white Europeans when they do. But they don’t call white Europeans foreigners when they want to insult them (they’re socialists, which is worse than being foreign). The Japanese people who’d want to use it to discriminate against Chinese and Koreans have much better ways to do that as well. Gaijin is usually white people, though, because black people are just so unbelievably uncommon in Japan. There are slightly more South American people… but a lot of them pass as “white people” in Japan. And both Africans and Brazilians don’t have the best reputations among Japanese for reasons other than “foreignness”. Nigerians have it so bad many pretend to be African-American to avoid the stigma.




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  2. EC says:
    “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.”

    Yeah, pretty much. The best benefit-of-the-doubt case I can make for this is that it’s trying to portray the helplessness of childhood, where people are often very unfair and you can’t actually do anything about it, and a conscious denial of the power fantasy we often get in children’s books that you can. But I think that’d make more sense in a book for adults about children, to be honest, and in any case I don’t find it very convincing.

    I think there’s probably some kind of mix of trying to show a culture that’s quite gerontocratic authentically mized with a reluctance to criticise her roots, but that’s mostly a guess and I’m not really in a good position to unpack that.

    Generally, I agree with pretty much everything in this review, but I think I had a more negative impression of the book and, frankly, the author. Firstly, I find it hard to respect people who can’t treat children as people. Secondly, there were a few other things that bothered me.

    Oh, uh, spoiler warning for anyone who hasn’t read the book.

    1) The last quarter of this book is basically hot garbage, and while the first three quarters are enjoyable on their own terms they’re partly to blame. Nothing’s really set up properly, so things start just kind of happening all in a rush, with no feeling of narrative weight to them at all. First, the elders want the kids to do a hit for them, we get hit with a load of exposition about the killer’s motives and goals and immediately after they’re off in some van to kill him, then they get out and kill him –  a sequence of events exactly as lame as this summary of them.

    Oh, and along the way the giant masquerade whose existence was made known to us a thousand words or so previously along with a belated attempt to hype it up (in exactly the same terms as the demon the Mayor is trying to turn into in Buffy, though that’s probably a coincidence) turns up, flails around impotently for less than a page and immediately fucks off again in an egregious breach of every convention about narrative detail – by which I mean, this thing’s inclusion in the story is seriously pointless and about as affecting as a recorder solo.

    The prose also goes to shit during this period, which perhaps points to some kind of looming deadline or, more likely, the author growing sick of her own book.

    2) Relatedly, she never really engages with the fact that her villain is a serial child murderer. It’s used well to begin with, actually, I’ll give her that. The looming, suffocating presence of him as a kind of low risk “but what if” threat is well written. The problem is that this danger never actually manifests up close and personal for the protagonists, even when they’re actually fighting him – which is a real shame, because ‘serial killer of children’ is a great concept for a scary children’s book villain. I would have liked to see some kind of close brush with him before they’re briefed and turned into his assassins by the elders. He definitely needed something to develop his character, because he’s got about as much actual presence in the story as the bus driver.

    3) You touched on the whole knowledge thing. Relating this to the ending again, there’s no real use of knowledge or even intelligence in defeating the villain, they’re thrown into it with no real plan or strategy but with a vague promise that they’re special and so they’ll beat him somehow. And then, true enough, they just fuck him up and kill him. Not even the big bad masquerade is defeated by knowledge, it’s defeated by the intrinsic ability of one of the group – and not one they’ve gained over the course of the book as some kind of radical bit of self learning, something they’ve known about since they were about five.

    I feel like it’d be a stronger book thematically if knowledge, the clever use of some hard won fact, was more important in the villain’s defeat, but I’d have settled for some textual acknowledgement of the fact that the knowledge-loving Elders’ best plan to defeat this man is to send wave after wave of ignorant children to die at his feet until, finally, one of them gets it done.

    On that subject…

    4) Okay, this plan is just really stupid. It reminds me of Zapp Brannigan’s plan from Futurama:

    ‘Brannigan: “Killbots? A trifle. It was simply a matter of outsmarting them. You see, killbots have a preset kill limit. Knowing their weakness, I sent wave after wave of my own men at them until they reached their limit and shut down.”

    …Except with one difference. Brannigan’s plan is the stupidest way possible to defeat the robots, but it sort of works. However, instead of shutting down when he reaches his kill limit, Black Hat summons a (supposedly) terrifying magical being to bring the world to ruin.

    So… Yeah. Running zerg tactics against someone who uses human life force as energy just isn’t bright. The Elders don’t just come across as callous, which must (?) have been intentional, they also look like morons.

    I think it’s got the makings of a good book, it’s got some great ideas and a cerrtain charm, but ultimately it’s one of the things I can least abide, a stupid book by an intelligent person. It’s not just bad, it’s willfully bad.

    Who Fears Death was great, though.




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    1. EC says:
      Oh, small correction, I was wrong about the big masquerade. You’re right, Sunny beats it through some unexplained deus ex. I had misremembered it as being defeated with the juju cancelling ability one of them has. Woops.



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    2. Act says:

      Honestly, there have been quite a few times on this blog I’ve liked stuff more in hindsight, but the more I think about this book the less I like it. I finished it a week ago and if I wrote this post from scratch now it’d probably be a lot harsher.




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      1. CrazyEd says:
        I’ve read this like two or three times now, and I can’t quite put my finger on what I want to say about it.

        Okay, it’s generic urban fantasy book. That’s not a great start, but definitely not a deal breaker. You can have good stories with that generic as fuck premise. I’ve been messing around with just that premise (minus the viewpoint character being special by the standards of the special-people and having to save the world) for, like… a year and a half now (that thing I keep mentioning in the Dresden Files chatter), so I can’t exactly criticise it in the first place anyway. So what’s the problem that makes this book so much worse than Okorafor’s other books?

        Is it the attempt at deep themes mixed with the YA Urban Fantasy genre? It sounds like the author both wants to have her usual deep themes, but also a lighthearted and fun magic romp… except nothing about this romp sounds lighthearted. There’s a serial killer who targets children. And other YA urban fantasy does themes of acceptance and growing up and all that stuff without having to write itself down.

        Is it just bad themes? I find it hard to believe, with how much you’ve gushed about how well the same genre of themes are handled in her other books. It’s really weird, reading the review for Who Fears Death, and then this one, where there’s basically Harry Potter’s muggle-discrimination going on. Having a main character who is an outsider in like four different ways being taught to hate the sheeple just because they weren’t born magic… seems like a bit of an oversight.

        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.

        This kind of reminds me of how I felt reading The Maze Runner. The only thing more infuriating than lacking a relatable character to ask why in a series with unknown elements (like magic) is the existence of a character like that whose every question is answered with “shut up and don’t ask questions”. And that’s why I gave up on The Maze Runner after four or five chapters after The Girl character woke up and I realized that, no, she wouldn’t be an interesting character (or even really a character at all).

        This must be especially bad in a book where the universe literally rewards you for learning about it.

        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 is why I decided that, in aformentioned urban fantasy thing, that while magic could be influenced by bloodlines, everyone had the capability to learn magic to some degree if they set their mind to it (though it might be insanely and prohibitively difficult for some individuals). It seemed like the best way to prevent a secret society living away from the normies (who I’ve refused to give a name besides “non-magical people” or similar) from developing this sort of attitude.

        The one magical society who is described as doing this was fairly small and was more like a lovecraftian cult of inky-tentacle-demon worshippers than Rowling’s quaint countryside redheaded magic-supremacists (“Mum has a cousin who’s an accountant, but we don’t talk about him much”). And now that I think about it, the character who came from that backstory is the also only character who had a magic/magic marriage (to a man whose family was a very visible kind of wizard society- they ran a shrine that did exorcisms and that kind of stuff). Her best friend, who is also the most powerful magical character introduced thus far, met her husband at… like… a bar or a college party or something along those lines. And he’s just a dude.

        I think my favourite form of the masquarade is Flying Witch (because Flying Witch is amazing). There are witches, and magic, and muggles who know about magic… and so what? Magic isn’t really that big a deal. Witches keep to themselves because it’d be more of a hassle to reveal themselves to the public, but if it happened… it wouldn’t really matter. When Chinatsu declares she wants to be a witch, Makoto’s only response is “… Well… you better ask your mom first…”

        (And then her mom is like “uh, yeah, obviously you should become a witch, that sounds awesome!” because Flying Witch is amazing.)

        Tumblr wrote some great things about this topic when Rowling was revealing information about Magical America that was, like, the exact opposite of what America is like; like how they surrendered their international right to carry a wand at all times yet uphold the statute of secrecy even more strictly than Europe. Meanwhile, you go to rural America, they’ll shoot at you for trying to take away their guns, but happily point you to the nearest wizened crone who claims to be able to brew a love potion. One of the American wandmakers operates out of early 20th century New Orleans. It’s amazing she didn’t advertise in the local newspaper and sold wands to muggles- it’s not like they’d work if you weren’t a wizard or witch anyway.




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    3. Nerem says:
      I still like how Starcraft 2 used the Killbot idea in one of the Co-Op Mutators. And it works exactly the same way. They’re invincible until they hit their preset kill limit and then shut down (and their explosions makes all player units unable to fight for a bit out of respect for the majestic killbot. The debuff is even called Moment of Silence). They constantly spawn and basically someone’s gonna have to throw corpses at it.



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