Nnedi Okorafor's Akata Witch is a mini-epic that establishes a world and cast of characters readers will want to be a part of as much as they wanted to attend Hogwarts. In the world of Akata Witch, magic users are called Leopards, while non-magical humans are called Lambs. Sunny is a free agent, a person without a pure Leopard spiritline, but who can still perform juju--a name for magic.
An outcast due to her albinism and being raised in the US, Sunny makes three friends as well as fellow students in her juju studies: Orlu, a boy who can put things back together in a magical sense; Chichi, an ornery girl with a photographic memory and power beyond her level; Sasha, an African American boy who is a hothead, but also caring and more powerful than most Leopard people his age. Triumph and tragedy is woven into the pages as we learn about the pasts and personalities of these four young people. While their abilities are impressive, they are also susceptible to acts of immaturity that get them in trouble. Okorafor doesn't fill a single page with fluff; her characters are not seen as so special that they are above punishment. When these characters put themselves and others in danger, there are consequences. The consequences may be cringeworthy, but the gravity of Leopard society shines through.
Sunny and Chichi are mighty girls who will not put up with abuse from boys and men who think girls are incapable of being talented in any arena from sports to juju. This is certainly not a fantasy novel where the fantastical elements take a back seat to romance. While there is an extremely light romantic subplot, by the end of the novel you'll be wondering about the shape of your spirit face and the color of your juju blade rather than who is going to fall in love.Akata Witch is about discovering who you are after you realize everything you knew about yourself and your history is wrong. Sunny is an albino; in a brilliant portrayal of someone with this condition, Sunny never once thinks of herself as disabled or pities herself for her light skin. Many people tease Sunny for being a "white" girl or looking like a ghost, but Sunny is too strong to let the teasing get her down for long. Akata Witch fights against ableism--Sunny is able to see herself as shining rather than ghostly, and she doesn't need anyone but herself to reach that conclusion.
If you are unfamiliar with culture in Nigeria, learning about the human world will be just as much an adventure as learning about the magical world. With cinematic prose, Okorafor lays out lush scenery, complex relationships between peers and their superiors, chilling creatures that'll raise the hairs on your arms, and ritual magic both exciting and disturbing. Sunny and her classmates must face an evil that is perhaps the most sinister evil of all--a child killer. Okorafor does not spare details just because this is a novel for young readers. Descriptions of missing noses and eyeballs may haunt you, but you'll be cheering all the more for good juju to prevail.
This review originally appears in the June 2011 edition of the Sirens newsletter. Nnedi Okorafor is a guest of honor at this year's Sirens in Vail, Colorado.