Thursday, September 15, 2016

What Sunny Saw in the Flames by Nnedi Okorafor

What Sunny Saw in the Flames
Nnedi Okorafor
2016, I read pdf review copy
315 pages, YA, speculative

Many thanks to Cassava Republic Press for providing a review copy of this book!

Sunny Nwazue is a young girl who does not quite fit in. She was born in the United States to Nigerian parents, but is growing up in Nigeria. She is also an albino, which is a big deal in Nigeria where they are sometimes considered witches or people who talk to ghosts. Her skin’s sensitivity to sun also prevents her from playing soccer, which is one of her passions.

She discovers that she actually does have some magical abilities: she is a “Free Agent,” or someone able to do magic (a Leopard Person) who is born into a non-magical (Lamb) family. Now, apart from learning about her abilities with her new friends, Sunny has to keep her new identity a secret from her family, do twice the normal amount of homework, and deal with a magical serial killer who is targeting children.

Magical Universe

In this story, there is an alternate society of Leopard People: some live in the Lamb community, and others live in special, magical places, such as Leopard Knocks. In Leopard society, Free Agents like Sunny are discriminated against, as evidenced by the obvious racism in the in-universe book Fast Facts for Free Agents which Sunny uses to learn about the magic community. Most of the chapters end with an excerpt of this deplorable book, providing a glimpse into the racism that Sunny will experience.

The magic here is juju, and it uses a lot of blood and sacrifices. The most-used magical implement is a juju knife, which is about the size of a child’s hand and is unique to each magical person. Each individual also has a “spirit face,” which is considered very private and is the source of their power.

And last but not least, my favorite part of the magic in this book is “chittim,” or the magical currency. Every time a magical person learns something new or applies a new skill, chittim falls around them out of thin air. Thus the people who are the wealthiest are also those who are most knowledgable, skillful, or wise. I wish that was how real money worked!

Similarity to Harry Potter

Let me address the elephant in the room. Obviously this book shares some similarities with Harry Potter; I had to prevent myself from using the word “muggles” or “muggle-born” while writing the above summary. Some other bloggers have noticed this similarity as well, and have noted their distaste for this comparison, since it reinforces colonial norms in which the white male is used as the gold standard. I agree with this argument.

I therefore don’t want to compare the Akata Witch books with Harry Potter. However, I do think that this book is a solid addition to the genre of magical-children-discover-they’re-magical-and-have-to-learn-and-deal-with-bigger-issues, which Harry Potter obviously is a part of. I would also add the Circle of Magic books by Tamora Pierce and the Harper Hall of Pern trilogy by Anne McCaffrey.  If you like any of these books, you will undoubtedly like this one.

Albinism and discrimination

I would have liked to see more of an emphasis on the discrimination with which albinos are treated in Nigeria. There are some snide comments and a few fights between Sunny and the other girls at school, but other than that the problems with being an albino in Nigeria are not really addressed.

However, I did like the way this book addressed the discrimination that Sunny faces as a girl, especially in reference to soccer. She loves to play soccer, but others do not want her to participate because she is a girl. This book really comes into its own when Sunny defies the norms and plays soccer with the boys at a gathering of Leopard People – and wins.

This was a lovely book, and I highly recommend it for anyone who is interested in this genre of YA. I am looking forward to reading more from this series.

Further Reading: 

"Someone Tell the UN Witchhunting Albinos is not Common in Nigeria" by Oreoluwa Runsewe (Ventures)

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