Book of Phoenix is a prequel to Who Fears Death, and I found it very disappointing. The technical quality of the writing was the same, but it smacked of the publisher demanding a money-grab followup and was just not well-constructed. It was well-written enough to be quite compelling, but the actual story was just a mess.
BoP (heh) is much more straight sci-fi than WFD, telling the story of the fall of the previous society and the origin of the belief system from WFD. I don’t like sci-fi, really. I don’t know why, it just doesn’t do anything for me (I’ve found that people tend to have strong preferences for either fantasy or scifi — I’ve always wondered about that). So this was kind of at a disadvantage from the start, but to be honest it was such a bizarre book I don’t even think that ended up mattering.
It tries to introduce magical realism elements, but because it’s so much more hard sci-fi, they clash and just end up confusing. And because they’re not well-integrated the lack of answers that’s central to magical realism ends up being part of a sci-fi world and feels frustrating instead of adding to the atmosphere.
I also question the need for this story to be told. The why wasn’t important in WFD; looking to the future was, and honestly one of the things I really liked about WFD is that we never find out how the world got that way. I came away with the feeling that this kind of cheapened everything that happened in WFD by grounding in a way it wasn’t meant to be.
The story was also a really banal “humans play god, is bad, destroy world” plot that I always really hate. Science is not evil, humanity does not deserve to be nuked from orbit, and considering how nuanced the social commentary was in WFD reverting to this shitty cliche was just unfortunate. I also found the colonialism angle to be really ham-handed. Surely the book could have relied on the reader to notice all the victims were African without shouting COLONIALISM at us over and over?
I also found it really… weird, I guess… that the protagonist basically destroys the world because her friends die… and that’s it. She never even attempts to save it and find out she can’t, she never really tries to actually defeat the Evil Scientists (TM). There was very little actual conflict; the whole book was basically her nuking things, wondering if nuking things makes her evil, deciding she doesn’t care, and nuking more. And I mean, there’s a valid point to be made about first-world nations turning a blind eye to the suffering of the rest of the planet for their own comfort, but like, really, Thailand and Peru deserve to be exterminated because of what the US was doing? There are billions of people on the planet; surely not all of them were complicit in the Evil Science. Hell, she even kills the freedom fighters in Ghana who were explicitly helping her.
For a book about COLONIALISM, I found it weirdly anglocentric.
Anyway, the plot.
There are seven towers in the US where EVIL SCIENCE is being done on people known as speciMen, who are engineered to have crazy-ass powers and be weapons etc. When the protag’s boyfriend dies, she decides to destroy them, and when the Evil Scientists continue to be evil she decides it’s better to just kill the planet and start over. That maybe this isn’t really her decision to make never comes up.
I honestly can’t imagine why this book was written if not for $$$ reasons. It didn’t feel like Okorafor cared about it — certainly it lacked the clear planning that went into WFD, and it lacked the heart, too. It didn’t feel like the characters cared about anything, either. It was still a crappy book by a good writer, so it kept me engaged, but it was so disappointing it kind of marred Who Fears Death for me and on that alone I’d say avoid avoid avoid.