Friday, December 12, 2014

The Shadow Speaker by Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu

The Shadow Speaker
by Nnedi Okorafor
Hyperion, 2007
336 pages

Okay. This review is so unbelievably overdue, given I read this book for Aarti's initiative, A More Diverse Universe. But maybe I can get it into the same year. I had kind of hoped that this book would grow on me when I left it, but unfortunately that didn't happen. I was really excited to read this story, and I think in the end I was disappointed partially because of that.

Ejii is growing up in what used to be West Africa - and still is, but not any West Africa we recognize. After a cataclysm of proportions we start to recognize only as we get further into the book, magic has returned in a big way to Earth. Portals between Earth and other worlds have opened in places, animals speak, and certain humans have magical powers. Ejii is one, a shadow-speaker. She communicates with the shadows, which gives her some powers of telepathy and precognition. She is also the daughter of a man who was a violent, dictator-like, fundamentalist chief of the village, before he was slain by Jaa, the Red Queen. When the shadows tell Ejii that she must follow Jaa to an important meeting between the leaders of Earth and the other worlds, Ejii is torn. She's afraid to go, but curious and determined. So she sets off on the back of her talking camel, Onion, and soon realizes that her journey is going to be stranger, more dangerous, and more important than she could ever have fathomed.

It's not that the whole book was disappointing. So I'm going to start with the disappointing bits in a bid to end on a high note.

This wasn't a good book for me, personally, and I think it basically boils down to the fact that I'm about twenty years too old to really appreciate it. When I'm reading, characters are a key component of my enjoyment; these characters were extremely plot-driven, as opposed to having a plot driven by the character's choices. Characters did things that were utterly in service to the plot and seemed bizarrely out of step with what I thought their characters would do, which meant I was constantly reevaluating my understanding of each character. Not in a good way. It felt very disorienting and I didn't end up very attached to any of the characters. This is usually a death-knell for any book for me.

The thing is, if I was thirteen years old I would have loved this. The characters are BIG - everything is very melodramatic. The teens act like young teens - which would be great, except that most of the adults did too. As an adult I tend to like my characters more nuanced and less shouty and more emotionally consistent, especially if they are supposed to be important and intelligent world leaders.

What saved it for me was that the concept and the world-building are top-notch and really interesting. The setting was gorgeously-described - the descriptions of the colours and the smells and the sights were fantastic and fantastical. I also absolutely loved the language Okorafor uses: there are untranslated words that add so many layers of sound and tone to the writing, and the words that Okorafor makes up for the fantasy elements are magnificent and playful. I liked how the magic worked, I loved that it was never fully explained (because it wasn't ever entirely clear to the characters how they were able to do what they did, or how it was supposed to work - this, however, didn't feel lazy on the author's part, but carefully considered) and I was really interested in how the technology and the magic met and negotiated each other in this world.

But unfortunately, I do prefer my books to be more heavily weighed towards the character than the plot, and this was backwards for me. I think as an angsty pre-teen I would have just eaten this up - I've always been a sucker for interesting world-building, and the cultural background, so different from my own, would have been a huge plus - but as an adult it fell flat for me. I would, however, read more Nnedi Okorafor - I've got both Akata Witch and Zahrah the Windseeker on my list. Those are both books written for a younger audience too, so I'll have a better idea of what I'm getting into this time. I like her ideas and I'm hoping I can find some more consistent characters.


Aarti said...

Thanks for posting your review, nonetheless! Not all of them can be successes. I have Who Fears Death? by the same author and have heard good things. It is also post-apocalyptic Africa. I heard her children's/YA books about Akata Witch are great, too, if you want to give her another try :-)

Unknown said...

I've heard the same, that one's definitely on my radar. I think this one is quite an early one of hers, so I'm anticipating that certain things that bugged me will get more refined in her later books.