Monday, February 27, 2012

Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor

   The heroine of Nnedi Okorafor's new YA novel is in the midst of a major identity crisis.  She is American by birth, but has moved with her family back to her parents' birthplace of Nigeria.  Being an American in Nigeria is socially challenging enough, but on top of that, Sunny is albino, which makes her the target of much ridicule and teasing from the kids at school.

   But Sunny is different in other ways as well - she sees strange visions and has dreams that feel like premonitions.  Luckily, her friends Orlu and Chichi enlighten Sunny as to why she feels like an outsider.  Sunny soon learns that she is a descendant of a long line of "Leopard People" who are both blessed and burdened by magical abilities.  Sunny is beginning to understand who she really is when she and her friends are called on by a higher council to track down a dangerous serial killer - Black Hat Otokota - a man who uses his Leopard abilities to perform sinister and evil rituals.  Sunny must quickly learn the magical skills of her people so that she and her friends can challenge Black Hat before it is too late for everyone.

   Lately, it seems like there is a lot of white noise in the YA genre, but Sunny and her friends are unique and refreshing additions to the collection.  They are not bogged down by romance and typical teen angst (and they don't encounter a single vampire!)- they are shouldered with serious responsibilities and must be wise beyond their years in order to handle them.  Not only is Leopard magic (or juju as they call it) difficult to learn, but it can also be incredibly dangerous if not properly executed.  Sunny is swiftly thrust into this world of magic and sorcery, but she handles it like a lifelong professional - and that's because she sort of is.  Orlu explains to Sunny that Leopard people are born with their powers and abilities, they just need to be "activated" on a spiritual level before they can be controlled on a physical plane.

   Needless to say, Nnedi Okorafor is an excellent storyteller.  With Akata Witch she has artfully crafted a story of magic, friendship, and self-discovery in the midst of great peril.  I wish the book were a bit longer and that some of the characters were more fully developed - especially the interesting people we meet at Leopard Headquarters.  The book is arranged in a way that suggests the possibility of a sequel, but I don't have a definitive answer on that yet.  Akata Witch is the classic Good vs Evil tale, but with a fresh and exciting twist, and I think that both teens and adults would find Sunny's story to be imaginative and fascinating.

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