Reading format: Library paperback
Content warning: bullying, death, violence
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“My name is Sunny Nwazue and I confuse people.” Twelve-year-old Sunny Nwazue lives in Nigeria, but was born in New York City. She’s American and Igbo (an ethnic group in Nigeria); Black with light yellow hair, hazel eyes, and very light skin due to albinism; and sees visions in candle flames about the end of the world. Her peers single her out for her differences from them, often calling her an akata witch. Sunny describes akata as a derogatory word “…used to refer to Black Americans or foreign-born Blacks” in Nigeria. The only time she feels like she fits in is when she plays soccer, but even that is difficult because of her skin’s sensitivity to sunlight.
After one particularly rough day at school, Sunny strikes up a friendship with Orlu, a quiet boy in her class, and her eccentric and headstrong neighbor, Chichi. She learns two things: that she’s a “free agent,” or someone with unrealized magical powers; and that her new friends are Leopard People, or people with ties to the spirit world. Soon the trio of magical friends becomes a quartet, joined by Sasha from Chicago, and Sunny begins learning about juju and the culture of Leopard society. But there’s evil lurking in the city. News stories air about a criminal who’s been kidnapping children, some of which don’t return alive. As Sunny and her friends continue their studies, they realize their elders have been training them for a difficult task. If they fail, the world as they know it will cease to exist.
For the first book in what will be a trilogy, Okorafor does well with world-building and establishing the main characters’ personalities. We become familiar with Sunny’s home in the Lamb world, a word used to describe humans who don’t have a connection to magic, as well as Leopard Knocks, a city that only Leopard People can access. I appreciated Okorafor’s method of starting each chapter with a page from Sunny’s textbook for free agents. It provides us with more context into the world Sunny is now a part of without bogging the reader down with classroom after classroom setting.
My biggest critique is that I felt like Okorafor didn’t explore the emotions of Sunny and her friends very well after they completed their task. There was no reflection period among the quartet, either together or as solitary self-reflection, or their elders regarding what I think most would deem as traumatic events. I felt this made our adventurous characters seems rather two-dimensional by the end. I hope that as we follow them through the next two books that we see growth in their emotional range and processing abilities.
I’ve seen other reviewers mention Akata Witch‘s similarities to Harry Potter. I agree that there are some parallels between the two. Both have a main character who finds out they can do magic, describe worlds hidden from non-magical humans, and have a sporting even that draws magical folk together. But it’s also fair to acknowledge that these elements are not unique to one fantasy book. An apparent difference between Akata Witch and other fantasy novels is its setting (Nigeria vs. Europe/US). Another important difference is that each Leopard person has a “spirit face,” which reflects their true selves. It is a physical embodiment of the spirit and is considered one’s more private face; one can control it or be controlled by it. Granted, what I describe as differences are based on my personal reading history, and others may disagree.