Sunday, May 19, 2024

‘Shadow Speaker’ Marries Mysticism, Magic, and Africanfuturism

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No matter what the season or time of year, I will never say no to a new book from Nnedi Okorafor. Every since I read Who Fears Death and the Binti novella trilogy, I have devoured anything and everything she’s written. The Nsibidi Scripts series? Phenomenal. (If you’re looking for an alternative to a certain British magic school series, these are my first recommendation. IMO they’re far better.) Remote Control? Fabulous. Her Shuri and Black Panther comics? *chef’s kiss*.

You can thus well imagine my delight when I learned that she was releasing a new book at the end of September and it’s sequel in November. Surprised at the timeline? I was too, but I wasn’t going to complain. Then I discovered that this book I’m reviewing now, Shadow Speaker is actually a re-release of an out of print novel from 2007 that’s been expanded and a new introduction added. It explained some things, but you’ll see what I mean. Anyway, on to the review of another well done novel by my favorite Africanfuturist sci-fi/fantasy author, Nnedi Okorafor!

A Brief (Spoiler Free) Run-Down

Niger, West Africa, 2074
It is an era of tainted technology and mysterious mysticism. A great change has happened all over the planet, and the laws of physics aren’t what they used to be.
Within all this, I introduce you to Ejii Ugabe, a child of the worst type of politician. Back when she was nine years old, she was there as her father met his end. Don’t waste your tears on him: this girl’s father would throw anyone under a bus to gain power. He was a cruel, cruel man, but even so, Ejii did not rejoice at his departure from the world. Children are still learning that some people don’t deserve their love.  
Now 15 years old and manifesting the abilities given to her by the strange Earth, Ejii decides to go after the killer of her father. Is it for revenge or something else? You will have to find out by reading this book.
I am the Desert Magician, and this is a novel I have conjured for you, so I’m certainly not going to just tell you here.

The Good Stuff

As noted in the intro, i am absolutely in love with Nnedi Okorafor’s worldbuilding, and Shadow Speaker does not disappoint (to put it mildy). Nnedi Okorafor has two primary ‘worlds’ that she writes in: the world of Lagoon, the Binti trilogy, and the graphic novel LeGuardia, and the Ginen universe. The latter includes the Nsibidi Scripts trilogy, Who Fears Death, Remote Control, The Book of Phoenix, and The Desert Magician Duology, of which Shadow Speaker is the first book.

The harmony between magic and science, the natural world and technology, plants and mechanics are what make the Ginen universe so special. Ejii, the protagonist of Shadow Speaker, can speak to the spirits and ‘hear’ other people’s moods, feelings and memories. Her traveling companion Dikéogu is a rainmaker, meaning he can control thunder and storms. Other characters can fly; there are animals that speak and know the future, smoke entities from parallel worlds, houses made from giant trees, and insects that create portals to other universes. Yet the magic feels deeply grounded in lived reality, which is one of Nnedi Okorafor’s fortes. She makes her world so vivid, so present, so real that it feels like if I were to travel to Niger, I would find epals (i.e., electronic tablets) made of plants and migrating birds that only carry women on their backs.

Another aspect of her work I deeply appreciate that Shadow Speaker embodies well is that she feels no need to explain the African religious or cultural references to her reader. I know I’m not her primary audience – I know very little about Nigerien cultural history, deities, folklore, or language. And I LOVE IT. She does not and should not have to explain these to me any more than Western scifi/fantasy feels the need to explain Greek mythology or the Roman Empire when it references them. If I want to understand her worldbuilding better, I have work to do, and that should be my work, not hers. I get utterly giddy when I look up a word or deity I don’t understand because it means that she’s able to be unabashedly herself in her writing, with no need to cater to a white Western reader. It’s goddam glorious.

Ejii, the protagonist, is a fascinating perspective character through which to tell this story, and one I wish we could see more of. Just how often have you read an SFF story with a dark-skinned, Muslim teenage girl who wears a hijab or veil most of the story? The way she navigates the complicated relationship with the woman who killed her father/would-be mentor was compelling, and the story had no qualms addressing the kind of patriarchal pressures such a young girl would face in that society while she’s attempting to find her own voice and power.

Will she choose violence and revenge or creation and connection? And what about Dikéogu, the boy whose family sold him as a slave because of his strange powers and now must learn to trust others or else risk losing the people he’s come to care about? You’ll have to read the book to find out!

Potential Drawbacks

When I first started reading the book, I noticed that it felt…off somehow. I finished the Nsibidi Scripts trilogy earlier this year, and I couldn’t help noticing that they felt fuller, the characters richer and more textured, the pacing more even. Then I learned that this was a re-release of a book from 2007, and it all made sense.

Shadow Speaker has moments where it feels like it was written by a younger writer, one whose style and depth hadn’t fully developed yet. Sometimes the characters react strongly for reasons that don’t entirely fit. Sometimes the pacing from one scene to another is not quite right. The character of the Desert Magician, for example, is one that shows up in other books like the Nsibidi Scripts series. In that series, his characterization differs in clear ways from this book, which threw me for a bit until I realized that the character evolved over time. The Desert Magician of Shadow Speaker is still ‘young’ in Okorafor’s development of his character, not quite as complex as later books she’s written, though fun in his own way. None of this dampened my enjoyment of the story overall, but it’s worth pointing out in case you, like me, come to the book expecting more of what current Nnedi Okorafor books offer.

The other drawback for me was the unfortunate characterization of the ultimate antagonist, Chief Ette. A mirror of Ejii’s own abusive father (who had been chief of her village of Kwamfa), Chief Ette is the same kind of patriarchal *sshole Ejii’s father was, but rather than handsome, physically fit, and charismatic, he’s described as physically the opposite: he’s grossly overweight. Much in the way of Baron Harkonnen in Dune, this is meant to depict him as a consuming force, a sign of excess and decadence. Though we do see into his memories to understand that he’s also sad and his overeating is a response to trauma in his childhood, it wasn’t nuanced enough to overcome the stereotype.

Perhaps we will get more nuance in the sequel? And, while I’m asking, maybe some positive fat representation? Pretty please? We definitely don’t have enough positive fat characters in SFF, and I’d love to see Nnedi Okorafor offer that kind of representation.

Final Score: 8/10

Overall, I enjoyed the book despite the inconsistencies in characterization and pacing and the unfortunate writing of the fat antagonist. Was it my favorite Nnedi Okorafor book? No, but that actually says more about how much better her other work is than it does about this book per se (at least for me). There’s so much I still really love about it that I still recommend it, especially for folks looking for compelling Africanfuturist SFF.

Her blend of mysticism with science and technology with plants is one of a kind, and her worldbuilding, drawn from African religion and culture (especially Niger), is breathtaking. Plus, there are bugs everywhere and honestly I think SFF could use more insects that aren’t killable bodies.

I am absolutely STOKED about the sequel; I cannot wait to see what she does in revisiting this story 16 years later. Given how much her writing has come into its own in those years, I can only imagine Like Thunder is going to be…electrifying!

About the Author

Nnedi Okorafor was born in the United States to two Igbo (Nigerian) immigrant parents. She holds a PhD in English and was a professor of creative writing at Chicago State University. She has been the winner of many awards for her short stories and young adult books, and won a World Fantasy Award for Who Fears Death. Nnedi’s books are inspired by her Nigerian heritage and her many trips to Africa.

This edition of Shadow Speaker released on Tuesday, September 26, 2023, and is a deluxe, expanded edition of an out-of-print early novel from Africanfuturist luminary Nnedi Okorafor, with a brand-new introduction from the author.

Editor’s note: This piece has been updated to correct misspellings.

Images Courtesy of DAW

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