REVIEW: Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor
Dear Ms. Okorafor,
Twelve-year-old Sunny Nwazue is fascinated by candles. In Nigeria, where Sunny lives, the electrical company turns off the lights at night, and Sunny keeps candles in her bedroom in case she needs light.
One night, she lights such a candle and it shows her something—a vision of “Raging fires, boiling oceans, toppled skyscrapers, dead and dying people.” Somehow, Sunny knows this isn’t just her imagination, but a future that is on the way.
Sunny was born in New York to Nigerian parents. Her family, which includes her two older brothers, returned to Nigeria when Sunny was nine. Sunny is both Igbo and American, and though she has West African features, she is also albino.
Due to her albinism, she must stay out of the sun and bring a big, black umbrella with her wherever she goes. Though she is good at soccer, she can’t join in the game during daylight hours. Between this and the American part of her background, the kids at her school make fun of Sunny.
Sunny’s problems are exacerbated when her teacher, Miss Tate, commends her for writing a good essay and then orders her to flog her classmates’ hands with a switch. Sunny refuses, and Miss Tate does it herself, taking out her anger at Sunny on the other kids.
Furious at Sunny for not sparing the class Miss Tate’s flogging, someone calls her an “akata witch” and threatens her. The word “akata” almost makes Sunny cry. It is a very rude word meaning “bush animal,” “used to refer to black Americans or foreign-born blacks.”
After school, seven classmates accost Sunny and beat her. Only one person intercedes on her behalf—Orlu, a quiet, attractive boy. From that day on Orlu and Sunny are friends.
Orlu introduces Sunny to Chichi, a girl who appears to be their age. At first, Chichi is a little rude, but soon she, too, offers Sunny her friendship. Chichi tells Sunny that Orlu is capable of undoing bad things, and invites Sunny to her house, a hut made of mud and scented with flowers and incense, as well as filled with books.
The girls agree to trade secrets, but Orlu arrives before they can, and when Sunny asks whether he can truly undo things, Orlu gets angry with Chichi for revealing this to Sunny. They start to talk about whether Sunny can be trusted, and end up performing a ritual called a trust knot that will keep Sunny from spilling any secrets.
A disbelieving Sunny feels the trust knot’s magic take root; it seems like reality blossoms, becoming something more, as Orlu swears Sunny to secrecy.
The next weekend, Chichi and Orlu take Sunny to visit a man called Anatov. Anatov draws a circle around Sunny with powder, and then traces a symbol in the air with his knife. For a moment, Sunny is terrified. A serial killer named Black Hat Otokoto has been killing children, and that’s all Sunny can think about.
The next moment, Sunny is somehow yanked through the earth, then bursts into water and taken by the current, and finally, she is suddenly back in Anatov’s hut. Around her fall metallic, horseshoe -shaped objects. When she tries to talk, her voice is different, and she also feels more graceful than she has in the past.
Anatov’s magic reveals that Sunny has always been a Leopard person, someone capable of magic. Now she is initiated into the Leopard people’s world. The metallic objects are called chittim, and fall from the sky whenever a Leopard person learns something new. Among Leopards, chittim are used as currency.
Sunny’s parents and siblings are magicless people, though; what the Leopards call Lambs. Lambs fear Leopards and as a free agent (a Leopard born to Lambs), Sunny can never reveal her full nature to her parents—though Sunny suspects that her late grandmother, whom her mother refuses to discuss with her, was also a Leopard.
Soon Sunny is using her chittim to buy magical books, tomes that reveal how to work good juju. She, Orlu and Chichi acquire a new friend, Sasha, who was sent to Nigeria from Chicago for casting a spell on the classmates who bullied his sisters.
Sasha posits that their foursome is an Oha coven, “a group of mystical combination, set up to defend against something bad.” And the bad thing is probably the serial killer, Black Hat Otokoto, who is a Leopard himself.
But just when her friends are acquiring mentors from among the greatest scholars of Leopard society to help them train for this task, Sunny is picked on at school, and in self-defense, she does something she has been forbidden to do.
Will Sunny be punished? Will the scholar who was to be her mentor still want to mentor her? Will Sunny learn to fit in among Leopards and be able to sneak out with her friends without her mother discovering her absence? Will she discover the true nature of her powers? Will she and her friends defeat Black Hat Otokoto, and will she ever learn the truth about her grandmother?
Akata Witch was a very readable and enjoyable book. Sunny is an appealing character. Despite being picked on by her classmates, and though she is still discovering who she is, she has a strong sense of self in another way: she knows what she likes and what she doesn’t like. This confidence is endearing. At the same time, her loneliness at school makes her journey of making friends and her discovery that her friendships also serve a greater purpose very satisfying.
Sunny’s friends were also likable, especially Orlu, the responsible one. Chichi was filled with knowledge and confidence, and Sasha, with mischief. Together the four balance each other out.
The novel has a slight romantic element which I don’t want to spoil because so little happens—and since Sunny is only twelve, that’s as it should be. While I liked the pair as a couple, given their youth, I was glad this element was subtle and I felt discomfited on the kids’ behalf, when, in one scene, adults started sussing it out and referring to it.
More than any other book, Akata Witch reminded me of the first Harry Potter novel. Here we also have the magical child living among a family who fears and doesn’t understand magic. Also, like Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Akata Witch is both a story of initiation into a magical world, and a story of an outsider who makes friends and becomes part of a community.
A couple of scenes even reminded me of specific scenes in Harry Potter; for example, a soccer match in which Sunny excelled among other Leopard kids, just as Harry excels at quidditch.
But it’s a mistake to think this book is derivative. It doesn’t feel that way at all. The Nigerian setting, the magical world and the characters are all quite different from those of Harry Potter, and the scholar mentors of this world are less protective and kindly, willing to expose Sunny and her friends to danger, since the Leopard world emphasizes learning, through which chittim are acquired, over Lamb markers of success such as money or power.
I have only a few minor nitpicks. The first is that this book is written for a younger audience than many YA novels. It is less a story about becoming an adult, and more a story about finding community, and therefore it reads like a YA that borders on Middle Grade. It is also less action-oriented than many YA novels.
Besides this, I have an even smaller quibble regarding a couple of continuity errors. In the first person prologue (the rest of the book is written in third person), Sunny describes having malaria when she was two. But Sunny was born in New York and lived there until age nine, and it seems unlikely she would have caught malaria in New York. If her family visited Nigeria when Sunny was two, this wasn’t stated, and so, the mention of the malaria incident distracted me—and so did one confusing reference by Sunny to the power company from “back in Chicago.”
Overall, though, I found Akata Witch absorbing and entertaining, and I eagerly await the October release of its sequel, Akata Warrior. B+ for Akata Witch.