(this review was originally posted on my livejournal blog: intoyourlungs.livejourna.com)
***WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD***
As per usual, this was a book I read for a book club in which I had no idea what to expect. I had never even heard of this title before, despite its awards, nor had I ever come across any reviews for it from any of the blogs I follow. So, I dived in with an open-mind and I was very pleasantly surprised. Big spoilers ahead, so skip to "Final Verdict" if you want to stay pure. :D
The first thing that really struck me was the world-building. Several times throughout the story, bits and pieces of futuristic technology are thrown into the world, though they tend to be regarded by the characters as relics from the past. I scratched my head at this and thought: "..Huh?" until I re-read the back of the book and realized that this was actually set in post-apocalyptic Africa. At first, I was kind of perplexed and a little suspicious of this, with this title being a fantasy. I've just become so accustomed to fantasy titles being set in some kind of medieval world, or at least in a world that's definitely *not* futuristic, but rather, retrogressive in its technology. Add to the fact that this book is set in *our* world, not a fictional or made up one, and it makes for a very interesting setting. It was also kind of strange/neat, because despite it being set in the future, because this is post-apocalyptic Africa, it didn't feel like it was set in the future at all; it was only the bits of technology we saw here and there that gave it away. Like I said, I originally was thrown off by this setting, but over the course of the novel, it really grew on me. It also really helps to illustrate the thematic concerns of new/progressive ideas vs. tradition, what with it being set in the future with all this new (dead) technology, and the magical elements that come from the rich culture and traditions of the African people.
I was also quite impressed, for the most part, with the characters of the novel. Oyesonwu is a volatile character; she's quite smart and resourceful, but she's also really quick to anger and tends to wear her emotions on her sleeve. This gets her into a lot of trouble (like, A LOT of trouble), and while she makes the same mistake more than once, she has enough humility to see that she's flawed and tries really hard to reign in her emotions, even though she's not always successful. Her partner, Mwita, is equally flawed, but overall likable. He's a bit misogynistic in his views, thinking that men should be in positions of power, and he always kind of envies and blames Oyesonwu for being capable of magic, while he's only capable of healing (he thinks the roles should be reversed.) Again, this all falls into Okorafor's idea of progrssion vs. tradition, and it rarely, if ever, felt didactic. The relationship between these two was also lovely to watch. They have an undeniable tie to each other, and its obvious to the reader that they're going to end together, and they do, rather early on in the novel. But we get to see the nitty gritty of their relationship too, such as their arguments, and how the two keep things from each other at times, and jealousy as well. It made their relationship really realistic, but I was always convinced that they really loved each other.
Oyesonwu's closest female friends (yayy! female friends!) were obviously never quite as developed, only being secondary characters, but they had quite a bit of page-time. I had some trouble discerning who was who sometimes, but I think that was more from a lack of attention on my part. They were quite distinctive when I got them sorted out in my head though, and like the two leads, they were quite flawed. Despite being best friends with Oyesonwu, they could never *really* get past the fact that she was an ewu and this would come out in really ugly ways sometimes. They usually regretted this, which was nice, but I still prefer reading about flawed characters than near-perfect ones (which I'll talk about more in my review of The Dark Mirror, which should be up sometime this week.)
As far as characters go, the only one I wish got more development was Oyesonwu's mother. She's hardly around at all, except when she tells her daughter the story of her conception and birth, and I don't really know what she could've contributed to the story, but I still wish there had been more of her. She seemed like such a strong woman and I would've loved to have gotten into her head more, and learned more about her (though really, we learn everything we need to know about her.)
The plot itself felt a little slow-moving at first, but really, thinking back, it was paced really well. There's always something important, or revealing that happens in each part of the book, and nothing was ever really there just for decorum. Every little bit added some kind of character development, or did something to add something to the plot. The story itself was quite intense, especially near the end. Oyesonwu already knows how she's going to die, and you know it's coming, but a part of you kind of hope it *doesn't* happen. I know I hoped that Oyesonwu found a way to avoid it, because she knew about it, so could change it, right? Well, she doesn't unfortunately, and that made sad, but ending implies that she kind of lives on.
The prose was really nice; it had something a little exotic about it, like the people and the place its set in. It's simple, and to the point, but also had a hint of something else. I'm not too sure what else to say, or how to word it without sounding overly-cliche, so I'll just leave it at this: it was nice, and it worked really well. I really liked Oyesonwu's voice.
Final Verdict: Despite having a kind of strange setting for a fantasy, a post-apocalyptic one set in our world, it ended up gelling really well with me. The magic felt like a natural and organic part of the world. The characters in this novel are all deeply flawed (Oyesonwu is too emotional; Mwita's views were a little misogynistic, Oyesonwu's friends were discriminate towards her despite being her good friend, etc.) but the leads are still likable. Oyesonwu and Mwita's relationship was also one of the most realistic ones I've come across in literature in the last while; they fight, they had have lots of hardships, but they pull through (though it's rarely easy) and I really believed that they loved each other a lot. I wish Oyesonwu's mother had been more involved, but it didn't detract from the overall story. The story was quite tense, because the reader gets a glimpse of how the story is supposed to end, but you really hope it doesn't end that way. Okorafor's prose was also quite nice, which obviously makes the reading experience that much more enjoyable. A definite recommend from me, and I hope to get a chance to read more of Okorafor's books in the future.